Monday, May 11, 2015

To Clip or Not To Clip?

What Wing Clipping Is

For as long as people have kept birds as companion animals, there have been people on both sides of the fence of the wing-clipping issue. As someone who has birds of both kinds in one household, I can also attest to the fact that making this decision is one that is not taken lightly. Wing clipping is the process of inhibiting, or limiting a bird's capacity for flight through the removal of several flight feathers on each wing. The flight feathers that are removed in the clipping process are generally the primary flight feathers, which are the strongest outermost 6-8 feathers on a bird's wing. As their name suggests, the flight feathers provide the bird with the necessary lift to propel itself upwards and keep it airborne. A wing clip, when properly done will limit the bird's capacity to do this, but still does not severely hamper it's flight. A wing clipped bird, in other words, should have little to no difficult fluttering from one post to another, or slowing itself to a glide so that it doesn't come crashing to the floor. Wing clipping is a temporary process as birds replace their feathers on average once a year during their molt. If a bird is going through its molt, clipped feathers may be replenished quicker than usual and so it may be a good idea to allow it to complete the molt before clipping its wings. There are several methods and styles of wing clipping that different carers will use for different purposes.

A moluccan cockatoo at the Singapore Zoo. The bird exhibits a partial or "show" clip that, while reducing its ability to fly, still gives it a "natural" appearance at rest. This is a clip that is commonly used at bird gardens, public aviaries, and zoos for aesthetic purposes.
What Wing Clipping is NOT!

Many people have confused the term wing clipping with the term "cutting" and some have even use the term interchangeably. Wing clipping, however, is not wing cutting: a process also known as "pinioning". Pinioning, though sometimes practiced on companion birds such as parrots, is more commonly practiced on waterfowl, pheasants, and other "free ranged" birds that are kept in an open environment. Pinioning is a controversial process that involves the amputation of a bird's wing from its outermost joint thus inhibiting the bird from flight forever. Pinioning is generally done when the birds are very young so as to facilitate the bird's adjustment to the missing wing. Birds that have been pinioned are able to be kept in an open enclosure all year round because the amputated joint does not grow back and the birds will never be capable of flight. While pinioning has been historically done throughout the centuries, recent animal welfare groups have increasingly questioned the long term effects of pinioning on birds' mental and physical well being. Pinioning is legal in some countries such as England whereby the procedure must be carried out by a licensed veterinarian, whereas completely prohibited in others such as Australia. 

A saddle-billed stork that has been pinioned. Notice that one wing is "shorter" than the other due to the removal of the first carpal wing joint. 
How To Wing Clip? (section written in consultation with an avian vet)

Wing Clipping, for the inexperienced, is always better done by a practicing avian veterinarian or an experienced vet. Wing clipping should not be carried out by inexperienced hobbyists as there is always the risk of causing injury to the bird. Cutting a growing flight feather for instance may cause the bird to bleed out as a growing feather is essentially a keratin casing that is being fed a constant supply of blood. In most cases a light wing clip is often preferred to a heavier one as it continues to allow the bird a certain level of mobility. Starting with a light wing clip is also a way of gauging the bird's aptitude for flight and the severity of the clip can then be increased in stages as and when it is needed. For this reason, it is always better to clip a bird's wings too light, than too heavy.  If for whatever reason clipping must be done by the caregiver at home, the process will require 2 individuals and the first session should ALWAYS be supervise and guided by a highly experienced parront or an avian vet.

  1. First, inspect the bird's wings for any blood feathers. These are feathers that have not yet matured. Their shafts will appear bluish or purplish and will generally have a thicker and waxy appearance. If the bird has any blood feathers, clipping should not take place until these feathers have matured. 
  2. The bird must first be restrained. Care should be given not to apply too much pressure to the chest area as this could restrict breathing or result in a collapsed lung. Instead, the bird should be gently wrapped in a towel to restrain its head, both feet, and the opposite wing. The head of the bird can gently but firmly be restrained by placing one's index finger on top of the bird's head with the other fingers around the side of its lower beak.
  3. When the bird is secure, the birds wings may be extended and spread out so as to reveal the primary flight feathers. The wing should not be held by the feathers, but at the base of the humerus. This is to prevent injury in the event that the bird struggles or flaps its wings. 
  4. It is not advised to use scissors to clip a bird's wings as scissors can leave jagged, or rough edges that may cause discomfort to the bird. The sharp tips of scissors may also slide and cause injury to the bird. Instead a set of animal claw clippers or specialized wing clippers would be ideal to provide a quicker, and cleaner cut. 
  5. Having fanned out the bird's wing, select the first few primary flight feathers (1) and cut them. How many feathers you select is really dependent on your level of comfort and the bird's but I generally like to begin with just 3 or 4, and gradually clip one or two more if it turns out to be necessary. How much of the feather to remove is also a situational matter, and personally I prefer to remove less first, and remove more later if the need arises. Wings should never be cut below the covets (2) and the secondary flight feathers (4) should also be left intact. This conservative method of clipping in stages is generally only needed during the bird's first wing clip and does help prevent overclipping.  In general smaller, lighter birds, would need to have more feathers removed than larger, heavier birds, in order to effectively inhibit flight. Smaller wing clipped birds may often also take flight in the event of a gust of wind or upward draft. 
A pet Meyer's Parrot with clipped wings. Some would say that the wings on this bird have been clipped too severely or overclipped. 
A properly wing clipped bird should have no problem fluttering for short distances, and safely gliding to the floor in the event that it falls off of its perch. If a bird drops like a rock after it has been wing clipped, the clip was too severe and the bird should be restrained from climbing up tall objects as such falls can often cause injury to the breastbone. 

Why Wing Clip?

Birds are usually wing-clipped with the consideration of their safety in mind. Birds that are not wing-clipped that live in certain households may be at risk of injury, for example: by flying into clear glass objects such as windows and sliding doors, or being hit by moving objects such as ceiling fans. Birds that display extreme forms of aggression towards certain members of the household, or other animals, may also be wing clipped to restrict mobility to discourage such behavior. A bird that is fully flighted will also have more chances of escape through an open window/door or through a loose hatch. Less common, and more controversially, are birds that are wing clipped to "force" them to become tame by restricting their independence and coercing them into depending wholly on the owners. Wing clipping can, however, facilitate the training and taming process of problematic birds (typically those who have been rescued from bad situations) and is sometimes done as a temporary measure that is discontinued once the bird has been resocialized to the rescuer's satisfaction, It is considered of paramount importance that all birds be allowed to fledge and fly prior to wing clipping. This enables the birds to develop the skills it needs to take off, and more importantly to land in a safe fashion, that will greatly reduce the risk of accidents caused by crash landing after the wing clipping procedure has been carried out. Studies have shown that baby birds who have been wing clipped are not only more accident prone, but also less confident and active than birds who have been allowed to fledge leading to health problems associated with a sedentary lifestyle.

A Moluccan cockatoo with a very conservative wing-clip with only the first quarter of the primaries removed. This is sometimes euphemistically called  a "wing-trim" instead.

Why Not To Wing Clip?

Those who do not choose to wing clip however, have their own reasons too. Aside from the fact that an inexperienced wing clipper can cause serious harm or injury to a bird, many who choose to free flight their parrots do not wing clip as they do not wish to restrict the bird's natural range of movement. Flying, in parrots, is an invaluable form of exercise considering these birds often travel for miles on wing in their natural habitats searching for food. As such, it is hardly surprising that fully flighted parrots are therefore less prone to health problems associated with being overweight, or a sedentary lifestyle than wing clipped birds. For birds that do not always get a lot of attention from their owners, flying is also a great way to provide mental stimulation and prevent boredom. Although certain objects around the household remain a birdy hazard for flighted birds (such as open doors and ceiling fans *which can be disconnected*), many tame flighted birds do eventually learn to avoid clear objects like glass doors and windows. Similarly, with some training, pet parrots also learn to come on command and can be almost as easily handled as a wing clipped bird. Training also provides an opportunity for trust building and bonding between the human and the bird. The invention of bird harnesses have also facilitated more forms of outdoor social interaction between humans and parrots while reducing the risk of escape and without compromising on safety

A pet blue and gold macaw by Mike Baird with unclipped wings.

All in all there are many reasons why parronts would chose to, or not to, clip their birds wings. Needless to say the living situation of all captive birds differs largely from the living arrangement of parrots in the wild. With issues like safety, level of activity, socialization, and lifestyle in mind, it is up to every parront to make this decision to the interest of all who are involved.

Photosource: Wikimedia.commons

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