What Do We Do With Those Wings?
Once you become a bird owner, you have a very important decision to make. Actually, it may be necessary to make the decision before you even bring your bird home. Being the thoughtful people that we are, we want to research our decision. We want to search for any information to guide us with making the most informed choice. What is this decision?… to clip or not to clip. On this page, I hope to supply some of the available information to help you with this question, without your needing to search around.
Wing clipping is a very important part of pet bird care. [i]
It may seem more natural, and more beautiful to allow a bird free flight in the house, but it is essentially inviting disaster. [ii]
Clipping a bird’s wings is done mainly for their own safety. [iii]
A mirror or large window may appear to be an opening to another area. A head-on flight into one of these could cause a serious injury, a broken neck, or even death. [iv]
The list of hazards is extensive and the following only brushes the surface. There are open containers of water including toilets and flower vases, beak-tempting electric cords, undraped windows with their illusion of non-existence and the chance of concussion or broken necks when birds find out otherwise, ceiling fans that can deliver a killing blow, small tight spaces to get lost in, hot pots, stove burners, woodstoves, and the increasingly popular halogen lights which get very hot. [v]
For most of us, losing our bird would be a very painful thing. It would be even worse if the loss could have been prevented. An open door or window is an invitation to an unclipped bird. No matter how tame, birds will fly out and may be lost forever. Some of us take our birds out in the sun or transport them to the vet or take them with us on a trip. In all these situations, no matter how careful we are, an opportunity to fly away may present itself. Clipping a bird’s wings is an easy way to reduce the possibility of such a loss. [vi]
The earliest advantage of wing clipping that you will most likely notice is in training the bird. After all, why should a bird feel it should have to “Step Up” when it could easily fly away from you. [vii]
The above lists but a few reasons why clipping is considered safer, not to mention that with flight, the bird has the ability to get into more things that could be toxic, like lead paint, lead curtain weights, solder, zinc, and possibly even medications which have been left out.
At this point, it would be easy to clip without thinking any farther, without delving any deeper, but it is my belief that everything should be considered completely before taking that step. There is no reason we can’t use our own thought process rather than just be told by others what to do. That said, I want to take a closer look at all the arguments for clipping but I think before that, we need to understand a little about birds.
Did you know that everything about a bird is designed for flight?
The skeletal structure consists of hollow, lightweight bones. These bones have struts to add needed strength while maintaining a lightweight frame. The digestive system is relatively fast, to get the nutrients out of the food and to expel the waste (excess weight) as soon as possible. A crop allows them to eat food and take flight before digesting, allowing maximum intake of food with minimum time exposure to predators.
It is suspected that some birds may fly with the third eyelid covering the cornea of the eye, which prevents it from drying out during flight (acting like birdie goggles). Their respiratory system is extremely efficient compared to mammals, with oxygen always going through the system, no matter if the bird is inhaling or exhaling.
Whether any of this is pertinent to our decision about clipping remains to be seen, but I do feel it is important to note.
So lets take a closer look at the reasons for clipping.
Safety – If they fly into the kitchen they may land on the hot stove, hot burner or even into a pan of hot liquid.
This is true. If you allow them to fly in the kitchen while you are cooking, you could end up with an injured bird, but is there any reason they need to be loose in the kitchen while this is going on? Wouldn’t the common sense of the humans suggest the bird should be locked in their cage at this time, if you can’t keep them out of the kitchen?
It’s possible they could drown in the toilet or the dishwater.
Sure, they could drown in any standing liquid where they could fall in. It’s just a simple thing of either putting the lid down, or closing the door to save them from the toilet. Either one of these can become second nature very quickly. Even children can learn this. If the children have trouble remembering, the caretaker (you) can always go check to make sure. If you have water in your kitchen sink and it needs to sit, cover it.
Unclipped birds can easily fly into windows, glass doors, or mirrors, injuring themselves.
Mirrors are generally in the bathroom, so if you shut the door, you’ve eliminated two concerns at once. Actually, I don’t find that many birds flying into a bathroom for no reason, if no one is there. If you have other mirrors around, you could take the bird around and tap on the mirrors until the bird knows them. You could also place something in front of them.
Yes, windows can be dangerous. People have come up with several different methods to deal with windows. You can have the curtains or blinds closed any time the bird is out, you can apply decals to the windows, you can make that cute little design of xxxx’s on your windows by applying the whitish scotch tape in this design. You can put a layer of plastic over the windows (hey, this works great in a colder climate). Some people have smeared their windows with things like the dry window cleaner and slowly removed it as the bird learns the windows. Some people continuously take their bird around to the windows and tap on them. Windows ARE something that need to be considered but since we all know how smart these creatures are, why would we ever think they can’t learn?
So what do we have so far?
If they fly into the kitchen they may land on the hot stove, hot burner or even into a pan of hot liquid. They can fly and possibly get to electrical cords that are plugged in, or fly and get hit by the ceiling fan. Its possible they could drown in the toilet or the dishwater. Being able to fly where they want to, it would be much easier to get to those household cleaners, the solder trim in that picture frame and other toxic substances.[viii]
Are any of these hazards truly unavoidable if you have a flighted bird? Is clipping their only safety assurance?
Now we need to look at the other side of the coin. Is there any harm in clipping?
The lack of flight abilities could mean that the bird takes to walking on the floor more often where we could run into several hazards. A bird wandering on the floor could very easily get stepped on or rolled over by a chair on wheels. It could easily crawl under your recliner and get into the mechanics of it, getting squished if someone sits down on the chair. It would be more accessible to other animals in the home while it’s walking on the floor. Things like electrical plug-ins and wires that are commonly low or running along the floor are at a greater risk of causing harm.
You might at this point be thinking that all these reasons are rather far-fetched because your plan isn’t to allow the bird to be floor walking. However, they are no more far-fetched than the arguments for reasons to clip. At some point and time, your bird will end up on the floor.
I think it’s necessary to go back to all those websites that tell you all the reasons to clip and realize a few very important facts.
If clipped too drastically, he won’t be able to maneuver to avoid hitting something dangerous or to break his fall. As a result he may injure his beak, breastbone or wings or even break a leg as he plummets to the ground. [ix]
If they do not learn how to properly land by flaring their tail and lifting their wings, then when they are clipped, they could injure themselves if startled off their perch or cage and could break their beak or keel bone. [x]
Both wings should be clipped symmetrically to ensure that a bird can glide to the ground and not fall like a ton of bricks (this can result in an injured or split keel, or an injured beak tip that can cause excessive bleeding) [xi].
Even with the best wing trim possible, birds will fly into windows or fall on the floor and crack the tip of their beaks. If it is just the tip and only slightly cracked, you may find that you bird will not eat, will not climb, will not pick up anything, and generally behaves like he is in pain. A cracked beak is like a broken tooth and it hurts a lot. [xii]
What are they all saying? They all say basically the same thing, but are you reading beyond the actual words? Are you thinking of the true implications?
The words they use say…. improper clip, meaning if clipped too severely…. if clipped to the point of rendering the bird flightless.
So these articles tell us that to protect the safety of our birds from the noted hazards, (which all include flying into them) we should clip but not render them flightless. If they aren’t flightless how have we avoided the dangers? If clipping only means allowing them horizontal flight rather than upward flight, how many dangers have we truly avoided?
It is important to educate our clients so they understand that wing clipping is meant only to eliminate the possibility of upward flight, and that their birds may still retain some ability to fly horizontally, and may even gain lift in the wind. Clients also need to be advised that birds should not be taken outside unless confined to a carrier or cage because of the possibility of escape or, if startled, sudden (if short) flight into trouble. [xiii]
So let’s face our greatest fear. Our bird escapes out the door and flies away. This is really the most traumatic moment for an owner. We are overwhelmed with panic, guilt and worry. Will we be able to find him? Will the neighbor’s dog find him before we do? Will he get hit by a car? Will he be able to find something to eat?
When thinking about the escape situation, which way would you consider the bird to have a better chance at survival? Fully flighted, able to manoeuvre, to fly up into a tree, to know how to land, or to be clipped? A clipped bird would need a lot of energy to fly, unable to fully manoeuvre, possibly unwilling to land from not knowing how, or unable to fly down out of a tree from lack of flying experience or maybe, just unable to fly when that dog runs over to sniff this strange creature in the yard next door. Generally a bird on the wing is safer than a bird on the lawn.
Five years ago, before I got my first parrot, I read everything I could. It was generally considered irresponsible to not clip, it was putting the parrot in harm’s way. The bird could fly into a mirror or window and die, the bird could fly into a boiling pot on the stove, etc., etc. Being a novice, I accepted this advice to clip.
Less than a year after I brought my first parrot (Max. pionus) home and one month after his last clip, he got loose outside. He caught air and flew. I located him that day in a tree in a neighbor’s yard, up high beyond my reach. The neighbours pulled out their pruning ladder and it
wasn’t quite long enough. I almost got him, but he startled and flew again. Finally located him again that afternoon, in another tree, higher than before. I couldn’t understand WHY he wouldn’t fly to me.
I’d coax him with seeds and a bag of tortilla chips and it looked like he wanted to get to me, but he’d take off flying and end up in another tree, even higher. This went on for 5 torturous days. I’d locate him sunrise and sunset, because he’d get vocal at those times. He would work his way down a branch and on to a thin flimsy branch, in an apparent attempt to fly to me. He’d loose his grip and fly out or up, never down. The last day I saw him, he was up about 80′ in an oak. He
took off flying in a large circle. I thought perhaps he was heading for our property where I had his cage out with big full food bowls. Maybe he was, but he continued circling and flew out of sight. I advertised, I had flyers, I talked to people, etc. but I never got Max back. It was a very poignant lesson for me to learn. Clipped birds CAN fly. Clipped birds with little or no fledging experience do NOT have the skill to fly down. When this process of trying to retrieve Max was
ongoing, I actually wondered if he didn’t want to come to me. What a ridiculous thought! He would have loved to land on my shoulder and grab a treat. He simply didn’t have the ability. This realization slowly but surely came dripping into my brain.
It still gnaws at me and I don’t want others to go through an experience like that.
That is primarily why I decided never to clip. Over time, I learned of other benefits (for birds) by not clipping. And my birds, being flighted indoors, have taught me the most. It’s fun, it’s the way it should be.
The above is posted with permission but the author prefers to stay anonymous.
Clipping does NOT mean they can’t fly away! Clipping does not mean they can’t escape! It only serves to give us a false sense of security, a false sense of security that people with flighted birds never have.
We haven’t even touched on what the psychological damage or physiological damage could be, due to clipping. There is evidence to suggest that some birds are more fearful while clipped. I imagine since flight is the instinct to evade predators, being clipped could make them feel threatened/helpless in an unsure situation.
Birds are meant to fly and are most happy and secure when they can. If a bird cannot fly, its cardiovascular system won’t work hard enough to remain healthy. They need to fly for fun and for exercise and to escape from danger. A bird that cannot fly will tend to be more fearful because it knows it is vulnerable. [xiv]
Birds not only use flight as a natural means of locomotion, but in beautiful forms as a means of expression. Many species spend hours of the day in the recreation of flight as others spend hours in song. Flight is an art akin to music, with rhythm and feeling of movement as its foundation, a glorious means of expression that birds know well how to use. [xv]
A lecture was given at the University of Texas by Farish Jenkins, a Havard Comparative Anatomist, where Dr. Jenkins recounted training starlings to fly in a wind tunnel. He filmed the birds while flying…with both normal and X-ray cameras! What the developed film revealed is that a bird’s respiratory system operates at optimum functioning capacity while a bird is in flight. The starlings’ bones, muscles and air sacs worked in unison during each and every up- and down-stroke of the wings. Most amazing was the fact that the sternum rocked back and forth alternately depressing and allowing for expansion of the posterior air sacs. That action assures that the double passing of air through a bird’s lungs results in maximum gas exchange efficiency. Thus the ability – the need – of a bird to fly and the bird’s need for maximum pulmonary efficiency for sustained flight are intricately connected. Bones, muscles, lungs and air sacs work together to produce a complicated, but efficient breathing apparatus. [xvi] [xvii]
So why do we suggest to clip wing feathers? All these years we have been told it’s for the safety of the bird! Have we been brainwashed?
How can it be for the bird’s safety if we can actually cause injury by taking away flight? How is it for their safety when we take away their natural escape response while housing them with predators? How is it for them, when some birds begin plucking from the clip? How is it for them if our homes still contain the same hazards, but we have taken away their ability to manoeuvre properly around/from these hazards in our home? How is it for their benefit if we let their muscles atrophy? How can it be best for them if their respiratory system doesn’t fully function without flight?
No! I can only assume it must be for another reason, but certainly NOT for the bird.
Recently, on an e-mail list, this exact subject was being discussed; the pros and cons of flight and one particularly thoughtful response came in. I post it here (with permission) for all to think about.
All of your examples are no doubt true and all too common. BUT, I could give you just as many examples of birds that are “clipped” with the same tragic outcomes.
Common sense has to be used in all facets of life. Even when common sense is used, tragedies from unforeseen occurrences befall us all. If you use the same logic that you are stating by using the examples you have relayed, then we humans really have no business driving cars, kids should not ride bikes or skateboards and astronauts should not be flying around in outer space.
But, of course, we all know that these daily risks that we all take are weighed through the prism of logic called “risk and reward”.
Birds that die in household accidents are indeed tragic. Children (or even adults) that die or injure themselves in the same sort of ways are far more common. Does that mean that children should be locked in a cage or have a leash at all times? Should adults be limited to a certain level of danger in their lives according to some IQ test? ( hey, wait a minute, that is not a bad idea!!)
If someone wants to enjoy their bird in a flighted condition and they know the reasonable precautions needed to be taken to have a common sense “risk factor” accounted for, then I say “good for them”!!
If someone feels they need a flightless feather duster that has no chance of ever getting away from them, may I suggest a silkie chicken, domestic goose or pet emu.