Trimming birds’ flight feathers is a controversial procedure in aviculture. While it is vital for birds to exercise and be able to have “normal” bird behaviors in captivity, there are several instances where it may be safer to stop pet birds from flying. Perhaps the owner will be taking the bird outside and cannot risk the bird flying away. Or maybe a bird is developing behavior problems and needs to be trained without it having the choice of flying away from it’s owner. As a technician, you can play a major role in counseling clients as to whether they should encourage their bird to fly in the home or trim the wings for safety.
Whatever the reason, trimming a bird’s wings is one of the more common procedures technicians can perform. There are many different techniques that people use, but this guide is for the most common, safe technique.
The avian wing has several different feathers that enable flight. The feathers responsible for lift are the primaries. By cutting some of these feathers, we temporarily disable the bird from being able to get any lift when attempting to fly. Each bird should be evaluated individually to assess how many of, and how short to cut these primary feathers. For instance, a young heavy-bodied African gray parrot usually only needs 4-5 of the most distal primary feathers trimmed at an inch or more longer than the middle primary coverts. If you trim too many, or cut them too short, it may crash to the ground and injure itself. On the contrary, a light bodied, experienced flyer like a budgerigar may require all 10 primary feathers to be trimmed in order to keep it from flying.
Some people use other techniques for trimming wings. While we all may have our personal preferences, here are some potential problems that may be encountered with various trimming techniques.
- Trimming the primaries shorter than the middle primary coverts: The trimmed feathers leave sharp pointed edges that, if cut this short, will rub against the bird’s body and can cause irritation. The middle coverts do an inadequate job at protecting their sensitive skin, and frequently can cause feather and skin destructive behavior.
- Trimming only 1 wing: This will render the bird imbalanced and cause distress, as well as create abnormal muscle development.
- Leaving the most distal 1 or 2 primary feathers: While some people feel that this is a “cosmetic” clip, these feathers are at risk of getting broken. They do not have the support of the other primaries and frequently get cracked. In addition, depending on how the other feathers were cut, these few feathers can sometimes provide enough flight to allow the bird to get lift. Clients often ask how frequently they will need to have their birds wings trimmed. This depends on where the bird is in their molting cycle. Usually birds will need to have their wings trimmed between 2 and 4 times a year. Remember, some clients don’t understand that the feathers will grow back, and it does not hurt… it’s just like having a hair cut!