Thinking About Clipping Your Bird?

Posted by Bird Tricks on

Take a good look at your parrot. You will notice he has wings. You will see that they, and most of the rest of his body, is covered with feathers of varying length and size. If you were to look inside his body, you would find hollow bones and a unique respiratory system and muscular structure.  All of these things contribute to a single outstanding ability: FLIGHT!

Birds are meant to fly, and I encourage you to let them do that. Flight is what differentiates birds from all other creatures on this earth. It’s what they were born to do and I believe they feel handicapped when it is denied them or when they are scolded for this most natural activity.

I am adamant that it is imperative to a baby bird’s overall and ongoing mental health to be allowed to fledge. Even if the prospective new owner never intends the bird to remain flighted, learning to fly is a necessary exercise in discovery and confidence building. The bird that never brings itself to take that first step off of a solid surface will never reap those benefits of trial and error learning and never experience the joy of that accomplishment. It might go on to be a bird that is insecure and unwilling to explore new things. That first flight is a leap of faith that follows weeks of flapping and testing out its wings with the expectation that they will carry him safely to the ground. Imagine not being allowed to learn that you do have the courage and the skill to make that come to fruition. Imagine having wings and never getting to experience flight.

When I first got Theo, my goffins cockatoo, she was a timid, perch bound little thing who had barbered her wing feathers down to the skin. To my knowledge, she had never taken a single flight in her, then, 22 years. Within a year or so, she had regrown most of her flight feathers and months later took her first leap into the air.  She flew about 6 feet, and landed softly on the floor.

The expression on her face was nearly human with her surprise, joy and pride. I will never forget it. Something special happened to her that day and it changed the way she looked at her world. From that point on, she was into everything, sometimes flying there, sometimes climbing.  She developed a keen interest in everything around her, and began acting like a goffins is supposed to.

I am not anti-clipping in cases where where a bird needs to be clipped. My cockatiel, Tinky, was my first bird.  He reached a point in his accident prone life where I felt the need to clip him. Sometime after knocking himself silly by flying into a mirror, he received a nasty concussion when my young daughter accidentally closed his head in the bedroom door as he made an attempt to follow her out of the room.  He recovered, with the help of his vet, but I was still uncomfortable with the idea of clipping his wings and they remained intact.

In the not too distant future were two more separate events that involved him being stepped on and sat on. We decided he needed to be more stationary and out came the scissors. To our great surprise, and dismay, he was still quite capable of flight, just to a lesser extent.

Of course, I know now that Tinky was neither accident prone nor misbehaved.  It was our allowing him free reign of the house that led him to places where injury occured. It is impossible to keep track of every movement they make under those circumstances, and until we learned that lesson well, Tinky would remain at risk or stay clipped.  The arrival of our second cockatiel, DeeDee, helped to keep Tinky in one spot a bit more often with other activities. We adjusted our lifestyle with the birds, imposed more limitations and both are now fully flighted.

Before you clip, think carefully about the emotional impact of grounding your bird. Knowing that they can escape a dangerous or frightening situation if the need arises, or even an interaction that they simply wish not to participate in, gives a bird the room to make choices that bring about trust. You’ve heard the expression Fight or Flight. When the option of flight is removed, sometimes it leaves a wary bird only the option of fighting when it feels insecure.  A bird might be quicker to bite when there are no other options to explore. Trust is gained when you respect and accept their decision to move away.

Sometimes, when a previously flighted bird is suddenly grounded, it can change it’s personality. Aside from feeling insecure, it can become depressed, sometimes lethargic, as if it has lost its zeal for life.  I know some of you are thinking that this may not be such a bad thing for your over-active or nippy birds. It is not a good thing.  Please consider addressing the behavior with training and restrictions before resorting to a clip.

If you do decide to clip, be certain is is done in a humane fashion. The wings should not be so severely trimmed that the bird is unable to glide gracefully to the ground, which will be his first stop following a clipping.  Poorly clipped wings can result in injury to your bird, so let your vet or professional bird groomer handle it until you feel confident in what you are doing.  Start with a light clip.  You can always trim more later if necessary.

NEVER trim a single wing.  A bird’s wings provide overall balance whether it be on the ground or in the air.  This is why they molt and regrow their flight feathers evenly on each side.  Trimming a single wing can cause a bird to perch unevenly, causing pressure sores on its feet which can then develop into skin and bone infections.

Also avoid what is referred to as a “show cut”.  This is when the wings are trimmed leaving the first two feathers on each side intact. Because they now jut out awkwardly, they are easily caught on toys and perches and can cause injury.Your birds appearance is not important. Its safety is.  Most people don’t even notice that a bird is clipped if it is done properly.

There is only one reason to clip your bird’s wings: if the safety of the bird/s or the people in the home are at risk.  If your bird does not seem to get the message after repeatedly flying into windows or mirrors, then a clipping is a good idea.  If your bird is trying to injure a member of the household or another bird, then sometimes clipping is necessary while you assess and gain control of the situation.  It should be done as part of an multi-tiered plan to correct your bird’s behavior and make changes to your own lifestyle.

Sometimes a light trim with take the edge off an ill tempered bird by limiting its abilities, while still allowing him flight. This bird will sometimes get the message, but often there are better alternatives to clipping.

5 reasons NOT to clip:

  • 1.  Flight gives a bird confidence and keeps it mentally and emotionally balanced. Aside from knowing it can get itself out of harm’s way in a pinch, it is how a bird naturally gets around.  Sure, they can walk and climb, but they are built to fly. Anyone in wheelchair understands what I am saying about the loss of an ability.
  • 2.  Given the muscular structure of a bird, flying is the best form of exercise they can get. This is why they flap their wings in their cages.  It probably feels good, but it isn’t enough to keep those muscle toned.
  • 3.  A flighted bird can escape to safety in the home, if he finds himself in trouble.  If you have other pets, this is a consideration.
  • 4.  If lost outside, a clipped bird will not have the ability to out-fly a predator.  A determined clipped bird certainly CAN fly, and they go up, but seem to be unable or unwilling to come down.
  • 5. Your bird will always have the option to choose to avoid an altercation with you by flying away instead of biting.

Note: Never attempt to fly your birds outside without extensive professional free flight and recall training. Our Total Transformation Series has an entire section on flight training.

Author Patty Jourgensen specializes in avian health, behavior and nutrition and has been working with and caring for rescue birds since 1987.


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