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 film 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 manoeuvre 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]

broken leg from falling on cement floor while clippedkeel injury from fall while clipped

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]

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.

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.

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.

XXXX

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.

There will always be a certain amount of people with NO common sense that
walk outside with a flighted bird for the first time, with no training
whatsoever, no idea what the bird will do, no forethought at all. Those are
the people that will be watching helplessly as their bird sails away. Then
again, maybe the bird is just trying to escape from being kept by someone so
stupid.

Reasons I love birds:

#1- Their ability to fly
#2- Their beautiful coloring
#3- Their natural behavior
---
---
#1000- Their talking ability
#1001- Their cuddliness
#1002- Their snuggly nature

 

Xxxxxxx

 

 

So what is our problem? Are we just lazy? We think nothing of training our dogs, or taking them to doggy class, but we would rather clip our birds than train them. Most of the difficulties imagined with a flighted bird can be easily reduced or eliminated with a little time spent on training.

Training, you say? Of course! We buy these beautiful creatures, tell everyone how smart they are and yet we seem to have a mental block about training them. Why do we seem to think they can’t be trained? It’s all about consequences, just as any behavior is.

Probably the cues you will need to train the most for your flighted pet are:

1)      Come (whatever words you choose for fly to me)

2)      Stay (basically saying don’t fly to me)

3)      Off of there (basically meaning leave that spot and fly to another spot {approved spot})

4)      Go (meaning to fly off of me)

These cues are in addition to the normal cues like ‘step up’ and ‘step down’.

So where do you start? First, it’s important to realize that all learning, all behavior is a result of its consequences. If we do “A” we get “B”. If B is something desired (from the viewpoint of the one receiving it) then A will continue or increase. This is called Positive Reinforcement and it’s the type of training and/or behavior modification that works the best.

So we would start teaching recall by rewarding every time the bird flies to you. At first, you will need to give the cue when the bird is already flying towards you. You must ‘get’ the behavior to be able to reward it before the bird can actually learn what behavior you are looking for. This is why we start with capturing the behavior the bird is already doing. After the bird has linked the verbal cue with the action, you can then switch to rewarding ONLY when you call. This would not mean that you punish the bird in any way, for coming when you don’t call, just that it won’t get a reward for an uncued fly.

Start from a short distance. T-stand to you. Gradually move farther away, being careful that you don’t move too far, too fast. Eventually, move out of sight, around a corner, another room. Remember, lavish praise and reward (what the bird finds rewarding) immediately upon the bird doing the behavior. If the reward/consequence is too slow after the behavior, the learning will be slower. This is where some people use a clicker….to mark the desired behavior. Your vocal praise can work just as well as a marker and then you can give another reinforcer.

Always use the same cue so there is no confusion for the bird. Training failures are a result of either a lack of motivation (the reinforcer is not strong enough) or a lack of concise clear instructions/communication. The bird must understand what you want before it can attempt to do it.

To teach “stay” we would, of course, reward the staying on the perch/stand as we move farther away. Many people will also use a hand raised, like a stop sign, while they use their cue word. Once this behavior is learned, don’t forget to reward it at different times. It also helps if you make the area where you would like them to stay, rewarding unto itself. Lots of chew things, shredding things, or the types of toys the particular bird enjoys.

All behaviors can be taught using this systematic approach. We only need to be willing to take that bit of time it requires.

Birds seem to enjoy learning. It appears they like to think. They are quick learners and really, they are easy to train. Training need not be a chore. It need only take a few minutes a couple of times a day, although the more repetitions we can do with them gaining positive reinforcement, the faster they will learn.

I’d like you to consider one other thing, one other argument given by people who insist you clip and that is this, ’I clip my birds so they will remain on their playstands, rather than fly around the house.’

From what was said above about behavior, if the playstand is a place they WANT to be, if its fun for THEM, if it entertains them, wouldn’t they remain on that stand, with or without flight? And if they won’t remain there while flighted, it only suggests to me that they don’t like it in the first place, it isn’t reinforcing enough, but we try forcing them to comply by taking away their means of locomotion. Consider that, the next time you pick your bird up off the floor and place it back on that stand, for the hundredth time.

My desire for this article was hopefully to make you think, to make you realize that clipping isn’t necessary. A properly clipped bird can still fly far enough to get into the same household dangers. While I may not have changed your mind, I hope I brought to light that a clipped bird is not necessarily a safer bird. If you still choose to clip, the true reason is probably not for the bird’s sake.

My wish is that someday us humans will adapt to having a bird rather than the bird adapt to having humans.

Since the dawn of mankind, humans have watched them, studied
them, have desired to emulate that which they do. FLY!

Isn't it mysterious that the thing we so desired, we are so
willing to take away from that exact creature which originally gave us
our inspiration.

Gay Noeth 2004


 Background image of Jacky flying courtesy of Milko Atchev



[i]Margaret A. Wissman, D.V.M., D.A.B.V.P. http://www.exoticpetvet.net/avian/clip.html

[xi]Margaret A. Wissman, D.V.M., D.A.B.V.P. http://www.exoticpetvet.net/avian/clip.html

[xiii] Margaret A. Wissman D.V.M/. D.A.B.V.P. http://www.exoticpetvet.net/avian/wings.html

[xiv] David McCluggage, DVM “Holistic Care For Birds” pp50,51

[xv] Dr. Theodore Barber ”The Human Nature of Birds” pp 167