To Clip or Not to Clip?
One of the most controversial subjects in the parrot hobby, one that has provoked many a discussion among owners, is the practice of wing clipping. Some are big fans of keeping their bird’s wing feathers short and insist it increases safety levels, while others consider the practice cruel and unnecessary.
Every parrot owner will have to decide which way they want to go. Flighted bird or not? To hopefully help make the decision easy for you, let’s go into what wing clipping actually involves as well as the pros and cons.
What is wing clipping?
Contrary to what the name suggests, wing clipping doesn’t actually involve gruesome practices like cutting off a bird’s wings (yes, I’ve had people ask me if that’s how it works!). Instead, only the wing feathers are partly removed, usually no more than halfway. These primary flight feathers are needed for a bird to be able to fly and depending on the amount that’s removed, clipping renders the bird entirely flightless or at least unable to do much more than glide.
Wing clipping is not a permanent thing, since parrots moult; how often they do depends on the species. Once the old, clipped flight feathers have been replaced by new ones the clipping process will have to be repeated.
So, the actual process of wing clipping doesn’t actually hurt your bird. But does that mean it’s a safe and recommendable practice? Let’s take a look at the arguments generally presented by those in favour of and against wing clipping.
Wing clipping pros
The primary reason mentioned by most parrot owners who clip their parrot’s wings is that it prevents their bird from being able to escape. A forgotten open window, a door carelessly left open… it is true that many parrots have been lost because of this and their chance of surviving in the wild for a long period of time is very limited.
Since wing clipping renders a bird unable to fly entirely or at least not get very far, it makes sense to those in favour that the practice is used in an attempt to prevent them from escaping.
Some parrot owners prefer clipping their bird’s wings to make it easier to handle. It allows us to give an untamed bird out of cage time without having too much trouble putting it back in its cage later.
Additionally, if a bird is aggressive and tends to fly up to people in order to attack them, one could say that it makes sense to clip its wings to avoid injuries on both ends.
Many objects in a human home present a risk to birds. A running ceiling fan, a burning stove, a windowpane that appears to be an attractive open space… ‘bird-proofing’ a home involves many factors.
For those that find it all a bit too much or worry they’ve overlooked something, a flightless bird that can’t reach these dangerous things can seem like a safer option.
Wing clipping cons
An important con associated with wing clipping parrots is exercise and activity levels. Even if it gets plenty of time out of its cage, a clipped bird will obviously not be able to get as much exercise as a flighted one would.
Some argue that doing regular wing exercises, where the bird is encouraged to flap its wings, can prevent issues with obesity and muscle atrophy related problems. However, let’s be honest: it’s not going to be the same as flying laps through the home.
One factor, and one that many consider their primary reason not to clip their parrot’s wings is stress. A bird is just that: a bird. And unless you somehow managed to obtain a kakapo (the only existing flightless parrot, which is critically endangered), your bird will generally have a strong flight instinct.
Flying away is a parrot’s primary defence against danger, meaning that it will likely continually feel unsafe if this ability is taken away, causing high levels of stress that might negatively impact its health. In addition to health issues, this stress can in some cases cause a bird to develop severe psychological issues that can manifest in feather plucking, screaming for attention and not least aggression. Being unflighted is (logically!) simply not a parrot’s natural state.
Birds with clipped wings will sometimes start chewing on and pulling at the cut feathers or experience discomfort if feathers are significantly clipped, which will obviously also be a source of stress.
As we discussed in the list of pros for wing clipping, some bird owners like to keep their birds unflighted to avoid them from getting into dangerous situations. However, it’s important to keep in mind that an unflighted bird can also get into trouble.
A parrot that’s entirely unable to fly might fall and hit the ground very hard, which can cause severe internal damage. If the bird can still glide the clipped wings don’t offer as much braking power, which means it slams into windows and other objects more easily. The increased time it spends on the floor means it’s at an increased risk of being stepped on.
And lastly, a clipped bird with some flight ability might still be able to escape and get into the dangerous outside world, where it will then be a sitting duck.
A parrot’s primary wing feathers don’t all grow in at the same time. If your bird is moulting and has regained one or two of these feathers, there is a risk that they might break: a single feather sticking out is quite vulnerable.
Feathers that are just growing in are called blood feathers and will bleed profusely when damaged or broken. This means that your bird can be at an increased risk of injury and bleeding when blood feathers are left vulnerable due to wing clipping, which can quickly turn serious.
Unless you have plenty of experience, you should definitely not be attempting to clip your bird’s feathers on your own. Cutting too far into the feathers by accident can cause bleeding and may cause new feathers to not grow back correctly. An unbalanced clip can cause a bird to become very unstable and prone to falling and injuring itself.
Although as the author of this post I cannot tell you whether your bird should be clipped or not, I would like to conclude by saying that I personally see no need for the practice in almost all cases.
A lot of the “pros” of wing clipping mentioned in this article can be solved by other measures than rendering a bird flightless, making it unnecessary to clip. Escape can be prevented by being meticulous about doors and windows, preferably using screens as a second layer of protection. Training your parrot to come back on recall in case of escape is an excellent strategy for recovering your feathered friend and building a strong bond at the same time, without having to practice wing clipping.
Indoor dangers can be dealt with by “parrot proofing” your home: we choose to get these pets so it makes sense that we would adapt our homes to them, not try to make them adapt to our homes. Place some stickers on large windows, remove dangerous objects and place the parrot(s) in their cage when you want to run ceiling fans, cook or perform other activities that might be dangerous for them.
And as for handling, that’s a matter that can in almost all cases be managed with the appropriate positive reinforcement training. Training a parrot to go back to its cage, step up and allow itself to be moved will already make it a lot easier to manage without having to take away its ability to fly.
Mari is a long-time parrot enthusiast and the owner of parrot-centered website Psittacology.com. As a writer of informative parrot articles, she hopes to help others keep their bird happy and healthy.
Originally from The Netherlands but living in Spain, she spends her days working on her articles from home in the company of her two budgies.