Standardization of Wing Clipping for Psittacines

As an avian practitioner, I have seen ill will generated between pet owners or aviculturists and veterinarians because of incorrectly clipped wing feathers. A bird should never leave a veterinarian's office with poorly or incorrectly clipped wings.

A wing trim, when properly performed, should result in a bird that cannot fly, but can glide gracefully to the ground. The bird should not develop any lift in still air and still be aesthetically pleasing in appearance. As a professional, I believe that avian veterinarians should be able to perform a more precise wing trim than that which is available from pet store employees, bird groomers, or owners.

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.

Many aviculturists prefer that young birds learn to fly prior to their first wing clip, and I tend to agree. Weaning birds should develop takeoff and landing skills. This helps them develop balance and an overall grace and agility that I believe is lacking in birds that never fly prior to clipping.

It is essential to take a history prior to performing even routine grooming because if, for example, a bird is on an all seed diet, it could be hypocalcemic or suffering from nutritional secondary hyperparathyroidism, which may lead to spontaneous bone fractures during handling. While taking a history, it is a good time to inform your client about the necessity of preventative health care for pet birds, proper nutrition and recommended yearly testing. Many owners who just come in for "wings and nails" may decide to set up an appointment for a well-bird exam.

I would like to caution veterinarians that a request for "wings and nails" does not include a beak trim. Beak trims are ill-advised; birds need their beak tips to eat, to help balance themselves, and for grooming. Also, the beak is porous: if the beak keratin is compromised it may expose the inner structure to fungal or bacterial infection. Birds often dig around on the bottom of their cages, sometimes in fecal material. Unless it is specifically requested, and unless the request is justified, or unless the beak is diseased, beak trims should be avoided. At the very least, if the client has not requested the beak be trimmed, you leave yourself open to litigation.

Because wing trimming techniques have been developed by a wide number of individuals, I have developed guidelines for wing clipping which I hope will be adopted as a standard by avian veterinarians, pet stores, groomers and aviculturists.

The main purpose of wing clipping is to prevent upward flight in a bird and not to render a bird flightless. A properly clipped psittacine should glide gracefully to the ground and have enough feathers to break its fall. Heavy bodied birds often sustain injuries from having too many feathers removed, the most common injuries being laceration to the keel or leg fracture. Occasionally, a heavy fall results in the bird chipping off the tip of the rhinotheca, causing moderate to severe hemorrhage. Unclipped birds are perhaps more at risk: inside the home from numerous hazards, and outside the home, by escaping, which can be dangerous for them and adds to the growing concern among state and federal wildlife officials about the possibility of non-indigenous birds adapting and reproducing.

Improperly clipped parrots, especially African greys and cockatoos, seem to become irritated by half-clipped or ragged feather shafts poking them when their wings are closed at rest. This can dispose to feather-picking problems.

Each feather should be clipped below the level of the first vein and barb, well below the level of the covert feathers over them. Clipping feathers distal to the coverts creates a ratty appearance of the feathers.

I have found that cat claw clippers, "White" dog nail clippers and bird claw clippers are the three sizes of clippers necessary to clip psittacine feathers. Scissors are not recommended for several reasons. If a bird flaps its wings while the feathers are being trimmed, the point on the scissors can puncture or lacerate skin. It is also more difficult to accurately snip the feather at the correct location using scissors, as they can slide up and down the feather shaft. Clipping straight across the primaries at the level of the coverts can result in damage to blood feathers and can even result in partial amputation of a wing.

Each rachis should be individually isolated and identified, then grasped by the clippers and swiftly cut, making sure not to cut the overlying covert feather. Begin clipping at the last primary feather and clip four primaries (10, 9, 8, and 7) on each wing. Some clients prefer that the last two or three primaries on each wing be left intact for aesthetic reasons. If these are spared, the wings give the appearance of being intact when folded in the resting position. However, strong fliers (like cockatiels) may gain enough lift to still retain the ability to fly. Also, the two or three feathers are likely to bend, break or get caught in cage wires. For this reason, I discourage leaving isolated feathers on the ends of the wings.

After the four primaries are cut on each wing, the bird should be tested indoors, over a carpeted area, to see if more feathers should be removed. Holding the bird on a perch or arm, quickly drop the bird downwards, causing the bird to flap its wings and jump off. Additional trimming should be based on the bird's ability to gain lift or fly horizontally. It is best to clip conservatively and remove additional feathers as needed. The owner can be shown how a bird should land after a wing clip.

It is important that the primary feather be clipped below the level of the barbules. A half-clipped feather will allow more upward flight, and will necessitate the removal of more feathers to restrict flight than a technique that removes the entire feather.

Diagram for Wing Clipping

Cockatiels are powerful fliers and may often need six to eight feathers trimmed on each wing. Budgies will also usually require trimming of about six primaries. As a rule, overweight or heavy bodied birds need fewer feathers removed than birds of normal weight or trim bodies. Overweight Amazons may only require about four or five feathers per wing removed. The old adage about "stopping at the red" for Amazons, meaning to stop clipping when you get to the primaries with red on them will result in the average Amazon having too many feathers clipped. Amazons drop heavily if too many feathers are taken and often sustain injuries. Macaws usually need the last five primaries cut (6-10). Cockatoos, which are usually leaner birds, often require seven primaries be removed. Conures and other small bodied, long tailed birds may require five to seven feathers clipped. Each bird should be conservatively trimmed and more feathers taken if necessary after flight testing, as previously described. The individual bird's ability to fly will vary.

Most avian veterinarians and aviculturists agree that both wings should be symmetrically trimmed. An asymmetrically clipped bird will spiral and lose its balance, leading to increased incidence of trauma.

It is important to identify each shaft prior to clipping the feather. If in doubt, soaking the wings with water and alcohol will reveal exact location and growth condition of feathers. It is also easier to hold feathers or barbules out of the way if they are not scheduled for trimming. Blood feathers can also be identified and should not be clipped. Finding a blood feather provides an opportunity to educate the client about blood feathers (what they look like and what to do if one is accidentally clipped or injured). I will leave one feather on each side of a growing blood feather a little bit longer (one to two inches) than the blood feather, to offer protection for the growing feather. It is helpful to know that in a normal molt feathers are usually shed symmetrically so that if a blood feather is encountered at a specific location on one wing, you will likely find a blood feather at the corresponding location on the contralateral side. If this occurs, advise the client to bring the bird back in a couple of weeks to finish the trim, and to treat the bird as fully flighted until that time. Occasionally, a blood feather on a wing may become injured while catching a bird. The damaged feather should be shown to the owner, and if possible, removed in front of the owner to illustrate how to deal with a broken blood feather.

The blood feather should be grasped with an appropriate sized hemostat and, holding the wing, pulled straight out in the direction of growth. Moderate pressure is applied to the follicle with a sterile gauze sponge. In cases where the follicle continues to bleed, hemostasis may be achieved using a hemostatic agent gently applied with a cotton-tipped applicator.

It is preferable to have two people perform the wing clip: one person to hold the bird, with or without a towel, and a second person to perform the clip. During trimming, the bird should be restrained and the wing held gently and firmly, supporting the humerus. Holding the wing by the distal primaries or by the metacarpal area puts the bird at risk of wing fracture (usually of the humerus) should the bird try to flap its wing. Be sure that the person holding the bird, whether it is your assistant or the owner, does not apply undue pressure on the body of the bird. Clients tend to be more tense in these situations and may hold the bird too tightly.

Wing clipping is an essential part of avian medicine, and, as avian veterinarians, we should strive to perform a professional service to pet bird owners. A professionally performed wing clip will demonstrate to bird owners that the avian veterinarian has the skills necessary to properly care for their pets.

Copyright 2006 Margaret A. Wissman, D.V.M., D.A.B.V.P.
All Rights Reserved

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