Dot Schwarz explains why Parrots need to fly.
Parrots are distinguished from most other creatures by the complicated and renewable structure of their feathers.
Like hair, fur and nails, feathers can re-grow if not irremediably damaged, but what is not always realised is that flight development in baby birds is essential for their mental development. If they are prevented from learning to fly they will not develop their full mental capacity.
Steve Hartman, a noted American breeder writes: “Learning to fly well is the most complicated and important task a Parrot can learn … will make a Parrot healthier, more active, more coordinated, and better able to see. Flying helps with language development, higher intelligence, self-confidence, self-esteem and ultimately makes a very social companion”.
Vets and experts’ views
The doyenne of UK Parrot experts, Rosemary Low, has written: “In my view wing clipping is not only the equivalent of mutilation and a form of psychological abuse, but it is often carried out in order that a human can dominate a Parrot.”
Vets often accept wing clipping, although most veterinary surgeons do not routinely suggest it. They hold a spectrum of views from firmly against to mildly in favour. An experienced practitioner like Alan Jones lays down guidelines and writes:
“Wing clipping in pet birds always has been and always will be a controversial issue amongst bird-keepers and even avian veterinarians. As an avian veterinary practitioner for a good many years I have seen many problems associated with the practice, such as chewing of the cut quills leading to prolonged plucking; fear responses; injuries to the breast bone; bleeding and damaged wing tips and feathers, etc.
However, most of these problems are the result of inappropriate clipping, by which I include: too many or the wrong feathers cut; clipping when the bird is too young; or clipping too harshly. I have seen too many cases of young birds, barely weaned and certainly never having learned properly how to take off, land and manoeuvre, savagely clipped before sale because ‘we always do it to help tame the bird’. Sadly, I have also seen many appalling clips carried out by members of my own profession.”
But Jones can see some advantages:
“I do believe that if wing clipping is carried out correctly and professionally, at an age when the bird has developed their breast muscles and their ability to fly, then it is a perfectly acceptable procedure to allow the bird safety and freedom within a pet home environment.
Account needs to be taken of the species of bird, its age, and flying ability. A Cockatiel would require more feathers taken out to slow it down than would a stocky Amazon Parrot, for example. The stage of moult is significant – if a bird has just moulted, the effect of the clip will last for six months or more. But if it is just going into a moult, it could be flying again within a few weeks. Either way, if done properly, it is a reversible procedure – the bird will replace the clipped feathers in time and will fly again.”
While researching for this article I looked at some YouTube clips on wing clipping. An Australian vet demonstrated cutting a Cockatiel’s wings. He advocated leaving the two outside flight feathers ‘so that the bird appears “normal’’. I took that remark as an unconscious realisation that the clipped bird is not normal.
Another vet known internationally, Neil Forbes, is more outspoken. He writes:
“The Animal Welfare Act 2006 requires the provision of the five freedoms to all animals we keep. One freedom is to provide ability to demonstrate normal behaviour. Flight is normal behaviour for almost all birds – certainly including Parrots. Cutting the flight feathers of a Parrot is like cutting the leg off a horse – you just wouldn’t do it. A bird’s environment should be safe for it, without a need to restrict flight.
For a frightened bird, escape is a normal response. Would you want to be hunted by blood hounds over Dartmoor, whilst wearing a ball and chain? Restricting a bird’s flight is much the same.”
The Parrot Society UK secretary Les Rance agreed with Forbes. The qualification that “occasionally a temporary trim is justified where inter-bird aggression is a real issue, e.g. in breeding Cockatoos.” Les added that clipping was unsuitable for pet birds because ‘”feeling that you need to win the trust of a pet bird and by cutting the wings that is not the best way to gain trust! Generally wing clipping is not practised in the UK.”
Our local vet, Ben Bennett, has cared for my birds for almost two decades with unfailing insight and a subtle ability to calm a worried animal. Artha and Casper still fly to him in spite of having undergone undignified procedures like a blood sample taken or a nail clip or a wound sewn up.
Ben said: “I’ve been trying to put my thoughts together on wing clipping and realise they are mostly thoughts rather than reasoned arguments. I am against wing clipping. I will always try and reason a client out of having it done. The main reason I will do it is if there’s no other way to ensure the birds’ safety where the house is not secure, or while trying to tame an older bird. In both cases there are often alternatives but people are not always willing or able to take them.”
He adds: “I am against early wing clipping. It’s important for a bird to learn to fly when young. I feel they never forget this even if wing clipped later. My reading and my experience suggests that birds that have learnt to fly have better coordination and are more confident. I feel that everything about a bird is designed for it to fly and to take this away from them is wrong. This is an emotional not a reasoned argument.”
Ben says he sees obese Parrots and feels that a few minutes flying would have countered this more than any amount of walking. He concedes that the main downside to free-flying is escape.
“Most people worry their bird will hurt itself flying into a window. But I have rarely seen this. More common are badly clipped birds that split the skin over their keel bones every time they crash to the floor.
It is said that wing clipping can cause feather plucking, though I have rarely seen this. What I do see – especially after a botched wing clip – is mutilation of the growing feathers so that the wing never refeathers. Often this causes damage to blood feathers and the distressing sight of a bird and cage covered in blood spatters.”
The renowned Dutch vet, Jan Hooimeijer, Certified Parrot behaviour consultant takes an opposite view. He writes:
“Wing clipping as part of good education of Parrots that are kept as companion birds can have various advantages. I have found that birds and Parrots develop a higher self esteem. It also means that the caregiver can undertake much more with the Parrots in this environment.
Parrots show less fear/defensive/insecure, ‘aggressive’ and other unwanted behaviour. Birds can be taken out daily on the hand, into the garden, hiking or into the woods etc. It is my experience though that very few owners are capable of dealing with a full flighted Parrot.”
Flighted birds indoors
Some people justify clipping as a way of avoiding accidents – but this makes little sense. Which is more likely: that Polly will break her neck flying full-tilt into a mirror, or that Peter, a non-flighted Parrot burrowing under a cushion may be squashed flat by overweight Aunt Hetty? Cats, dogs, birds and children can and do live safely in our homes without falling into the toilet or burning themselves on the stove.
If you, as I do, consider pet Parrots as self-centred toddlers with a tin opener welded to the front of their face, you can draw up guidelines for successful coexistence which don’t necessitate caging your birds unnecessarily or removing one of their basic abilities? Feathers can grow again. But feather clips performed clumsily or on too young a bird can have irreversible mental and physical effects.
I concede that there are some Parrot carers for whom the sight of a full winged bird who chooses to respond to our call and land on our hand is less desirable than the pet who has to waddle from place to place.
I know one owner who favours wing clipping mainly because she does not want to keep her doors and windows shut and because she feels that she cannot control her bird when it is fully flighted.
She wrote: “When most people hear of wing clipping they are mortified. Let me clear up a few common misunderstandings. Wing clippings are not painful. The actual feather doesn’t have nerves, and you are not pulling it out, you’re just trimming it. The whole thing is very much like cutting one’s hair or nails.
Secondly, wing clipping is not cruel. What’s cruel is not clipping your bird’s wings but having it fly out into the wilderness to perish. There are many, many, positives to wing clipping. One of the major reasons I clip my bird’s wings is to keep her behaviour in check. Being an “aggressive female,” she is prone to biting, destroying anything and everything she gets her beak on. She refuses to step up or return to her cage unless she feels like it.
With her wings clipped she is much friendlier, only bites when threatened, and the urge to destroy everything leaves her. She is also much cuddlier with her wings clipped.”
Let me answer her with the remark of Gay Noeth, a breeder in Saskatchewan, Canada.
“My wish is that someday we humans will adapt to having a bird rather than the bird adapt to having humans.”
Photo Credits: Dot Schwarz, Chris Biro, Steve Hartman, Chip Prager.
Are you for or against? Leave your thoughts on wing clipping in the comments section below…
And if you are taking your Parrot out flying, use a harness to let them fly safely.