In the forty years in which I have lived and worked in the world of companion Parrots, the subject of flight feather clipping seems to me to be the most fraught with angst and passion. Rarely have I seen such blind devotion to one side of an issue or the other.
Here in the USA, many live on one end of the pendulum swing. Countless people get their Parrots’ flight feathers clipped automatically, without thought. It is as if it is obligatory with Parrot ownership to have the wings clipped, just like having a Parrot’s nails trimmed.
This is not, in my opinion, the ideal. My own avian veterinarian has a nice approach to this issue. When new clients come to her requesting a wing clip for their Parrot, she asks them why they want that done. Her purpose is not to change their minds on this subject, but to have them consider their options. After all, if Parrot people live in the right circumstances, there is no reason to robotically clip a bird’s wings. Instead, allowing the birds flight is something to be seriously considered.
As I understand it, in Europe the pendulum has swung too far the other direction. In many people’s minds all companion Parrots should be allowed full flight, no matter what. This does not, in my opinion, take all the possible variations into consideration.
As with my avian veterinarian’s approach, the purpose of this article is not to push people in one direction or the other. Its purpose is simply to raise various issues for the reader’s consideration, hopefully assisting them to make the proper judgment for their own bird in their own circumstances, and their own environment.
Advantages of Flight
Of the almost 9000 species of birds on this planet, Nature has only produced a few that are flightless. Therefore, I feel safe in concluding that most birds are supposed to fly. Indeed, flight allows them to exercise naturally, building up their flight muscles and encouraging a healthy heart that is up to the job.
As someone who has lived with a flighted Blue and Yellow Macaw (Sam) for 34 of our 35 years together, I have always enjoyed watching her using flight as easy transportation from point A to point B. This also enabled a delightful situation with Parrot messes, as she will simply fly to one of her perches prior to pooping. What a lovely thing!
Sam was also allowed flight in her previous home, so she is extremely athletic. In addition to her excellent diet, this has likely contributed to her long and healthy life. She is now most likely in her 60s and according to her avian veterinarian, she is in excellent health.
For those who consider it “dangerous” to have a fully flighted Parrot, I have found this not to be true. For example, Sam fully understands the concept of windows and does not fly into them, even in new environments. After all, we humans cannot see the glass in windows either, but we know they are there. (And please note the number of humans who walk into sliding glass doors.)
Sam appears to have developed the same knowledge as we have about glass and this has been the case with every experienced flying Parrot that has boarded with me (and there have been several). Indeed, from my experience, companion birds fly into windows only if they haven’t been allowed to learn to control their flight, just as you and I as children had problems learning to turn and stop our bicycles. Going in a straight line was definitely NOT the problem!
The premise that only flighted Parrots can escape outside is also not valid, as many birds with clipped wings have flown away when circumstances have been right. Indeed, that happened to me when I first purchased Sam all those years ago. I believed all the hype about the dangers of flighted birds, so I had her wings clipped at a pet store. Shortly afterwards I took her outside one pretty day, because, after all, I always read that birds with clipped wings can’t fly. And that was the day I learned that my Macaw was terrified of loud noises, as a car backfired not far away.
Perhaps if Sam had stopped and looked at her wings, she would’ve realized she had not a single intact flight feather, either primary or secondary; her clip had been very severe. But she didn’t – she was already gone. Flying up at a 45 degree angle, she landed 45 feet up in a tree. I was lucky. She sat there and laughed while I got a 45 foot ladder and fetched her down. (It took quite a while for my stomach to quit churning, though.)
Because Sam is an experienced flyer (but barring accidents, only inside), I know she could avoid predators should she need to. She knows this as well, and this gives her a tremendous sense of self-assurance in her own ability to survive.
This is extremely important for Parrots that are (unlike Sam) highly strung, anxious and/or fearful, as with many Greys and small Cockatoos. Knowing they can make their own decisions regarding staying or leaving permits a level of confidence that can soothe many of those fears, allowing a Parrot to develop self-reliance and poise. And unlike many other members of their species, the self-confident Parrot seems less likely to turn to psychological feather destruction.
Advantages of Flight Feather Clipping
Not all environments are safe for flighted Parrots. For instance, if a family has small children that run in and out the doors, it is unlikely that they could keep a flighted Parrot out of harm's way. As my friend and colleague Chris Davis commented, it often isn’t the family that allows an escape or worse yet, a door slammed at the wrong moment. Instead, it is usually a neighbour or neighbour’s child. So if people do not have adequate control over their doors, they should not have a flighted Parrot.
As an example of controlling one’s doors, even though I had a key to her flat, I always rang her bell when I would visit my friend Peggy. Since her Parrots were flighted, I always gave her warning instead of opening her door with my key. This gave her time to put the birds away before she opened the door.
People who live in dangerous environments should also consider keeping their Parrots clipped. This was the necessity with one client who lived in a lovely place with leaded glass windows, as lead is extremely toxic and lead toxicity is often fatal. Another friend had a place that only provided adequate space for a cage right next to sliding glass doors. With people in and out all the time, such a situation was too dangerous for a flighted Parrot. However, that friend now lives on the second and third floor of a large old house, so her Grey is happily flighted for now.
Here in the USA we have a lovely little bug called a mosquito (mozzies?), and its infernal humming and biting drives us all crazy. As a result, our windows are all screened so we can get fresh air without letting our Parrots out. You Brits are lucky enough to have no such pest, so your windows need not be screened. Unfortunately, this means you cannot easily open your windows without risking your Parrot’s escape.
Some Parrot people are like permissive parents who fear their children won’t love them if they enforce limits on behaviour, or perhaps they just can’t tolerate any rules at all. For whatever reason, for those gentle people who could not stand up to a snail, an intelligent and headstrong Parrot is handful enough.
However, a flighted Parrot can mean serious trouble. Free to fly about the place and get into trouble, this bird can wreak havoc any number of ways. It might refuse to go into its cage when the humans need to leave for an important appointment, or it might choose to demolish a valuable piece of furniture. Many years ago a Parrot won its place in its family’s history by chewing up a number of irreplaceable stock certificates and another destroyed the deed to the house.
There seems to be no limit to the mayhem a Parrot can cause. Truly, an out-of-control Parrot is tough enough, but a delinquent flighted Parrot can be a nightmare. Now we not only have an intelligent 2-year-old with a can opener attached to its face, but said critter has its own transportation!
It is quite possible to train a flighted Parrot, but it is certainly more difficult than training a clipped one. Rather like a surly teenager with his own car, the flighted Parrot can often pick up and leave whenever it does not care for a lesson. For those who have inherent problems setting rules anyway, a gentle wing clip might overcome many obstacles to training so said owner can get the situation under control. Once taught limits, a Parrot’s flight feathers can then be allowed to regrow.
A harness can help a Parrot fly safely. .
Different Clipping Styles
It is important to note that wing clipping need not be an all or nothing affair if it is done correctly.
Depending on feathers cut, a Parrot can achieve a gentle arch downward so it lands safely, or it can be clipped in such a way as to allow level flight but not altitude gain. The latter is the clip I prefer when a Parrot is to be trained, as it gives owners a brief edge to get training in place before full flight is again attained. Under NO circumstance should a wing clip cause a bird to crash like a dropped cinderblock. That type of clip is irresponsible and dangerous to the bird.
Should you choose to seek a wing clip for your Parrot, PLEASE have the forethought to discuss clipping styles with your avian veterinarian before any feathers get chopped. One can always clip another feather or two if necessary, but it is not quite so easy to replace those feathers once cut.
Find the nearest avian vet to you here.
In Conclusion …
In my opinion, whether or not your Parrot should have its wing feathers clipped is a personal decision, based on the safety of your environment and your lifestyle. No one can make this choice for you, so please do not allow aggressive or rude individuals to bully you into a choice that is not yours. After all, you are the one who has to live with the consequences.
I often meet Parrot owners who proudly proclaim that their Parrot is fully flighted. My favourite response is to ask them how often their Parrot is allowed out of its cage. Many too many times the response is dropped eyes and an embarrassed shuffling of feet while the owner mumbles that “He doesn’t get out as often as we’d like … because he’s flighted, you know, so he always gets into trouble.”
As far as I am concerned, this makes no sense. What is the point of having full wings if a Parrot is never allowed out of its cage? To make the owner feel good about him or herself? As far as I am concerned, the wing-clipped bird that is allowed out of its cage to join the family is a happier bird than the one with full feathers that is forever locked away in its cage.
*Please read my 2-part article on feather destruction to learn the medical and/or management etiologies of this condition at https://www.northernparrots.com/feather-plucking-environmental-factors-(part-1-of-2)-blog61/ and https://www.northernparrots.com/feather-plucking-psychological-factors-(part-2-of-2)-blog62/