Birds’ ability to fly has long been seen as a complication to keeping them as pets. For many years, the prevailing advice has been to clip a pet bird’s flight feathers, keeping them largely grounded.
As experts study the health and behavioral issues that pet birds experience, however, their advice has shifted. Many now recommend allowing your bird to fly and even warn of the dangers of wing clipping.
If your bird’s wings are already clipped, you may look at this new research and contemporary thought and wonder if it’s too late for your bird.
Can a bird that has had clipped wings all of its life ever learn to fly again? It will take time and practice, but as long as the actual bones and muscles of the wing are intact and your bird has no other related injuries, he should be able to fly again once his feathers regrow.
A bird that has had his wings clipped will have barriers to overcome in order to fly again. He may be unsure of his capability of flight, and he will definitely be out of shape.
You will have to be his biggest cheerleader—and you should be. Although your bird may be reluctant to try his wings, he will be happier and healthier once he has regained use of them.
All young birds should be allowed to learn how to fly before their wings are clipped the first time. Like learning to crawl for a baby, it’s a crucial step in both their physical and mental development.
Unfortunately, not all breeders allow for this. If your bird was clipped before fledging or has had her wings clipped most of her life, she will have to start at the beginning when it comes to learning flight control.
Most if not all birds with clipped wings have experienced at least one frightening fall in their lifetime. Their natural instinct is to take flight when startled or excited.
Taking the leap with clipped wings most often means a quick fall and crash landing. These birds can lose all confidence in their ability, causing them to be reluctant to try again even after their wings have regrown.
They will need incentive and encouragement to overcome their fear.
If your bird has not flown in a while, her flight muscles will be weak. If she is slightly overweight from lack of exercise (which is not uncommon in clipped birds), this will compound her inability to fly.
Your bird will need to strengthen her wings with short periods of daily exercise.
Birds that have not flown for a long period of time will also have little endurance, growing breathless and tired after only short intervals of exercise. It’s important that they build up their strength gradually and at their own speed.
Larger, heavier birds will need more time to regain their flight abilities than smaller, more aerodynamic birds.
Exercise, of course, is not something you can or should force your bird to do. Rather, you should provide opportunities for it and encourage it in short sessions. Here are a few ways to do this.
- Toys that encourage movement—climbing and flapping—like a boing (rope perch that hangs in a spiral) and plenty of space for your bird to flap and practice flying are a good place to start.
- Try placing perches just far enough apart that your bird will have to hop (or fly if he is able) a short distance to access, gradually increasing the distance as your bird becomes comfortable with flight.
- You can also play games with your bird that encourage movement and flapping. Place him on the floor and encourage him to run after you, whether it’s for a treat or just to get back on your shoulder. In their hurry and excitement, many birds will incorporate wing flapping on their own.
- Hold your bird’s feet gently in your hand (or both hands for a large bird) and then swiftly and smoothly drop your hands with your bird in them—just enough that your bird flaps his wings while you do it. Try not to frighten your bird doing this. You can work up to it with very short, gentle drops. Some birds even learn to enjoy this kind of exercise.
- Another great way to get your bird to exercise his wings is to have him perch on your hand while you run or move it swiftly through the air. Most birds will excitedly flap their wings to keep up. Again, work up to this slowly, and if your bird is unable to fly at all, be sure he is prepared for your movement. Falling off will only increase his conviction that he cannot fly.
- Recall training involves teaching your bird to step up on your hand for a treat and eventually fly to your hand. You can begin this at any time and tailor it to your bird’s ability. Gradually ask him to step up from further away until he is hoping to your hand, then hopping with a wing flap, then flying short distances.
Waiting For Feathers To Regrow
How long will it take for your bird’s clipped wing feathers to be replaced with full flight feathers? This depends on when his next molt comes around. Birds molt anywhere from one to three times per year. Most smaller birds will molt about twice, once in the spring and once in the fall. Larger birds may fully molt only once each year.
Providing A Safe Environment For Learning To Fly
A bird that is still learning control may careen wildly about on her first few real flights. Make sure these flights happen in a safe, controlled environment to avoid any injury to your bird.
Windows should be covered, and doors should be closed. Make sure there are no hot surfaces, open water, or sharp objects that your bird may accidentally land on. Even pictures hung loosely on the wall can be a danger if your bird tries to land on one and knocks it down.
Remain calm during your bird’s flights, and if possible, direct them by implementing the recall training you have hopefully already begun.
Encouraging Your Bird to Fly
Along with the games and exercises above, recall training is a huge part of encouraging your bird to fly. Birds are motivated by getting what they want, so use favorite treats, people, toys, or hangouts to coax your bird to slowly expand his flight capabilities.
As his skills develop, challenge him to fly up from the ground, down from a higher perch, turn corners, and fly longer distances. The better your bird can fly, the more he will enjoy it and the safer he will be.
Sadly, in some cases, a clipped bird will be unable to fly again. One example would be a bird that has been badly clipped by someone who didn’t know what they were doing, and his actual wing is injured.
Another would be a bird that has broken a wing or breastbone from falling because of clipped wings. This type of injury is not always immediately obvious.
Although many older and overweight birds have learned to fly and thrived on the exercise, if a bird is very old and out of shape or suffers from arthritis, it may be impossible for him to fly again.
The benefits of allowing your bird flight rather than continuing to clip her wings are widely documented. Birds enjoy much better health when they are active.
They can become “perch potatoes” if clipped. Flighted birds are more content, showing fewer behavior problems and less frustration than clipped birds.
While there are risks involved in allowing your bird flight, they are often less serious than the risks associated with clipping. A clipped bird can injure herself falling and can more easily become trapped in or behind objects.
She is more in danger of being stepped on or attacked by other pets.
If she somehow slips through a door or window and ends up outside, a clipped bird can actually be harder to retrieve than a flighted bird with recall training. The wind may carry her into the air, but she’ll have no experience controlling her flight or ability to return to you.
In the case of an extremely skittish or aggressive bird, wing-clipping may allow you more control while training is in progress. It may be best to leave the clipping to your avian vet or another experienced professional.
If you feel confident that you can do it yourself, make sure to do your research on how to do it correctly.
A proper wing-clipping should involve trimming only the first 4 to 6 of your bird’s primary flight feathers (from the wingtip in) just below the overlapping layer of covert feathers. No other feathers need to be trimmed away and trimming any shorter can injure your bird.
A bird should never have only one wing trimmed as this will completely unbalance her and lead to a nasty nosedive and possible broken bones should she fall or attempt flight. She should be able to glide to the floor with both wings moderately trimmed.
Any growing blood feathers should be carefully avoided as cutting one will be painful and could lead to the bird bleeding to death.
Flight is as natural to birds as walking and running is to us, and it should not be taken from them if at all possible. The fact that you’ve read to the end of this article shows that you are seriously considering giving flight back to your bird.
While it can be a slow process for birds that have been clipped for most of their lives, don’t give up. Your bird will thrive both physically and mentally upon regaining this ability and with careful training, your relationship with him will be better than ever.