Part Four: To Clip or Not to Clip?

The previous three episodes of this blog examined all of the reasons why allowing flight must be thoroughly considered before any decision to clip wings is made – in each and every case. Flight is the very best choice for physical and psychological health for the parrot and offers many benefits to the caregiver as well.

Courtesy of Siljan Nicholaisen

In a perfect world, all baby parrots would be parent-raised, fully fledged, and never have their wings clipped. In a perfect world, no one would adopt a parrot unless they could keep the bird fully flighted. However, this is not a perfect world.

The complicated lives of the complicated people who live with complicated parrots can make this decision a challenging one for those who have embraced wing clipping in the past. In addition to that, not every adult parrot is a good candidate for flight. This blog will take a look at how one goes about deciding this crucial question: “Is allowing flight the right choice for me and my parrot?”

It’s a Study of One

Careful consideration must be given to all aspects and all projected consequences of each option.  Many questions must be asked and answered about the home environment, the family, and the parrot. When owners take the time to do a thorough analysis, the choice then can be made with confidence. 

If we decide to clip those flight feathers, we may regret the need, but we will rest confidently in the knowledge that the choice is the right one, because the other has been thoroughly researched and found impossible.  If we decide to allow flight, our commitment to this will be complete and this will serve us well as prepare to live with a bird who flies.

Each parrot and his environment are a study of one.

Assessing the Environment

Not every home can safely accommodate a fully flighted parrot. Future episodes of this blog will deliver specific recommendations for how to live safely and successfully with birds who fly. Today, we will merely take a look at some of the considerations necessary to making a decision.

Can you secure your home by arranging your entrances and exits in such a way that the parrot cannot be lost if he chooses to fly to you?  Companion parrots will rarely fly out an open door without reason. They are typically afraid of the unfamiliar and will not consciously make a decision to leave the familiarity of the home for the strangeness of the outdoors.

They are most frequently lost when they try to join us as we leave or enter the home. Especially at risk are parrots who have gotten used to hanging out on shoulders. When we open a door to either enter or exit the home, a flighted parrot will often try to join us. Hitting the shoulder at the same moment that we open the door often provides that perfect instant of startle when they instead fly off out the door. Having a double-entry system will prevent this.

Family Members and Visitors

Are all family members reliable, in terms of keeping doors shut and remaining mindful about the use of ceiling fans and other hazards? If you have several small children around, the danger of loss could increase if doors are constantly being left open. Yours may be 100% reliable, while their friends may not. Living with parrots might need to wait until they are older.

It doesn’t do a bird much good to be flighted if he spends the majority of each day in his cage for safety’s sake.

Even adult visitors will need monitoring. One African grey loved to fly in a circuit around the living area. There was a sliding glass door between two of the rooms that was always left open…until a well-meaning visitor closed it and a tragedy occurred. Dangers must be anticipated and prevented, which requires constant mindfulness.

An Outdoor Aviary?

Photo courtesy of Nyla Copp

Is there room for an outdoor aviary or screened-in porch and are you willing to go to the expense and inconvenience of providing such a safe space out-of-doors? Aside from the fact that parrots need exposure to real sunlight for health, a flighted parrot will be safest if he is exposed regularly to the sights and sounds of your neighborhood. In the event of loss, this familiarity can keep him from startling and flying too far away for recovery.

Other Pets

Are there other animals in the home who might pose a danger? Most cats are not much of a risk to medium- to large-sized parrots, but will absolutely be attracted to the manner in which small birds fly.

Dogs with a prey drive may well leap up to catch a flighted parrot, but leave a perched bird alone. Dogs (and possibly some cats) can be trained a “leave it” cue, but this would require a good degree of training skill and persistent effort on your part.

Occasionally one parrot will develop aggressive behavior toward another. Training can resolve this situation as well, but in rare cases it could be best for everyone’s safety to perform a partial clip until such training is well under way. It is not typically necessary to perform a full wing clip to solve this problem temporarily. Removing about 1.5 inches of length from the first two or three leading primary flight feathers makes it more difficult to fly, which generally leads to a drastic reduction in such aggressive behavior.

Assessing Ourselves

As much as we might like to think that we are good candidates for living with a flighted parrot, not all of us are.  We must honestly assess ourselves, as well.

Am I interested in training my bird and am I willing to devote the time to learn how? As I stated in my last blog post about the benefits of flight to caregivers, clipping wings and training are too sides of the same coin. (In reality of course, clipped birds need training too.) While clipping wings may accomplish a measure of compliance, you have no such advantage with a flighted companion. Reinforcing cued behaviors to maintain compliance and teaching a recall behavior are essential.

Training birds is fun, results in better relationships, and doesn’t take more than a few minutes each day. But, if you are unfamiliar with effective training strategies, this will require study, planning and preparation. If you feel that your life is out of control and you lose your keys once a week, it might not be the right time to live with birds who fly.

An Inconvenient Truth

Are you willing to tolerate some damage to household items? This should be minimal if you set up the house correctly and work on behavioral management. However, it will still happen.

Parrots often change their behavior as they get older and we will at times be absent-minded. How many remote controls are you willing to replace? Is it important enough to you to allow your bird flight to put up with the occasional need to repair woodwork or replace closet doors (as a real-life example)?

Parrot Perches

Photo courtesy of David Hull

Parrots need their own “furniture.” For flighted birds, this is essential. Since they can go where they want, they will use yours if they don’t have their own. To me, there is no greater frustration than watching a parrot perch on a bookcase and chew the spines of my beloved books.

Setting up an appropriate environment for flighted birds will remove your home a few steps from Martha Stewart standards. Can you make peace with this?

Assessing the Parrot

Not every adult parrot is a good candidate for flight. 

First, any decision to clip wings should never be made for the purpose of correcting behavior problems. It was common, when I was working as a veterinary technician, for a client to come in stating that she wanted her birds wings clipped because he was becoming “uppity.”

In other words, the owner wanted the clip for the purpose of making the parrot feel less safe so that he would be more compliant. This is not ethical. “Uppity behavior,” and any other problems, can be addressed through training – using positive reinforcement effectively, coupled with thoughtful arrangement of the environment. If you have a behavior problem, please call me for a consultation before you think about clipping wings.

Fully Flighted = Excellent Skills

In regards to the parrot himself, any decision to clip should be based upon safety considerations. Many older parrots will not learn to fly even if you allow their flight feathers to grow out. This creates a dangerous situation.

A bird with flight capability, but who lacks flight skills, is at greater risk of both physical injury and permanent loss than the parrot who practices flying regularly. Most of the accidents and injuries that are touted as reasons for clipping have occurred because of limited or nonexistent skills.

It is also too easy to imagine that the bird who doesn’t fly… can’t or won’t fly. These birds are regularly lost when owners take them outside on shoulders or perches, imagining that they will never fly off. All it takes is a startle, generating a spurt of adrenaline, a bit of breeze, and that bird is gone. Sadly then, he is often lost for good since he doesn’t have the skills to keep himself safe and then fly back.

If you are going to allow your parrot to keep his flight feathers, it is crucial that he uses them to fly as his primary means of getting around. Only in this way will he develop the skills he needs. Fully flighted parrots must develop stamina, the ability to maneuver in tight places, and to fly upward and downward at steep inclines. This will make their recovery more certain if they are ever lost outside.

Evaluating Candidates

Great candidates for the recovery of flight are those young parrots who were fledged well by the breeder, but then had their wings clipped before adoption. Typically, once they molt for the first time they regain flight easily. Unfortunately these days in the United States, breeders who fledge babies are rare.

Young parrots who never fledged, but who are allowed to retain flight feathers after the first molt, often also learn to fly well. That instinct to fly usually remains for at least a year after clipping. These individuals may need a little encouragement, but can still become great flyers.

Evaluating older parrots for flight can be difficult. I remember one conversation I had with Barbara Heidenreich and Chris Shank on this topic. We agreed that a heavy-bodied bird who had been clipped for eight years or longer is not likely to regain flight and would be a poor candidate. Exceptions exist, however.

Parrots with long tails (cockatiels, conures, macaws, etc) are often described as “light-bodied.” These individuals may be more likely to regain flight, even after a few years of clipping. Parrots with short tails (Amazons, caiques, African greys, etc) are termed “heavy-bodied” and often have a harder time learning to fly later.

For these birds, initial attempts at flight are not reinforcing. Flying is too hard and they frequently decide that it is not worth the effort, especially if they have been clipped for long enough that they have lost that urge to change location frequently that is a hallmark of the parrot spirit.

Small cockatoos do frequently regain flight, even after an extended period of clipped wings. Their dynamic, sprightly personalities seem to provide them with more drive for frequent activity. In addition, they tend to have wider wing spans in relation to their body size than other species do, which makes those early attempts less punishing.

Get a Mentor to Ensure Success

I strongly encourage you to engage the services of a mentor if you do decide to allow your clipped parrot to regain flight. It can be invaluable to speak with an experienced advocate who will evaluate your home for dangers, help you set up the correct environment, and provide you with the training knowledge you need.

Photo courtesy of Chris Shank

I’ve never yet talked to anyone who regretted the decision to allow flight. It’s an emotional experience that words struggle to convey. The rewards so far outweigh the inconvenience. It’s akin to touching the wildish heart of the natural world.

Please stay tuned for the next episode of this series, which will provide information on living successfully with flighted birds, including setting up your home and the necessary training.

Thank you for reading my blog. I am Pamela Clark, an IAABC Certified Parrot Behavior Consultant. My passion is helping people with parrots by offering behavior consultations and publishing information you can trust. To access free resources or subscribe to my newsletter (which is a different publication from this blog), please visit me at http://www.pamelaclarkonline.com. Until next time!

Part Three: The Benefits to Us

I have never read any discussion about living with flighted parrots in which the word “inconvenience” didn’t appear. It’s true. Living with flying birds can be inconvenient, in addition to messy, challenging, and chaotic.

Despite this reality, I would never go back to clipping wings. Most others who have adopted the lifestyle agree. They can’t imagine a scenario that would cause them to clip wings again.

Living with birds who fly is an experience so special …so remarkable …that no amount of inconvenience, chaos or mess will press you to give it up. My last blog episode examined the advantages to the birds of enjoying indoor flight. In this post, I will focus on all of the many advantages to us.

Why I Do It

I initially stopped clipping wings because I thought it was the right thing to do. Preventing their freedom of movement no longer seemed an ethical option. Never, however, could I have imagined the gifts that would accrue to me personally of making this change. I can enumerate them as follows:

  • Greater sensitivity to and skill at reading body language
  • Greater awareness of my surroundings and my animals
  • Knowledge of how behavior works and improved skills at teaching and motivating
  • Deeper commitment to being responsible for the safety of my flock
  • Parrots with no behavior problems
  • The ability to recognize illness earlier
  • The ability to identify discord between individuals earlier
  • A deep sense of pride at how I provide for my birds
  • A deeper, more trusting, relationship with my birds
  • A great deal more fun!

Reading Body Language

We generally gain knowledge on an “as needed” basis – to meet our lowest level of intellectual demand. If our parrots do less because they can’t easily move around, we have less need to develop greater sensitivity. Oh, we usually (but not always) learn how to avoid being bitten. And, if we have a fearful parrot, we may learn which environmental factors scare them and how to avoid those.  We learn to respond to very overt body language.

However, the potential for problems of all types increases when you live with multiple flighted parrots. To avoid conflicts and accidents, as well as to maintain trust and compliance, it’s necessary to become exceptionally more sensitive to and skilled at reading body language.

Bird who enjoy frequent movement are constantly giving us feedback about ourselves. This creates for us greater sensitivity in regards to how our movements affect them. Move too quickly, or use a scary gesture, and they fly away. When we live with clipped birds, this type of subtle feedback is absent. Living with those who can fly makes us more sensitive and considerate caregivers.

Greater Awareness of My Surroundings

Living with flighted birds comes with risks. Managing these risks successfully requires that we cultivate and maintain a greater awareness of our surroundings and our birds from moment to moment. This is simply a skill that develops over time.

Risk management is only one advantage from becoming more aware, however. The real gift is one of living more harmoniously with my flock. I will never forget the reverberation in my heart when I heard Barbara Heidenreich say, “If an animal is aware of you, you must be aware of your animal.”

My birds are infinitely aware of and sensitive to my movements. Thus, because I feel the truth of Barbara’s advice, I have required of myself that I learned to match their awareness with my own. This has created a much deeper connection to them that I struggle to describe.

Acquisition of Knowledge and Skills

Way back when, I taught stepping up through laddering. Because someone said I should. I got a reluctant parrot to step up by scaring him with a washcloth held close by. Because someone said I should. I kept a parrot on my hand by putting pressure on his toes. Because someone said I should.

I only got away with these strategies because at that time, I was also clipping wings and had pretty polite parrots who were willing to go along with my foolishness. Those types of interactions are aversive to parrots and rely on an attitude of force and command.

When you live with birds who fly, the use of force is completely off the table. They simply fly off if they don’t like what’s happening. If you respond to the behavior challenges that occur with a lack of skill, you can quickly lose all control over them. Your only option is to learn the principles that govern how behavior “works” and to use positive reinforcement skillfully in order to get the behavior that you want.

As my friend Leslie Mapes describes her experience:  “Giving my bird the ability to fly means that he is able to act on his environment and go where he wants to and connect with me (or not) when he wants to. His ability to move around on his own also makes me a better caregiver. I wouldn’t have it any other way for this very smart, very gifted flyer of a bird!”

Living Responsibly

Discussions about indoor flight are replete with cautions about the risks. They can land on hot stoves or fly out the door. They can drown in toilets. They can eat toxic houseplants, or fly into ceiling fans. Some of these presumed risks are very real; others are more imagined.

These risks can be handled successfully through skillful management of the environment, coupled with training. Nevertheless, living with birds who fly requires us to become and remain more watchful and responsible. We learn to automatically think ahead to anticipate potential problems and invent solutions before they arise. Rather than relying on the assumption that clipped wings will keep my birds safe, I must accept the responsibility for ensuring their physical safety.

I like how reader Rachel Crooks expressed it: “I think it’s my responsibility as an owner of a flighted creature to maintain an environment where they are safe to fly, rather than trying to adapt the bird to my environment.”

Absence of Behavior Problems

The majority of behavior problems are caused in part by inadequate environmental provisions – not enough choices, learning opportunities, foraging or freedom. A parrot who cannot move around at will is at greater risk for developing behavior problems.

This doesn’t mean that flighted parrots can’t also develop problems. They do. They can be loud. They can be aggressive. They can chew off feathers. However, the incidence of problems is much less among flighted birds.

My birds don’t need to scream for attention. If they need it, they fly to my proximity and indicate this in a quieter manner. They don’t need to bite; they simply fly away if I make a misstep. None of them destroy their feathers. The flying they do encourages normal preening and they are so busy, they aren’t prone to resorting to feather destruction for entertainment.

Recognizing Illness

We all know it – birds tend to hide signs of illness until they are so sick they can no longer do so. Even seriously ill parrots behave normally at times. This leads to their early loss too frequently – we just didn’t realize that something was wrong until it was too late.

Flying takes a lot of energy. If a parrot flies frequently as part of its daily behavior repertoire, an observed decrease in this activity is likely to signify the presence of  a problem. Clipped parrots often display lower levels of interaction with the environment, making it more difficult to identify behavioral signs of illness.

Thus, flight ability acts as an “early warning system.” If a bird begins to fly less, even if he appears normal in all other ways, I am going to get him to the vet without delay.

Recognizing Discord

Parrots have dynamic personalities. They don’t always get along. Some never do, while others can change their relationship dynamics over time. Those who used to be friendly can begin to have issues.

Differences in the expression of body language, along with issues of perceived territory, can cause some pretty consequential discord. Serious injuries and expensive veterinary bills can result.

Since parrots use flight to express themselves, in addition to moving around, peersonality problems become evident quickly. If I see one bird beginning to spend more time in the bedroom, away from the others, I know to look deeper into this behavior change. The likelihood is that someone is harassing her, at least on a subtle level. If I see any chasing happen, I know I’ve got a serious problem to solve.

Those who clip wings don’t have this advantage. Often problems between parrot personalities aren’t recognized until it’s too late.

A Sense of Pride

I believe that most of us feel guilt, on some level and at least some of the time, about keeping parrots at all. It was a blatantly stupid, arrogant, idea to take a creature who can fly, remove that ability, and confine it in a cage for human enjoyment. Those of us who choose to live with birds in our homes now carry the burden of this misuse of power deep in our souls, despite our distance from the original sin.

I contend that this quietly simmering unease causes us to make some really questionable decisions regarding our parrots. We want to make them happy, so feed them things they shouldn’t have, focus on the provision of physical affection, and allow them to hang out in closets for hours at a time. We give them what they want, rather than what they need.

I can’t forget that my birds didn’t evolve to live within four walls. But, by providing for flight, lots of freedom, and time outdoors, I can feel good about the quality of life that they enjoy at my hands. They can’t have it all, But they have enough to enjoy life to the fullest.

As behavior consultant Greg Glendell writes, “Is it a basic tenet of good animal husbandry that all creatures in captivity should be given the opportunity to carry out as many of their natural daily activities in captivity as they would in the wild.”

Relationships of Trust

This one is simple. Training always creates more trust. Clipping wings and training are two sides of the same coin. You either clip or you train. If you live with parrots who possess good flight skills, you don’t have any choice. You must provide training on a daily basis.

This ongoing behavioral guidance creates deep levels of trust in my relationships with my birds. Every interaction that I have with them involves choice for them. They don’t have to step up unless they want to. They don’t have to go back into their cages unless they want to. They don’t have to go outdoors unless they want to. But, they do want to because I have learned to be a good trainer and I know how to motivate them.

A Joyful Lifestyle

Parrots use flight for reasons other than moving around. They also use flight to express themselves. One might suddenly take it into his head to fly in circles, screaming happily. I get to share in that exhilaration.

One might fly to a perch and then flip upside down in silliness. I get to laugh. One might ace an especially complicated landing. I get to admire. I might find one in a completely unexpected place. I get to be surprised.

Birds who fly are simply more fun to be around. They reveal their unique personalities in a manner that sedentary birds cannot.

As reader Rachel Crooks describes, “As her flight feathers have come in over the past year, I have seen a huge growth in her confidence and independence. I love that she is able to explore and find new ways through flight to entertain and stimulate that little brain of hers! Part of her daily routine is to zoom around my apartment for 10 or 15 minutes purely for fun. My experience with her has taught me that flight isn’t a purely functional behaviour – it’s used as a way to communicate, to play, and to explore. I feel lucky to be able to experience this alongside my bird!”

My birds are also less dependent, which pleases me. They don’t need me for entertainment. They can go where they want and do what they want in an environment that provides them with plenty of opportunities.

In Summary

I will leave you with the words of reader Paula Hobson: “I have mixed feelings about keeping companion animals.  On the one hand, I feel most peaceful and happy in the company of my 2 dogs, 2 parrots, and 2 parakeets.  Their beauty, affection, curiosity, attention, and the fact that they are always exactly who they are in the moment helps ground me and keep me sane.  That they aren’t human keeps me alert and curious about what the world is like with their particular senses, abilities, and unique thought processes.  On the other hand, they live mostly indoors, will never mate and raise young, interact naturally with their own kind, or make use of their considerable intelligence and resourcefulness to survive in their natural habitats.  In recognition of their great (involuntary) sacrifice, I try to provide the best diet, environment, and fun/challenge for them.  This includes as much freedom as you can have in a modest 3-bedroom ranch home.  They are out of their cages unless I have visitors or need to have the door open for any length of time.  They have play areas on their cages, java tree, toy tree, parrot stand, and refrigerator top.  They fly to the bathroom when I shower, and to my bedroom when I dress.  Just seeing their grace and beauty during flight lifts my heart, every time.  The physiology of flight, from unique skeleton and respiratory system, and the visual processing of the brain for flight and landing, are integral to the birds’ being.  To cripple them by clipping the wings and forcing them to walk everywhere would so severely limit their experience and freedom that I do not think I could justify it to myself.  Imagine being kidnapped by an alien and having your hamstrings cut so you could only get around in a wheelchair.  For your own safety.  How would this affect your quality of life?  Your mood?  I believe all living beings have pleasure moving in their healthy bodies and in having freedom.  If it increases some risks to the birds, I choose that over depriving them of flight.”

Now that we have examined all of the many benefits of flight, I will in my next episode, get down to the business of discussing how to make this difficult decision. Is my house a suitable one for having birds who fly? Is having flighted birds right for me? Is my bird a good candidate for flight? See you then!

Thank you for reading my blog. I am Pamela Clark, an IAABC Certified Parrot Behavior Consultant. My passion is helping people with parrots, by offering behavior and husbandry consultations and publishing information you can trust. To access free resources or subscribe to my newsletter (which is a different publication from this blog), please visit me at http://www.pamelaclarkonline.com. Until next time!

Resources

McKendry, Jim. Publication date unknown. Wing Clipping vs. Flighted Companion Parrots. World Parrot Trust: Ask an Expert. https://www.parrots.org/ask-an-expert/wing-clipping-vs-flighted-companion-parrots. Accessed 03/29/2019. Accessed 03/30/2019

Sarah and Three Birds and A Cloud. 2012. https://threebirdsandacloud.wordpress.com/2012/08/28/life-with-flighted-parrots. Accessed 04/08/2019.