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How to Trim a Bird's Wing Feathers

Feather trimming is a fairly simple process, but it takes precision and care. You could accidentally cut the bird or cut one of his “blood feathers”—newly formed feathers that will bleed if cut—or the bird could get frightened and defend herself by taking a chunk of flesh from your finger. This How-To is intended to complement, not replace, appropriate training by an avian veterinarian or an experienced bird handler.
If your shelter resembles a mini Noah’s ark full of puppy dog tails and reptile scales, chances are you have a few feathers in the mix, too. To protect exotic birds from those furry shelter guests who drool at the very sight of a winged creature, you may have to provide routine “haircuts.” Birds with trimmed feathers will be less likely to escape into the cat room or other danger zones; they’ll also be easier for you to handle when necessary. (If you have a completely secure “exotic birds only” room, feather trimming can be discretionary; adopters should learn how to do it, but you may not have to.) Feather trimming should only be performed on “psittacine,” or parrot-type, birds; birds like canaries and finches do not require trimming.

1. Ambience is Everything

© Susie Duckworth

A quiet and well-lit location is crucial to your success and the bird’s well-being during the procedure—just because your hairdresser plays AC/DC at full volume while giving you a trim doesn’t mean you should subject Polly to like treatment. If you need to move the bird—cage and all—to a quieter room for his new ‘do, let fellow staff members know where you’ll be doing the trimming; you don’t want a half-trimmed bird flopping about in a panic should an unwitting colleague open the door of your birdie beauty parlor.

2. Conspiracy!

Once you’ve been trained by an expert trimmer, you’ll need supplies: a pair of small, sharp scissors, a thick towel, and a conspiring coworker to help you restrain the bird during grooming. (You should also have a small pair of needle-nose pliers or hemostats on hand—but you shouldn’t have to use them! They’re there just in case you cut a blood feather.)

© Susie Duckworth
If you think Polly is going to perch on your finger, whistling a cheerful ditty as you trim her flight feathers, think again. With more practice you’ll probably be able to trim more socialized birds by yourself, but now is not the time to show off your multi-tasking abilities. Trimming requires your full attention, and if you aren’t giving it, serious harm could be done to the bird.

3. Gotcha!

You don’t want to use your finest Egyptian cotton towel when catching and restraining a bird, but you do want a towel thick enough to protect your hands from Polly’s beak and claws. The towel will also give Polly something to chew on while her feathers are being trimmed. The person charged with holding the bird should use the towel like a mitt to catch her and should keep the bird gently but firmly wrapped up. (Use one hand to hold the bird’s body and the other for her head. To keep her from biting, hold the back of her head and neck gently with thumb and forefinger; you may have to restrain larger birds more vigorously, keeping hold of their jaws with a grip from behind.) Capture the bird as quickly as possible to minimize her stress.

© Susie Duckworth
Take special care not to apply pressure to the bird’s chest; birds do not have diaphragms, so their breathing can be seriously impeded if chest expansion is restricted. Too much weight on her torso could cause the skin of your bright green parakeet to turn three shades of blue.

4. Polly Want a Scissors?

Your partner should position the bird on her back, still wrapped in the towel, while taking care to keep her gently restrained. While your buddy is holding the bird, move the towel to allow one of the bird’s wings to emerge, and gently extend that wing. You want to trim her primary flight feathers.

© Susie Duckworth

Starting from the wing tip and moving in toward the bird’s body, the primary flight feathers will be the first group of long feathers on the underside of the wing. On the top of her wing, you’ll notice a set of smaller, overlapping feathers above the primary flight feathers. This group of feathers, the primary flight covert, will serve as a guideline for where to snip the primary flight feathers. Leaving one or two of the longest feathers (for aesthetic reasons), you want to trim off the next five to seven primary flight feathers on each wing. Be careful, though. “Blood feathers,” newly forming feathers still in their sheaths, will bleed if cut. These feathers look waxy and pinkish, and they have a visible blood vessel running through the quill; inspect each feather to make sure that you don’t inadvertently cut a blood feather. If there are many blood feathers present, you may want to put off the trimming for a few days to give them a chance to grow. If you encounter a blood feather while trimming, leave a full-grown feather near the blood feather to protect it. Cut only one feather at a time. (See tinted box below for instructions on what to do if you cut a blood feather.)

Feathers are good indicators of the bird’s general health; a healthy bird’s feathers will be glossy and brilliant. Birds with dull, broken, or misshapen feathers may be ill and should be examined by a vet.

5. Encore Performance

You’ve trimmed one wing, and now you’re halfway there. Repeat the procedure on the other wing. Be sure to trim an equal number of feathers on each wing. This will help the bird maintain equilibrium. The purpose of trimming the wings is to prohibit flight, but you still want the bird to be able to glide should she fall from her perch; trimming only one wing can result in poor balance and control rivaling that of a Cessna pilot after a bottle of Jack Daniel’s.

6. Do Regular Checkups

© Susie Duckworth

After the trimming, monitor the bird’s feather growth closely. There’s no set timetable for trimming; every bird grows feathers at a different rate. Watch for the bird to stretch her wings to see how the trimmed area looks; check about once a month to see how much growth has occurred. Whenever you trim your birds’ wings, be sure to reward the birds with treats and give them lots of praise and affection. Though the experience may be initially uncomfortable for the birds, the human interaction they receive will ultimately make them more comfortable with people. Before long, your shelter birds will be flying—or rather, gliding—their way into new homes.

If you cut a blood feather, you must remove it. Otherwise, the animal will continue bleeding. To remove the blood feather, position the pliers (or hemostats, if you’re more comfortable using them) as close to the skin as possible; then grip the feather and remove it in one steady, careful motion while your partner exerts equal and opposite pressure on the other side of the wing. After the feather is completely removed, apply styptic powder to the follicle the feather was pulled from, and apply direct pressure for a few minutes. Bleeding should subside soon. If the bleeding does not stop, take the bird to an avian vet immediately.


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