African Greys have beautiful, distinctive flight feathers, with almost black feathers crossed just below the line of their tail. Strong flyers, they are said to have the ability to cover many miles each day in their search for foraging spots. Alas, for their own protection in the very different environment we house them in as companion parrots, we must clip those efficient feathers, preventing escape or injury from flying into something.
The controversy comes not from whether or not to clip, but how far should we trim their feathers. There are, of course, those who prefer their Greys to be fully flighted, many people believing that birds are meant to fly and should never be restricted by clipping the wings. I'm not going to venture into that argument, because both sides are equally passionate and not about to change their opinions. Those who decide not to clip have the extra responsibility of keeping their Greys safe and anticipating any happenings that may allow their birds to escape or be injured. As someone who believes wings should be trimmed, this article addresses only that issue.
PAST CLIPPING PRACTICES
Historically, parrot wing clips have appeared more fad-oriented than related to the physical and emotional well-being of the birds. Up until the mid-1980's most parrot "experts" recommended clipping only one wing and leaving the other flighted. We realize now that this practice seriously disturbs any bird's natural balance, causing the bird to spiral to the ground completely out of control, landing hard on its back or side. Many parrots were seriously injured because of this clip. Fortunately, few people nowadays advocate it.
Next came the practice, for most parrots, of clipping the first five or six flight feathers. While this clip works fine with light-bodied parrots, chunky, heavy-bodied birds, such as African Greys, cannot sustain any lift and fall straight to the ground. Many cases of broken keel bones are due to this much shorter wing clip. Equally as damaging, there is a direct correlation between a too-short wing clip and phobia in African Greys. With most cases of African Greys who become truly phobic of their owners, I can ask if the bird had a short wing clip right before it became fearful-and the answer will be "yes."
The other popular African Grey clip leaves the last two primary feathers their natural length and has the rest of the flight feathers and most of the secondaries that lay next to the flight feathers clipped almost to the shaft. When the wings are extended, this clip makes the edges of the parrot's wings look half moon shaped. Although it allows a Grey to glide to the floor, there is no protection for the two long primary feathers from any feather laying next to them. It is easy for parrots to get those two flight feathers caught in cage bars. Without the strength reinforcement of other primaries of the same length, the Grey can easily break long feathers. This is especially painful and dangerous if the long broken flight feathers are in the blood feather growth stage.
A BETTER CLIP
The wing clip that I advocate leaves the primaries about a half inch longer than those covert feathers that lay directly over the primaries. Another way to explain it is that the flight feathers are clipped no shorter than the length of the longest coverts, those that lay closer to the body. If a Grey clipped this way spreads its wings, it looks similar to a "stealth fighter plane" with its wings having a triangular shape.
Greys clipped in this manner can actually fly, although no higher than a foot or two off the ground. I've seen my own Timneh hen, Jing, navigate corners to cruise into another room and land gracefully on the floor or a low perch. I never worry about her injuring herself and she has plenty of confidence that she can land in a perching position, much the same as if she were flying to a tree limb. What she cannot do, however, is fly above a couple of feet off the ground, or fly very far.
Of course, you wouldn't want to take a Grey with this clip outside, because a good breeze could give it just enough lift to escape. But then, I don't think it's safe to take our companion parrots outside without being in a cage or harness. There are too many hazards waiting for them outside, such as raptors, cars, dogs, and so on.
THE NATURAL ENVIRONMENT
This longer clip also gives our birds "confidence" and confidence is essential to their well-being. Many phobic Greys are birds that were never allowed to fledge naturally, learning to fly and navigate a few obstacles before having their wings gradually trimmed back. In order to understand this concept, let's take a look at Greys in their natural environment to see the value of learning to fly and still maintaining some flying ability.
We know that Greys occasionally feed from the ground, consuming long grasses that grow in the mud along ponds and creeks. We also know that their primary predators are hawks, predators that attack from above. How do ground feeding birds escape predators from above? They fly to freedom.
Often the knowledge of primary predators and defensive survival tactics are contained in an animal's genetic patterning, called instinct. Even domestically raised Greys know to fear hawks and try to fly to escape what they perceive to be a dangerous threat. We must assume this is an example of instinctive response, since they've never had the opportunity to learn this from their parents.
Unfortunately, no one taught our domestic Greys that everything coming at them from above is not a hawk. So, they fear towels thrown over them, as the Sally Blanchard coined term "like a harpy eagle attacking from above," or humans who tower over them when they've fallen to the floor and appear to be chasing them. Then they run and try to fly, but their short wing clips prevent any flight, making them appear to 'hop and flop.' To a wild bird being pursued by an overhead predator, this is a death sentence. Instinctively, the domestically bred Grey reacts to its tremendous fear by considering the human a predator and fearing either the individual or all people from that time on. Had the Grey been able to fly, if only a short distance, it would have had the confidence of knowing it could escape, and it probably would not have given a second thought to the human as being a predator. At least ninety percent of the cases of truly phobic Greys that I see are birds who were 'pursued' and unable to get off the ground to simulate an escape.
While I do believe that African Grey babies should fledge as naturally as possible, learning to fly, navigate and land before having their wings gradually clipped back, not all phobic Greys are birds that had never experienced flight. I personally know of several who were flighted for a period of time as juveniles, then clipped too short and became phobic after they attempted, without success, to escape by flying. Phobia in African Greys occurs during their adolescent period, usually between age six months and two years, a time when confidence building is essential.
It is my firm belief that one of the most important considerations for the welfare of our companion Greys is the length of their wing clips. With this in mind, don't feel that you should not closely monitor how someone grooms your Grey. Your close scrutiny is in your Grey's best interest.
HOW TO CLIP YOUR GREY'S WINGS
(with no pain for either of you)
- Sit on an uncarpeted floor-----wood or linoleum is good----with your legs spread widely apart.
- Place your Grey on the floor between your legs. Before it has a chance to run outside the boundaries of your legs, gently pull one wing toward you by holding the wing at the joint, rather than out near the ends of the feathers.
- Holding the wing near the joint stabilizes the wing and prevents damage to the wing feathers. Your Grey may try to reach around to bite, but will slide away from your hand on the slippery floor.
- Quickly snip the feathers you want to cut with the other hand, then clip the other wing with the same technique. Try not to hesitate or hold the wing too long before clipping the feathers. If you are too hesitant your bird may panic and start to thrash around. It should be quick, simple and over with before your parrot knows what is happening.
- Clip the wings a few times like this and you'll find your Grey no longer resistant. You should be able to simply pull a wing away from the parrot's body and snip the feathers with no objections from your Grey.
This article was published in the Summer 1999 issue of the Grey Play Round Table® Magazine: www.AfricanGreys.com ; www.AnimalLoversUnited.com ; www.NaturesCornerMagazine.com
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