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When we first started raising chickens, we really wanted to be purists about the whole thing. Only raise one breed of chickens, don’t introduce new birds to the flock, feed all-natural feed, yada yada yada…
One of the commitments we made early on was that we really didn’t want to have to clip our chickens’ wings.
Part of this was due to our (erroneous) belief that it would harm the chickens or inhibit this in some way, but mostly it was because of this underlying truth that really goes into 99.999% of our farming decisions.
We’re pretty lazy.
So we set out on the chicken-keeping adventure with the decision (blindly) made that we would keep our chickens’ wing feathers intact.
Which we upheld, in fact, until predators became a problem.
Our chickens have always been allowed to free range, but last summer a curious fox made his way onto our property. Within the course of about two weeks, he decimated our flock, killing at least two dozen chickens and a handful of guinea hens, too.
Our solution was to build enclosed chicken tractors that would allow our birds to free range without having to worry about predators. Problem solved. No more dead chickens.
Until winter rolled around, and the tractors were no longer practical (when the ground is covered in four feet of snow, free ranging on pasture isn’t really an option). We moved the chickens to their wintertime home in the coop inside our sheep enclosure, and left it at that. The fox couldn’t get in because the entire lot was fenced in, so there were absolutely no worries at all.
No worries, that is, until our chickens figured out that they could easily fly over the fence and get out to explore the other side of the property.
We quickly realized that if we wanted to keep our chickens safe, we needed to figure out a solution to keep the flighty fools inside the enclosure. Upon research, we discovered that clipping their wings would be the best way of keeping them safe, and decided to get the job done one sunny afternoon in early winter.
Our fears about clipping wings – as well as our faulty belief that it would be incurred by labor- and time-intensive – were totally illegitimate. The chickens were no more perturbed than if you or I were having our fingernails cut, and we haven’t had a single bird escape since.
If you think wing clipping might be the right choice for you, read on for our best tips and advice on how to make it happen.
When Do I Need to Clip My Chickens’ Wings?
Wing clipping involves trimming the primary feathers on the wings of your chickens that allow them to take flight. Chickens aren’t like most birds in that they can’t fly very far, but they can certainly fly far enough to get themselves into trouble!
Most breeds of chickens don’t fly that well, and it’s important to note that juvenile chickens fly much better than adults. This is because they have reached their full wingspan but not their full weight, making it easier for them to take flight.
While there is no simple answer to whether clipping your chicken’s wings is the right choice for you, you need to consider factors like the type of housing and fencing you are able to provide for your chickens. If you have the means and space needed to build a covered enclosure, this will allow your chickens to retain their natural state while staying protected.
Similarly, if you allow your chickens to free-range entirely, you might want to allow them to keep their wings. This will allow them to escape to tree branches or get away quickly when they feel threatened by predators.
Arguments Against Wing Clipping
I’ve heard so many arguments against wing clipping, and to be fair, most of them were arguments I once used myself.
For instance, many people believe that wing clipping is wrong, as intact wings allow your chickens to escape from predators and other dangers. The problem in this theory lies in the fact that while yes, this might be true, if you’re already isolating your birds to an area you know is safe and they are escaping it, you may be doing more harm than good by allowing them to keep their wing feathers.
Another argument claims that clipping chickens’ wings is painful and inhumane, and I actually was a big proponent of this at one time myself. I thought clipping wings was akin to cutting off someone’s appendage, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. When done correctly, wing clipping is not painful to the chicken and results in no blood loss or other lasting damage.
I’ve read a lot of arguments from anti-wing clippers who say that you can easily train a chicken not to fly over a fence. All you have to do is put the birds back when they fly over and do this repeatedly until they learn to stay inside.
In my experience, this is total baloney. First of all, I know very few homesteaders who have the time to sit and watch their chicken pen for rogue birds all day, and second, there’s a strong likelihood that something could happen to your escapees before you have a chance to snatch them back up.
The final argument against wing clipping is that it offers only a temporary solution to your problem. As soon as your birds molt, the chickens will grow a brand new set of flight feathers and be able to escape again.
However, the time that you buy yourself in this period is nothing to laugh at. You’ll get a year or so of time before you will need to clip again, and it really takes only a couple of minutes per bird (at most). Plus, many birds forget that they can fly out of the pen in the time between clippings so you may not have to do it again even if the feathers have grown back.
How to Clip Your Chickens’ Wings
If you’ve decided that clipping your birds’ wings is the right choice for you, you can relax. It is not a difficult process.
The hardest part about clipping chickens’ wings is catching them! Our chickens are not terribly friendly and don’t like humans at all. They run away as soon as you approach them. Therefore, we like to clip our chickens’ wings first thing in the morning, before the coop door has even opened to let them out for the day.
When you are ready to clip your chickens’ wings, you need to arm yourself with a pair of sharp scissors. This task is most easily carried out by two people – one to hold the bird and one to clip. This can help prevent any slips or accidental injuries if the bird happens to move while you are clipping.
Pick the chicken up by applying gentle pressure to its wings. If it’s squawking and panicking and carrying on, grab it by its legs and flip it upside down. This is very calming and will help your chicken become more docile for the clipping process.
You need to cut the flight feathers only. These feathers are found at the ends of the wings and are visible when the wing is spread open. The accompanying quills will be either white or clear. This is the easiest way to determine whether you are cutting the right feathers. All other feathers will have dark-colored quills and will bleed heavily if you cut them.
Cut slowly, making minimal cuts when clipping the feathers. Remember, you can always go back and cut more as needed. Some people cut large swaths of feathers at a time, but a better approach is to simply cut one at a time to prevent cutting too much. You can cut feathers on both wings, or just on one. This will make the bird off balance for flight and reduces the amount of clipping that you need to do.
If you happen to accidentally cut a non-flight feather, don’t panic. There may be some blood, so it’s a good idea to have a blood-stop powder like Blu-Kote on hand. This will allow you to apply a treatment quickly before any other chickens notice the injury. Remember, chickens can be downright mean to a bird that shows any sign of injury or bloodshed.
Wing clipping will likely need to be done at least once a year as the birds molt and develop new feathers. In some cases, your birds may have figured out that they can’t escape by that point and even though they have the ability to fly out of the pen, they might not exercise it.
You won’t want to clip the feathers of very young birds. These birds put on feathers more often than adult birds, and you don’t want to clip growing feathers. Feathers that are still growing will have a blood supply, and cutting them can cause serious injury.
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