WING CLIPPING VS FLIGHTED COMPANION PARROTS

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Expert Question

Hi Jim,
I recently read an article on the top dangers associated with injury and death in parrots. High on the list was not clipping your bird’s wings. Examples given were the risks of flying into windows, mirrors, hot pots and escape. They recommended that all pet birds be clipped. Another article I came across a while back said that more than half of all birds lost were clipped and that fully flighted birds had a higher retrieval rate due to being better able to escape predators and often survive for long enough to be retrieved. I personally have had a few very close calls when my birds were clipped and stopped clipping about 2 years ago (I think having clipped birds made me complacent and gave me a false sense of security. With flighted birds I am far more aware of possible dangers).  I have five dogs and my neighbours all have dogs and cats so a clipped bird would not last very long if it got out. A flighted bird would at least stand a chance of surviving long enough to be retrieved so I think flighted is a better option for me. The ultimate solution would be an outdoor flight and flight training. There are a lot of contradictory opinions on the matter. While both clipped and unclipped have risks attached, is one necessarily a much less risky option than the other? I would like to get some more thoughts on the subject. Thanks, Bruce.

 

Expert Answer

G’day Bruce.
Thanks so much for accessing WPT for some advice and additional food for thought on what is, in my opinion, one of the most significant issues surrounding the keeping of parrots as companion animals. I am a major advocate of maintaining full flight capability of all parrots kept in captivity and I strongly feel that we need to make a fundamental shift away from 19th and 20th century paradigms of thinking about what is acceptable and not acceptable in regards to our expectations of companion parrots and develop a 21st century approach towards their care, training and management. Simply — parrots are `built to behave’in a range of specific biologically functional ways. The foundation of that functional behaviour is the capability of flight. Indeed, it is when we start to attempt to modify the anatomy of our parrots or create expectations of them that are completely incompatible with the expression of their natural biological tendencies that we then experience `behaviour problems‘. It shouldn’t be a surprise to us that when we keep parrots in contexts that afford them opportunities to socialize, fly, vocalize, establish territories, forage, breed and behave in biologically functional ways that we experience very few difficulties with their care. In my nearly 20 years of keeping parrots, and over 10 years of consulting with owners, wing clipping is, from my own anecdotal experience, perhaps the number one precursor to many of the most significant behavioural health issues I encounter and subsequent reasons for their failure in pet homes.

I don’t subscribe to the common thought that wing clipping is `a personal choice’. A personal choice for the bird or the owner? If we are genuine and authentic about promoting relationships with parrots as pets built on a foundation of respect, trust and appreciation for accommodating them to the best of our abilities then such decisions should be made in the primary interest of what is ultimately the best for the bird — not simply to cater for the limitations of the owner’s environmental circumstance. A 21st century approach to companion parrot care embraces their flight capability and challenges owners to develop both the appropriate training skills to manage that successfully and to create an appropriate environment to ensure that flight is catered for safely. Ultimately, it’s our expectations of our parrots as pets and the environment that we provide for them that need to be modified, not their wings. The justifications and rationale presented for wing clipping really don’t maintain validity today. Flying into windows, getting stuck in the toilet or the frying pan, escaping out the door are all examples of problems with the management of the flighted bird — not the capability of flight itself.

I often use the analogy that if your pet dog ran out of the gate and bit the postman on the leg would you tie his legs up to prevent that from happening again or would you just make sure the gate is locked? Parrots, unfortunately, are just about the last of our companion animals that are subject to socially endorsed physical modification. We no longer tail dock or ear trim dogs (at least not here in Australia) and educated people would consider de-fanging of a captive venomous snake to be safely kept as a pet inhumane. These are practices that were once accepted but are no longer. It’s a shame that some members of the veterinary community still seem to endorse wing-clipping and continue to promote dominance hierarchy based approaches to their handling and training, hence providing much of the social validity for their practice. What we really need to be advocating and striving for is improved education for a modern approach to the keeping of a parrot as a pet and being progressive about our approaches to parrot care.

I wrote a three-part article for Australian Birdkeeper Magazine back in 2008 that provided a very thorough overview of the keeping of flighted parrots. You can access this material via backorder of the Aug/Sep 2008, Oct/Nov 2008 & Dec/Jan 2009 issues of Australian Birdkeeper Magazine at http://www.birdkeeper.com.au. The second and third articles provide insights into the training and management of flighted companion parrots — definitely well worth reading. Much of the following rationale for maintaining flight in companion parrots is excerpted from the first article in the series…

Let’s Define the Boundaries
Any discussion of `flight’ and `companion parrots’ really needs prefacing with a clear distinction between the concepts of a `flighted parrot’ and a `free-flighted parrot’. The focus of this article is strictly on the philosophy, training and management of `flighted’ parrots, birds allowed full flight capabilities but kept indoors or within a suitable flight enclosure. It is critical for parrot owners to realise that successful and ethical keepers of flighted companion parrots know their limitations, their bird’s limitations, and have a conscious awareness of controlling as many of the potential variables that come into play with the keeping of flighted birds. This is only achieved through the implementation of proper training and the provision of suitable and safe housing. When we choose to keep a flighted parrot we must also accept an essential set of responsibilities and obligations. These are…

  • Ensuring the safety and welfare of our birds at all times through careful arrangement of their flight environment and;
  • Protecting the biodiversity and biosecurity of our surrounding natural environment by not allowing a flighted parrot outside of a flight enclosure or secure indoor flight space

Adhering to the above will ensure that risks associated with flight are minimised or completely negated.

Why have a flighted pet parrot?
In my experiences as a keeper of flighted companion parrots for many years, working professionally with free-flighted birds at Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary, and through consulting with pet parrot owners on behaviour management, I have been able to identify and validate the following reasons why maintaining flight is so important for our parrots…

Increase in functional behaviours: Parrots that have retained their flight capabilities can be observed functionally engaging with their environment at higher levels than parrots deprived of flight. We often perceive this enhanced level of engagement as an increase in `confidence’ and I would certainly agree with that.  Functional behaviours, such as foraging and exploratory behaviour provide the foundation for improved behavioural outcomes in companion parrots. Flight facilitates a significant enhancement in a parrot’s control over its environment through providing additional scope for decision-making and choice. When empowered with these opportunities, parrots can be seen to cope better and adapt more successfully to the limitations of the captive environment.

Reduction in development of stereotypical behaviours: As an increase in exploration and engagement with their environment is observed, often there is a corresponding decrease in the development of stereotypical behaviour. Whilst flight is not the magic cure for removal of behaviours such as feather picking and other significant behavioural health issues, it is often a critical component of a management plan to avoid their development or reduce their occurrence once established.

Reduction in level of dependency: The next step along a continuum of behavioural development that is supported through flight is a reduction in the level of dependency on the human carer. Parrots deprived of flight often become almost totally reliant upon the human carer for movement around their environment. We can acknowledge that flight is important to a parrot in supporting an enhanced level of physical engagement with its environment. It is reasonable then to suggest that with that comes a degree of independence that may potentially reduce behavioural problems associated with an over-reliance on human carers for social and environmental stimulation.

Enhancement of relationship with owner through improved training and reinforcement schedules: Keeping a parrot that can fly challenges the companion parrot owner to develop their own skills in the training and management of a pet that is empowered with independence and options for greater influence over its environment. In my experience this sets up wonderful learning and relationship development experiences for both the companion parrot and the owner. The relationship that an owner of a flighted pet parrot has with their bird is one that demands a foundation of trust and positive reinforcement history. It can be wonderfully rewarding and enriching to take that next step in supporting a reduction in over-dependence and an increase in your role as a teacher and positively reinforcing presence in your parrots environment.

Therapeutic benefits for behavioural recovery and rehabilitation: I first started working with other companion parrot owners on supporting the behavioural and enrichment needs of their birds back in 1999. Reflecting on the depth of that first-hand experience I can suggest that flight has been critical in the behavioural recovery of many birds I have worked with, particularly those that have developed feather-picking behaviours. Often there has been a need to establish outdoor flight enclosures to further enhance the environmental scope and opportunity for functional behaviour. Outdoor flight space offers immense benefits in reducing or completely avoiding behavioural health issues. I would certainly encourage parrot owners to consider constructing a safe and secure outdoor flight enclosure for their pet parrot. I have worked with a small number of dedicated clients on the design of such enclosures and the shift in experience scope that their parrots now have access has been brilliant to be a part of.

Earlier diagnosis of change in state of physical health: Early diagnosis of the state of health of a pet parrot can be absolutely critical in ensuring that potentially life-threatening illness is treated quickly. There is no argument that a parrot that engages in flight as part of its daily behavioural repertoire will offer a more overt and observable indication of a change in state of health than a wing-clipped or flightless parrot. Parrots that do not fly already present low rates of functional behaviour and may tend to be inactive for longer periods of the day than a flighted bird. Daily food intake may also be less in wing-clipped birds than observed in flighted parrots. Observable resting durations are often longer in wing-clipped birds and some may even present less functional vocal behaviours than might be expected from flighted birds. This can result in a keeper failing to recognise early symptoms of illness that we normally associate with lack of activity, lack of engagement in enrichment, and lack of interest in novel objects in their environment. My morning walk around my aviaries will quickly inform me if one of my parrots is not 100%, simply based on my observations of their activity level, keenness to fly to the hand, and general mobility around their enclosure.

Bruce — the above is really only scratching the surface of developing a full argument for maintaining flight in our pet parrots but it’s hopefully offered a reasonable alternative to much of what you have read elsewhere on the internet. I would encourage all WPT members to access the article series I put together for ABK Magazine to develop a full picture of my own philosophy and approach. A flighted companion is indeed a challenging one. The 21st century companion parrot keeper will embrace that challenge and hopefully leave a legacy for future generations of companion parrot carers that respects and caters for flight in their birds.

Kind Regards, Jim McKendry
http://www.pbec.com.au

 

Jim McKendry
About Jim McKendry

Jim McKendry BTeach BAppSc (Wildlife Biology)

Jim provides consultancy services on parrot behaviour through Parrot Behaviour & Enrichment Consultations (http://www.pbec.com.au). He holds Bachelor’s degrees in Teaching (ACU) and Applied Science (UQ) and is a Senior Biology and Environmental Sciences teacher. Jim’s approach to education on parrot behaviour aims to connect the behaviours we see amongst psittacines in the wild with those we observe in captivity to best inform environmental arrangement for behavioural success. An Applied Behaviour Analysis approach to assessing behaviour is the foundation of his consultancy assessments on individual parrot clients.

He has worked professionally as an Avian Trainer and Presentations Keeper at Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary and since 2005 has delivered a series of annual workshops at the Sanctuary on progressive approaches to companion parrot behaviour and enrichment. From 2009 to 2011 Jim worked as the resident consultant on parrot behaviour and enrichment at Brisbane Bird and Exotics Veterinary Services. He is a professional member of the International Association of Avian Trainers and Educators (http://www.iaate.org) and a member of the World Parrot Trust’s Expert Panel of educators.  Jim writes a regular column, Pet Parrot Pointers, for Australian Birdkeeper Magazine and is an editorial consultant on parrot behaviour for this publication.

Visit Jim’s site on the web at http://www.pbec.com.au

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