Clipping Chicken Wings: Why, When & How

“At what age do you clip chicken wings? Thanks!” ~ Stephanie Francis

Great question Stephanie.

Before we address the “when” and the “how to”, let’s look at the “why”.

If you haven’t discovered it yet, chickens can fly ;-0

It’s true they won’t soar through the air gracefully floating on the breeze but they can fly short distances. If given the opportunity, many breeds will roost in trees.

The point is this, a lot of people ask how high to build their fences to keep predators out. It may be true that a 7 foot fence will keep foxes away from the chickens but it might not keep chickens away from the foxes.

There are only two ways to keep your chickens inside an enclosed area; first you could cover the top to keep the chickens from flying over the fence. Second, you can clip their wings.

To be more accurate, you can clip their wing.

Just like an airplane must be evenly balanced on both sides to fly properly, a chicken requires symmetry also. Therefore, when you clip, you only clip one wing to throw off their balance. They will probably still try to fly but they won’t go far.

Before I explain how to clip, I must first strongly encourage you to consider if it is absolutely necessary to do so.

I believe there are some people who clip because that’s what they’ve always done. There are others who want to prevent their birds from leaving their “area” and either making themselves vulnerable to predators or they want to keep them from getting into the garden or some other such thing.

May I first suggest that you clip only if it is necessary?

Wait and see if your flock wants to roam further than the boundaries you’ve placed for them before you automatically assume that clipping is necessary.

It’s not that it hurts them; it doesn’t hurt any more that getting your hair cut (if done properly).

I ask you to consider the necessity because whenever you have to hold a bird still, it causes them stress which could diminish egg production. Whenever you go near a scared animal with sharp scissors, you create a possibility of injury. And frankly, they weren’t created that way (with a clipped wing), so if possible, leave them well enough alone.

Stephanie, to answer your question specifically, you can clip as soon as the birds have all their adult feathers and it becomes necessary.

Okay, so on to the “how”.

Wing clipping is something that is not hard to do but can be difficult to explain without the aid of pictures.

Once you’ve seen it done, you’ll see how easy it can be. I’ll do my best to explain the process but it’s a good idea to have someone who is experienced show you how to do it before you try it on your own. At the least, make sure you understand exactly what I’m saying before you consider picking up a pair of scissors.

“Clipping the wings” is removing the tips of the flight feathers from one of the chicken’s wings. It can be done at any age that flight is a problem. It must be done annually, after each molt because the feathers will grow back. You’ll also want to keep an eye on your bird when it molts because sometimes clipped feathers do not drop as they should and may need a little assistance from you.

You’ll need sharp but rounded end scissors to prevent a puncture injury if your chicken gets itself all worked up and you accidentally stab it.

It’s not absolutely necessary but a willing helper will make things so much easier.

You’ll want an old towel to wrap around your chicken to keep it still.

Once you have caught your chicken (by the way, the easiest way to do this is by the legs) wrap it tightly in the towel with one wing exposed.

Your chicken will probably be a little angry with you right now, depending on its temperament and the relationship you have established. Now’s the time to talk sweetly and calmly. This process is a lot easier on both of you if the bird is not freaking out.

The feathers you will be cutting are the primary, or flight feathers.

You’ll need to completely spread the chicken’s wing out to be able to find them. They are located underneath the wing at the front. They are longer than the others and are often times a different color. Many people describe the primary feathers as looking like fingers.

It is absolutely imperative that you do not cut any new growth feathers with blood in the shaft. You should be able to tell the difference because the shaft will have a pinkish hue to it. Sometimes darker colored birds require holding the wing up to the sun to be able to clearly tell if they are new growth feathers. Cutting these feathers causes major pain to the chicken and major blood loss.

We’ll discuss what to do if you accidentally cut one of these feathers later.

You’ll want to cut 5-6 feathers about 1/3 of the way down. If you are concerned about taking off too much, start with a little; you can always come back and take off more if necessary.

Remember that you are only clipping one side because you want to throw off the bird’s balance. They can still fly this way but it takes a lot more effort and they’re more likely to just give up than exert all that effort.

When you have finished, move the scissors a safe distance away before you let the chicken go, it’s going to be in one big hurry to get away from you.

So let’s discuss the “absolutely must be avoided” possibility that you have cut a new growth feather;

I’d imagine you have a lot of blood on you and your chicken is causing quite a ruckus because it’s in a lot of pain.

Although I’m making light of it somewhat, it is a serious thing and could be fatal to your chicken if you don’t act fast. The feather shaft will act like a siphon and your chicken will loose a lot of blood quickly so you must pull out the feather to stop the siphoning effect. A pair of pliers will work for this.

Be sure to pull the feather in the direction in which it is growing.

You then need to stop the bleeding of the wound created by removing the feather. Put a good amount of cornstarch (corn flour) on the wound. It should create a seal so to speak and allow the blood to clot. Apply ample pressure to the wound with a very clean rag. If the bleeding does not stop in a few minutes, call a veterinarian quickly.

As you are gathering your supplies for clipping, I recommend including the pliers, cornstarch and clean rag mentioned above for the purpose of chicken first aid.

Well now that you all have that horrible picture in your head, let’s move on.

Like I said, clipping the wings isn’t difficult but it must be done properly.

If your chickens have flown the coop, consider why they might be leaving and if there is anything you can do to encourage them to stay put.

Is it feasible to cover the top of their living space?

Better yet, could they be leaving out of boredom and some simple fixes that they find interesting will keep them closer to home?

If it’s the garden they’re after, have you considered planting their own garden within the confined area?

Get creative and send us some solutions you come up with, I’d love to hear them.

Stephanie, thanks again for the question.