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Clipping chicken wings is a good skill to have if you’re going to raise backyard chickens. Unlike humans, who periodically get a haircut, shave, and nail trim, most chickens are pretty well equipped to take care of their own trims. Feathers naturally fall out and are replaced by fresh new ones at least once a year. Toenails get filed down while a chicken engages in its eternal soil scratching. At times, however, a chicken can use a little trimming assistance. Wing feathers, vent feathers, and crest feathers may need to be clipped back. Overly long toenails need to be trimmed, as might also an overgrown beak or a dangerously long spur.
Clipping Chicken Wings
Wing feathers may be trimmed to protect chickens from predators or keep them from getting run over on the road, to protect vegetable and flower beds from the chickens, or to keep the birds from getting into the wrong breeding pen. Breeds that are best known as flyers include Leghorn, Hamburg, Old England Game, and nearly any bantam except Silkie.
Clipping chicken wings involves the use of sharp shears to shorten the primary feathers — the first ten feathers at the end of one wing — to about half their length. Clipping these feathers causes a bird to lack the balance needed for flight. A bird that can still fly may need to have the same wing’s secondary feathers clipped. If that still doesn’t do the trick, more severe trimming is needed, but in any case cut the feathers no shorter than one inch from the wing, or about to the tips of the coverts.
If you have several chickens that need to be trimmed, decide whether you want to clip the right wing or the left wing, and clip the same wing on all the birds. That way you are less likely to inadvertently trim both wings on the same bird when you’re clipping chicken wings.
Clipping chicken wings lasts only until new feathers grow during the next molt, which may be a few months in young birds or up to one year for older chickens. A chicken that persists in flying after a molt will need another wing trim.
Newly emerging feathers, whether on a young chicken or a recently molted older bird, should not be clipped until they are fully formed and have hardened. Emerging feathers have blood vessels extending into the feather shafts to nourish their development. Clipping these blood feathers will cause excess bleeding. To identify blood feathers, spread the wing and inspect the underside for soft, pinkish, immature shafts. Once a feather is fully formed, however, the blood vessels recede and the feather shaft hardens and becomes hollow.
Another wing-trimming caveat is that some clipped feathers may not readily fall out during the next molt, requiring your assistance in removing them before new feathers can grow in. Clipping, therefore, should be considered a last resort after all other methods of confinement have failed.
While clipping chicken wings is most often thought of as basic chicken maintenance, vent trimming should also be considered. Vent feathers can interfere with fertility in heavily feathered breeds — such as Brahmas, Cochins, and Wyandottes — where feathers cover the vent. In rumpless breeds — Araucanas and occasionally other tailless chickens — sometimes the vent feathers can’t separate properly for mating. If you have watched tailed chickens mate, you will have noticed that when the cock mounts the hen, he tilts his tail downward to one side, while the hen tilts her tail in the opposite direction, allowing their vents to come together. A chicken that lacks a tail may not have sufficient muscling in the right places to navigate vent fluff and successfully accomplish this maneuver.
Whether fertility issues are due to heavy feathering or rumplessness, the obvious solution is to select breeders that are naturally equipped for successful mating. A quick fix is to clip the fluffy feathers surrounding the vents of both cocks and hens, with more attention to the feathers above a hen’s vent and those below a cock’s vent.
To trim a chicken’s vent, sit down and turn the bird on its back, resting it in your lap with its tail pointing away from you. If necessary, to get a good view of the vent, have a helper bend the tail back and down over your knees. The helper’s other hand could hold the legs out of the way of your shears.
Start by trimming the feathers across the belly side of the vent. Then trim both sides of the vent, and finally work across the tail side. If you’re afraid you might snip the chicken’s skin, trim just the feather tips in a first pass. Then, after you can better see what’s beneath, trim shorter in a second past. Using a pair of ball point pet grooming shears also helps prevent inadvertent injury.
When you have trimmed about one inch of fluff all around the vent, trim a little farther away on the tail side of the hen’s vent and on the belly side of the cock’s vent. Cut these feathers not quite as short as those closer to the vent.
Some people prefer to pluck vent feathers, on the unproven theory that cut feathers will prickle the skin of the opposite party. Plucking is more time consuming than cutting. Further, plucked feathers start growing back right away, whereas cut feathers remain trimmed until the next molt. If you prefer to pluck, pull only one feather at a time, which will minimize pain to the bird and reduce the chance of tearing its skin.Trim or pluck vent feathers only if you experience fertility issues in your breeding stock. Otherwise, let nature take its course.
Alternatives to Clipping Chicken Wings
If clipping chicken wings on a regular basis doesn’t appeal to you, there are many alternatives. Heavier breeds may fly while they are young but rarely after they fully mature. For breeds that don’t fly high, a tall fence may be adequate. If the chickens are kept in a small yard, lightweight netting secured over the top of the run should keep them in. A high fence or a netting cover over a breeding pen has the advantage of allowing full-winged breeders better balance for mating, compared to either wing clipping or brailing.
Brailing involves binding one wing with a soft cord or strap, called a brail, so the wing can’t be opened for flight. Brailing is typically used to control a young bird that will eventually grow too heavy to fly, and also works for a show bird when you don’t want to mar its appearance by feather clipping. As with clipping, a wing should not be brailed while blood feathers are emerging.You can easily make a brail using soft cord. Paracord (parachute cord, commonly sold as a craft item) works well for large chickens. A flat shoestring or dressmaker’s twill tape is more suitable for a bantam. How long the cord should be varies with the size of the chicken. Start with about 40 inches for a large breed, 30 inches for a bantam.
Fold the cord in half and tie a knot near the fold, creating a small loop at the end. Tie a second knot about 4-1/2 inches from the first knot for a large breed, 3 inches away for a bantam. Again, the exact distance between the knots will depend on the size of the bird’s wing.
Slip the wrist of the chicken’s wing between the two knots. The cord should be loose enough to easily slip over the wing but tight enough to hold the wing closed. Adjust the second knot as necessary to achieve a proper fit. When the fit is right, apply the cord by slipping it between the thumb (alula) feathers to help keep it in place.
With brail’s end loop on the outside of the wing, and the two loose ends under the wing, wrap both loose ends around the top of the wing. Slip both ends through the loop and tie them in a half-hitch knot.
The brail should be just tight enough to keep the wing from opening, but not so tight as to restrict circulation or cut into the wing. To determine tightness, slide two fingers under the brail (one finger for a bantam). If the fit feels snug, but the fingers slide in easily, the brail is just right. If the fingers do not slide in easily, the brail is too tight.
Another test is to gently bounce the chicken up and down in your hands until it flutters its wings. If the bird can lift the brailed wing or the brail slips, it’s too loose. When the fit is right, cut off excess dangling loose ends, leaving just enough to retie the brail if you plan to reuse it.
The first time a chicken has been brailed, it will likely try to remove the brail, and it may stumble when it tries to flap its wings. But within a short time, the bird will get used to having its wing bound and ignore the brail.
To let the bird exercise its wing muscles, and so the binding doesn’t get too tight and affect the bird’s circulation, remove the brail periodically. A good way to give the brailed wing a rest is to switch the brail from one wing to the other once a week. Because brailing is time-consuming and requires careful attention to avoid injury, it should be used only as a temporary measure instead of clipping chicken wings.
Alternatives to Clipping Chicken Wings: How to Make a Brail
In addition to clipping chicken wings, crest trimming is also sometimes required for certain breeds of chickens. Houdan, Polish, Sultan, Silkies and other crested breeds are sometimes selectively bred for such exaggerated topknot feathers that some individuals can’t see well enough to peck the ground or effectively navigate the coop and yard without running into things. If you’re raising Silkie chickens, you’ll notice that a heavily crested cock with feathers covering his eyes may have trouble catching hens for mating. Any chicken that can’t see well enough to avoid bullying from flock mates will become nervous and jumpy.
If your chickens are not being groomed for exhibition, a quick fix is to clip the crest feathers that are blocking the bird’s vision. If the bird has muffs that are contributing to the problem, they also may need to be clipped back. Avoid trimming newly emerging and blood-filled crest or muff feathers until they are fully formed.
Use a pair of ball point pet grooming shears to minimize the possibility of stabbing the chicken in the face or eye. Having a helper to hold the chicken still is also beneficial.
Avoid pointing the shears directly toward the chicken’s head or face. A good way to prevent injury is to grasp the feathers to be clipped between the index finger and middle finger of whichever hand is not holding the scissors, and clip the parts of the feathers that stick out. Clip a little at a time until the chicken has a clear line of vision.
As with any trim, the feathers will grow back after the next molt and may need to be re-trimmed. On the other hand, a young chicken with crest feathers that develop fast enough to impair the bird’s vision may not need a retrim after the rest of the bird’s body catches up with its glorious crest.
If your crested chicken is being groomed for exhibition, a feather trim is obviously out. You might instead pluck a few individual feathers from around the eyes to help improve its vision.
An alternative is to tie the crest feathers loosely with a pony tail hair band or similar tie. As with a human’s pony tail, even a loosely tied crest may eventually begin to stretch the skin and irritate the bird. Remove the band approximately every two weeks to give the head a rest, and remove it at least two weeks before the bird is scheduled to be shown, so the crest feathers have time to properly reorient.
If your crested birds are breeders, the best long-term solution is to avoid breeding those with outsize crests that interfere with normal chicken activities. Otherwise, you’ll just be perpetuating the problem, and what’s the point of having beautifully crested birds only to end up trimming or tying their gorgeous crest feathers?
Do you have any suggestions or techniques that you successfully use for clipping chicken wings, vents, or crests? We’d love it if you leave a comment here and share them with us!
Originally published in the April/May 2015 issue of Backyard Poultry magazine and regularly vetted for accuracy.