How To Clip Chicken Wings

Clipping the flight wings on your backyard flock is a harmless and helpful domestic trick that is easy to learn. Clipping a chicken’s wings doesn’t hurt them and can be done at any age.

chicken standing on coop fence
The last thing you want is a chicken that thinks it’s an escape artist! Loozrboy / Flickr (Creative Commons)

Clipping a chicken’s wings is usually unnecessary until your chickens become adventuresome enough to try to escape their enclosure. Wing feathers grow back, like fingernails, so you have to make time to trim them regularly.

When And Why Do You Clip Wings?

The first time I raised chickens I kept them in a cardboard box in the basement, under a heat lamp. Between about four and five weeks I came downstairs to find chicken droppings on the floor. I was confused because I didn’t think they were old enough to fly out of the box yet.

One day I caught them in the act and figured out what was going on. However, I wasn’t informed about clipping wings, so I used duct tape and more cardboard to build higher and higher walls for them. Needless to say, clipping their wings would have been a more efficient solution.

Clipping Wings To Contain Chickens

Other situations where clipping a chicken’s wings may be useful include keeping chickens in an open-topped chicken run or preventing them from getting on top of structures like your back porch.

The main reason to clip a chicken’s wings is to help contain them in an enclosure. Chickens start to flutter their wings and jump onto things at just a few weeks old. Clipping their wings, however, won’t help until they start to get their adult plumage, at about five weeks. Even then, you can’t clip feathers until they have stopped growing because growing feathers contain blood.

When To Clip Wings

Before clipping your chickens’ wings, check the color of the quill – it should be white or clear. A dark quill means that the feather is still growing and the quill is full of blood, nourishing its growth.

These still-growing feathers are called pin feathers or blood feathers. Be particularly attentive when clipping your chickens right after molting, when many of their feathers are growing at once.

Downfalls Of Wing Clipping

The potential drawback of wing clipping is that it may make your chickens slightly more vulnerable to certain predators. However, most nocturnal predators like coyotes, raccoons, and opossums hunt at night when the birds are sleeping and count on the element of surprise.

When attacked in confined spaces like a coop, flight is no protection. Nor does “flight” help in a very large open space with nowhere to escape to, since chickens can’t fly far even with unclipped wings.

On the whole, I find that trimming flight feathers is enormously helpful in managing my chicken flock and doesn’t negatively impact their survival, or other parts of their lives.

Feathers Will Regrow

Feathers regrow after every molt, so clipping their wings is an ongoing task, typically twice a year. The frequency also depends on how many chickens you have and whether they all molt together.

However, chickens are habitual creatures. Once they become used to the idea that they cannot escape their enclosure, they become less likely to try. I usually clip my whole flock when moving them to a new area, and then I only clip their wings again if they start to escape. Likewise, chickens that have their wings clipped young are less likely to be escapees.

The Clipping Technique

Wing clipping is simple. All you need is a sharp pair of scissors, or kitchen shears, and an extra person to make the task easier. It’s possible to do it alone, but if you’re new to the task it’s better to get a helper.

  1. Hold the bird under one arm, or have your assistant firmly hold the bird around the middle, trapping one wing, while leaving the other free.
  2. Gently extend the free wing to its full wing span. The primary flight feathers grow on the last 1/3 of the tip of the wing, and they are significantly longer than the others.
    • They are smooth and glossy, not downy or fluffy.
    • Their shape is narrow and aerodynamic.
  3. The secondary flight feathers have a similar appearance and texture, and grow on the lower 2/3s of the wing, also extending beyond the rest of the feathers.

Techniques differ about whether to cut just the primary flight feathers or both the primary and secondary feathers. The technique you use will depend on how lightweight and athletic your birds are.

A fat laying hen is less likely to need her secondary feathers clipped than a small aggressive rooster who likes to escape. Either way, just cut the flight feathers of one wing – it unbalances the bird and makes it harder to fly than if you cut both wings.

Using the scissors, cut the primary flight feathers until they are about even with the length of the secondary feathers, so the whole wing is an even semi-circle shape. Or, if you are clipping secondary feathers also, follow the line of the covert feathers.

The biggest mistake people make is not clipping enough of the wing tip. Chicken wings are surprisingly powerful, and even with some of the flight feathers clipped they can still flutter out of a coop or fence.

Clipping more of the wing won’t hurt your bird – they can’t feel it at all. You are not in danger of cutting the actual flesh-and-bone wing, which is quite small and close to the bird’s body.

Once you’ve clipped the wing, you can release the chicken into a new area, or back into its coop, but be sure to keep track of which birds you’ve clipped! After all, catching the chickens is the hardest part of the whole process.

This is a process that is accessible to do without expert guidance, even the first time. The worst thing that can go wrong is that your chickens escape again because their wings weren’t trimmed short enough. Of course, you can find a mentor to help you if you want, or check out helpful YouTube videos like this one.

Written by Lucia Wyss

Lucia Wyss splits her life between town and country. When she's not in Olympia with her garden, she is helping her partner at Hidden River Farms raising pastured pigs and growing organic grain and veggies.

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