To answer the age-old question: yes, chickens can fly. Those who consider chickens to be flightless birds have likely never owned any. Even with four- to five-foot pens, poultry can often escape by simply flying over the top, especially if you have a feisty flock of young pullets or cockerels that like to stretch their wings. When chickens are fully grown and reach their potential adult weight, this becomes less of a problem, although you will still have the occasional gal who feels spry and flies over. Although the choices for shelter and housing are plentiful, it’s still a good idea for any chicken keeper to know how to clip a chicken wing properly.
As someone with a considerable number of chickens, retrieving escapees can be a daunting and time-consuming task. It can also pose a real threat if those chickens are left out in the elements overnight. As much as we would all love to free-range our domestic livestock, sometimes it’s not always possible, especially if you live in an area where predators are vast. Coyotes, bears, and even raccoons are just a few of the animals that can prey on or steal your chicks at a moment’s notice.
Luckily, there are plenty of options for enclosures, such as fenced lots, DIY chicken tractors, and portable poultry netting. When purchasing or building a chicken coop, you should include a proper hiding space under your shelter. Also, adding a mesh covering to your permanent lot can help fight against avian predators, such as hawks, owls, or vultures. But still, for some of us, our best efforts don’t always guarantee our foul’s safety.
Different strategies work for various types of birds, and not all domestic chickens are created equal. Depending on what breed of chicken you have, some are more likely to take flight than others. Breeds such as Bantams, Old English Game, Red Stars, and Ameraucanas are known to be flyers. Some breeds that are less likely to leave the ground are Australorps, Rhode Island Reds, Orpingtons, and Bantam Silkie—the one chicken that is considered genuinely flightless. Other than the latter, any chicken can hop a fence given the right motivation, so it’s a good idea to stay ahead of things by keeping your flock on an annual wing trimming schedule.
Knowing when to clip your chicken’s wings depends on age. Every four to six months may be in order if your chickens are on the younger side, which would include those less than a year old. However, do not cut pullets or cockerels that are still feathering as they may still have an abundant blood supply near the tip of the wing. Only trim mature chickens that are fully feathered and at a minimum of twelve weeks old.
An annual or biannual wing trim is often sufficient if you have an older, established flock. A good time of year to do this is after a hard molt. Every year as the days grow shorter; chickens will begin to lose their feathers. Usually, hens will stop laying eggs during this time, using their nutrient reserves to regrow new feathers, replacing the loss of the old ones. This process can last anywhere from four to twelve weeks, but a typical molt will last approximately seven to eight weeks on average. Feeding your flock a high protein diet through molting, such as scratch with 18 to 20% protein level, can aid in healthy regrowth. These fresh and elongated feathers may give your hens and roosters a further incentive to fly, so giving them a new trim after this time would be optimal. Always make sure that the new feather growth has entirely stopped. Like a feathering pullet, the vein-filled shaft could bleed if cut too early and while still growing. So be mindful of giving your flock plenty of time for recovery and regeneration after molting.
Much like trimming a baby’s nails for the first time, clipping a chicken’s wing may seem a bit scary at first, especially if you are new to the world of domestic poultry. However, just like a human nail bed, you can cut a wing properly without pain, harm, or blood loss. All you need to know is the basic feather structure of a chicken’s wing. Knowing which feathers to trim and which should remain untouched ensures that you won’t cut too high, as to cause harm, or too low, as to allow the chicken the ability to fly still.
When looking at a chicken’s wing, there are only two essential components necessary to familiarize yourself with before attempting to trim the feathers. One being the covert feathers, and the other being the flight feathers. On a cold winter’s night, the covert feathers are what help your boys and girls stay warm. These are the short, rounded feathers located at the very top of your chicken’s wing.
Under those are the secondary and primary flight feathers—the reason behind your chicken’s escape from its enclosure. These are much longer than the covets and traditionally what you would think of when visualizing a typical feather. They are also harder and stronger than the coverts, which tend to be broader and softer. Flight feathers come in two types known as primary and secondary feathers. The primaries are the longest on the wing and usually consist of only ten in total. These feathers are mainly used to propel the chicken through the sky. The secondaries are a bit shorter and located directly behind the primaries. These feathers are what give the birds lift and help sustain them once in the air.
When preparing to clip your chicken’s wing, it is always good if you have an extra pair of hands or a volunteer to help. If doing it on your own, I have personally found the best way to hold a chicken for this procedure is to press down the wings to the torso when catching and gently, but securely, hold the bird close to you under your arm. In some instances, unruly chickens can be held upside down by their feet, making them docile. Although I have seen my grandmother do this a dozen times, I prefer to hold my girls and boys close to my body while trimming their wings. Since my birds are held often, they feel more comfortable and relaxed this way, and so do I.
Once in position, outstretch the wing that you are trimming, spreading out all the feathers. Take a pair of sharp scissors or shears, and cut straight along the flight feathers only, an inch or so, just below the layer of covert feathers. Some poultry owners choose to cut only the primary, but I have found that cutting both the secondary and primary works best for my needs.
It is necessary to clip only one wing during this process, as it will unbalance the chicken. If you cut both sides of flight feathers, the chicken will likely still be able to fly. If you plan to do more than a few birds at a time, it’s always a good tip to trim the same side on each one, such as the left or right only. This will help in alleviating the confusion of possibly clipping both sides by accident. Spoiler alert: it does happen.
In the rare case that you should cut your chicken’s wing too short and bleeding occurs, dip the injured wing into corn starch to help aid in the clotting process and prevent further blood loss. Apply pressure with a clean rag until bleeding subsides. It is always good to remove any injured bird from the rest of the flock until fully healed, preventing further injury.
Raising chickens comes with deep joy and a great responsibility for keeping your flock happy and healthy. To some, clipping a chicken’s wing may seem unnecessary. Depending upon your circumstances, it could be the difference between life and death for some backyard poultry. If you’ve ever lost a bird to a predator, you will do whatever is necessary to keep a safe and thriving flock. Clipping your chicken’s wings is an effective way to prevent them from flying into harm’s way and works as a painless solution for all flighty birds, regardless of size or breed.