Replacing Mowglie's Clipped Flight Feathers

Robert holding Mowglie,  his new four and a half month old baby blue and gold macaw, up to the sky.

You want your bird to fly; your new baby arrives clipped. There is a temporary solution until the cut feathers are naturally replaced. Have you thought of imping? A long time successful procedure with hawks and falcons is being tried with success on parrots.

The procedure is called "imping" (from the Old English word "impian" which means "to implant or to graft") and has been used often in falconry and avian rescue facilities. This method requires molted donor feathers from other birds to be splinted to the remaining feather shaft.

Most people know that birds molt once a year, and at most, it will only take a year for all the feathers on the body to be replaced by new feathers. Which begs the question, "why would anyone want to do this?"

Hartman Aviary promotes the complete development of a parrot. Without full flight abilities these babies would never be safe to play with each other and explore this large cage. One mistake and a clipped baby might have a devastating experience. Babies at Hartman Aviary begin wearing training harnesses as soon as their feathers open.

In the wild, birds literally rely on their flight abilities to keep them alive. They have incredibly strong beaks and razor sharp talons, but their primary defense is to fly away--clearly impossible with broken flight feathers. Flight feathers of wild birds break from predator attacks and accidents with cars and electric wires. When this happens, wildlife rehab facilities either replace the missing feathers or keep the bird in captivity until he is again fully flighted. After 30 days in a captive environment a wild bird is no longer safely releasable without a great deal of physical therapy to replace muscle mass and cardiovascular potential.

So it makes perfect sense for birds living in their natural habitats. But why would a pet parrot need a procedure like this? Stephen Hartman of The Parrot University explains. "As parrot owners learn about the importance of flight, especially in juvenile parrots, they realize that having a parrot's wings clipped is not only completely unnecessary, but can also be detrimental to the mental and physical health of their life-long pet." In fact, research has shown that clipping the flight feathers of a juvenile will inhibit his ability to fly now and the rest of his life, but eliminates his natural ability to 'Think on the Wing'.

Often parrots accompany their owners to the annual Bonfire at Hartman Aviary. This Blue and Gold is having a great time because his companion is always Thinking Outside of the Cage. To understand this, you need to realize that a young parrot's brain develops rapidly and he will have programmed/learned about 90% of all the information he will acquire in his lifetime before he is one year old. For parrots, learning to fly well is, above all, the most complicated and important task a parrot can master. Flying promotes higher intelligence, self-confidence, self-esteem and ultimately makes a more social long-term companion. Flighted parrots are healthier, more active, more coordinated, and have much better vision. Parrots less than one year old have developing brains that depend on flight to be able to exercise, build strong bones, 'retreat and approach' and 'freely explore their environment' for optimal mental and physical development.

For reference, humans take significantly longer to develop and reach this important 90% stage at about 6 years. During this early critical brain development period for parrots and humans there are hundreds of 'sensitive stages' that require appropriate physical and mental life experience to program the brain. Most of the sensitive periods require prior sensitive periods to have been properly programmed for optimal development.

Therefore, the most critical candidates for imping would be baby parrots who have not developed proper feathers due to medical reasons, have broken primary flight feathers or have been clipped by a breeder or veterinarian.

The Parrot University is frequently contacted for advice regarding the supportive 'life experience' care necessary to insure babies receive appropriate stimulus for complete mental and physical development. Without flight, a young parrot requires all the same types of rehabilitative support a human child, who cannot walk, requires to develop to their to their full mental and physical adult potential.

After 25 years of captive breeding and working in the wild environment of the Scarlet Macaw Steve Hartman has developed a keen awareness of the environment necessary to properly raise a happy and healthy baby parrot to become a  happy and healthy successful adult parrot. The issue of flight has recently become a hot topic. During the last 30 years that parrots have been kept as pets, most of the research was spent dealing with and learning husbandry issues; captive breeding, proper nutrition, basic behavior management, caging and other concerns comprised the primary interest of avicultural professionals. Having successfully navigated though all those situations, researchers, scientists, trainers and reputable breeders have turned their attention to not just keeping pet parrots healthy, but finding out what makes them flourish in their domestic environments. They have discovered that while foraging toys, mentally stimulating activities, proper socialization and training are key factors in this goal, no single activity is more important than flight for the mental and physical health, and contentment of the adult parrot.

It is for this reason that The Parrot University has developed the imping process for parrots. Imping a set of primary feathers back onto a clipped parrot can be completed in about 3 hours. Young birds who are ready to fly, or have only been clipped for a couple of months, will be taking short flights the next day, and as their muscle and respiratory system rebuilds, can become good flyers in a week or two.

In spring of 2010 Robert called Steve Hartman to explore feather replacements for his newly arrived clipped baby blue and gold macaw, Mowgli.

Waiting impatiently for your new baby to be old enough to come home provides lots of time to get excited and anticipate a future relationship with possibly the most unique companion imaginable. Most of Robert's thoughts involved raising his baby to be smart and independent. To be able to work with Mowgli, train him to be confident, well behaved, and have the run of the house was constantly on his mind. Outside he imagined Mowgli accompanying him on walks and eventual free flight activities as she matured enough to be a responsible aviator.

Robert examines Mowgliee's primary feathers to determine how many damaged feathers will need to be replaced.

New pet bird owners are generally at the mercy of their breeder to provide correct information to properly raise a baby. When the breeder recommended clipping Mowgli, Robert, a novice owner, reluctantly gave in and agreed with the breeders reasoning. With free flight a strong possibility in Mowgli's life Robert had already contacted Neena McNulty for flight training guidance. When Neena heard Mowgli's wings were no longer useful she reeducated Robert to the importance of full flight and promptly suggested contacting Steve Hartman at The Parrot University to discuss replacing all of the flight feathers as soon as possible.

IMPING

The process is simple but requires expertise in choosing the correct feathers and properly reconnecting the feathers. Do not attempt this procedure without training.

Look closely and you can see 5 macaws within a few feet of each other. Notice all the primary feathers distinctly separated as each one does a specific job helping to steer through this chaos. First step: Collecting the proper feathers. Each flight feather performs a slightly different job and is shaped slightly different. The muscle controls and aerodynamics for each feather must work together for easy, controlled flight. Improper replacements can cause muscle strain and uncoordinated flight. Proper selection and orientation is especially important when extended periods of free flight are the objective.

Most parrots have between 10 and 12 primary feathers on the distal part of each wing. The numbering of the feathers starts in the middle of the wing and goes outward. The starting point is approximately where a human elbow would be at the bend of the wing. Most clipped parrots are missing 7-8 feathers so the numbers we replace are usually #3 - #12.

Each primary feather has a unique shape and function so finding the correct replacement feathers is very important. Hartman Aviary saves many of the molted feathers from their flock so they have access to thousands of feathers when needed.

Not all feathers are created equally. Some birds will normally have higher quality feathers. Feathers from a baby will always be low quality because they are being built at the same time as muscle and bones, and should never be used as donors. Other birds may have poor nutrition, compromised health, or age issues. Still others will have special anomalies like thin ridges along the shaft or unusual oval shape that could allow them to break easily.

Several feathers for each position are chosen and placed in a progressive row on the table. After several are chosen for each position Steve will choose 3 or 4 of each based on quality, size and species.

Three or four replacements for each feather are chosen. Each will have a slightly different overall length and shape to the shaft. Alternate feathers will be used when the first choice accidently breaks or is a poor match for the shaft on the bird.

The best donor feathers are selected by matching the size (length and width) to the patient, matching the donor feathers to each other, and the overall quality of each donor feather.

Feathers are easily inventoried by sticking them in the small holes in the edge of a strip of cardboard.

By placing all of the acceptable feathers into cardboard holders it is easier to judge size and quality and keep them from getting mixed up. The donor feathers are laid out in order and taped down to the counter top so they will not be accidently blown away with a wing beat.

Internal 'imping splints' used to structurally connect the donor feather to the stub must be flexible and able to be tailored to fit exactly into both the feather stub and the donor replacement feather. Many options can meet these needs. The bamboo at Hartman Aviary is great entertainment for parrots to swing on and chew up. Last year's dried canes also make great imping splints. Hartman Aviary has an extensive collection of plants and found one-year-old bamboo has the necessary characteristics. Regardless of what material is chosen for the imping splint, perform test trials with real feathers, splints and glue several days prior to the procedure to ensure your materials will hold up. Do not do the test on the bird.

Internal splints are used because the feather shaft design lends itself to this technique. An external splint would likely be picked off during routine preening and would impede the fine rotational movements of the feathers during flight. The internal imping splint is contained completely within the feather and is shed later with the feather during the normal molting schedule. Twice as many splints as needed are prepared and placed according to size into a block of Styrofoam for quick access.

Three methods are available to restrain the patient. Very young birds that are easy to handle can be held by any competent assistant. Slightly older birds that are well behaved for the owner may be held by the owner. Birds that are not well behaved may need to be anesthetized for their own safety and to allow the technician to install the donor feathers correctly.

The third feather from the tip of the wing is generally the longest and is the one we start with. Once this feather is in place it is easy to visually ensure the other feathers are the correct length.

Mowglie,  just 4 months old, still trusts that dad is always helping and not hurting so she allows Steve to work on her wing as Robert reassures her that all is well. At 6 months old Kayla, a Red Fronted Macaw has already mentally developed to a stage where she is starting to question mom's laws. So, Patsy Swartz restrains Kayla so mom is not involved in this questionable activity.
We replace the third flight feather from the wing tip, which is the longest primary feather, so we can make the relative length of other feathers correct.

Some feather shafts are too brittle and will crack along the shaft when cut with scissors or razor blade. The feather shaft is similar to plastic and cuts easily with a cauterizer. Once it is determined where the joint connecting the feather stub and donor feather will be made, they are trimmed to the proper length. Trimming can be accomplished with scissors, razor blade or electric cauterizer. Some feathers are brittle and easily split by cutting and will require the cauterizer or heated razor blade to melt through the shaft.

Small drill bits are used to remove the pith from the feather. We use two bits, 7/64th and 1/16th inch. Both are needed even for the larger feathers.

Choosing the proper size splint that will work for both the stub and the donor is critical. You will probably need at least 40 splints to supply the 16 that will be used. You will be inserting the splint about 1" (2.5 cm) into each section.

Wrap masking tape around the shaft of a 1/16ht drill bit to assist in removing the pith from the donor feather. Feather shaft and donor feathers are splinted together with a, 2 inch long, tapered bamboo imping splint.

Self sticking sandpaper made for sanding machines will stick to a counter top.  This technique makes quick work of shaping imping splints for each feather.Razor blades and sandpaper are used to carve the splint to fit into the shafts. Sand paper made for eclectic sanders have a sticky back that makes them easy to stick to your work area.

In a few cases the shafts will be circular and exactly the same diameter on both pieces requiring very little shaping. On other feathers, it may be necessary to have a flattened oval conformation on one end and a different configuration on the other. Proper orientation of the feather is critical so you must consider the finished confirmation of the feather as you tailor each end of the splint.

The handy little brush that comes with Krazy Glue makes it easy to glue the imping splint into the donor feather shaft.Assemble the pieces without glue to make sure both length and orientation are correct.

Glue the splint into the donor feather first. The further from the wing the more change there will be to the conformation of the feather shaft. This makes it more difficult to ensure the splint is placed properly into the donor shaft. Closer to the wing the shaft is larger and usually round making placement easier.

Ready for Flight

Babies clipped after fledging for at least two weeks may be ready for flight minutes after all the feathers are attached because their brain already understands the need for flight. During this rapid stage of juvenile physical development the wing muscles will not develop the same as a bird with full flight. There is no resistance when the bird practices flapping and the actual weight of the wings are much less. Since the portion of the wing that is removed is farthest from the body the perceived loss of weight of the wing is magnified. Consequently there will be much less muscle development, and as a result the bones will not be as strong. Throughout the physical development stage bone density is increased when muscles pull on the bones during exercise. At 6 months Kayla's feathers were replaced just in time to regain muscle mass and maximum bone density.

This 6 month old Blue Throat Macaw has blue feathers donated from Blue and Gold and Military Macaws. For most the last 3 months Kayla's wings were very light, it will take a few days to get used to the extra weight. Babies clipped before fledging, or within a few days of starting to fly, will not have any idea what advantages flight has for them and will not be able to fly right away. Their brain and body will need to develop mental and physical skills in the same way they would during the normal flight learning period. A 6 month old macaw that never learned to fly will be at the same flight development stage it would have been at 3 months. Consequently all innate/learned skills that require flight will begin developing as the bird learns to fly.

The adjustment period for birds that never had their wings clipped until becoming an adult will be brief. They will already understand their physical limits and are less likely to strain muscles trying to fly too far.

Physically this baby Blue and Gold baby does not know how to fly, but in the month between clipping and imping his brain has advanced to where he knows he should be able to fly. He is seconds away from his first 3 foot flight. For safety Mowglie is wearing The Aviator Harness and attached to The Aviator Flight Line.The longer the time that elapses between clipping and imping, the greater the chance that a bird will have difficulty trusting flight, and may never try to develop flight skills. Larger parrots like macaws and cockatoos are most likely to never attempt flying after clipping. Small parrots are more aerodynamic and will usually develop reasonably flight skills. The reason is simple. A parrots' brain thinks of traveling by flight in the same way a humans thinks of traveling by walking. Walking to a parrot is the same as crawling to a human. Every time a clipped parrots' brain tells it to fly, and can't, is a negative experience and will develop mental and physical ways of dealing with this disability. All of these flight alternatives are inconsistent with their natural inclinations and may become fixed behaviors. This is especially true for young birds. A more significant reason for avoiding flight is the traumatic events that follow every flight attempt. Many humans see a clipped bird gliding to the floor after losing his balance or attempting flight as a success. Even though the parrot looks like he is becoming used to this type of landing, he is actually recording the event as a dangerous and a failed attempt to achieve a task his brain tells him is important. Primary feathers are the steering wheel for a parrot and gliding to the floor without being able to steer is the same as stopping a car at a busy downtown intersection without using the steering wheel. Eventually the bird will developing 'compensating networks' and post traumatic stress issues that will cause him to avoid this dangerous situation in the future.

Since Mowglie already knows the 'come' command she starts walking towards Robert as soon as she is called. Because all birds brains tell them to fly when possible, she immediately tries to fly as she runs, and surprisingly takes her first 3 foot flight. Since Mowglie already knows the 'come' command she starts walking towards Robert as soon as she is called. Because all birds brains tell them to fly when possible, she immediately tries to fly as she runs, and surprisingly takes her first 3 foot flight.

DO NOT ALLOW BIRDS TO FLY more than a couple of wing beats the first day. Within a few weeks of wing clipping a parrot has significantly compromised muscle mass and respiratory potential. Their brain may say fly, but their muscles may be screaming in pain a few minutes later. During the first day the bird will stretch out his muscles as he exercises his wings and his brain will begin to understand the increased resistance as the wings start to lift up his whole body. Within three days the muscles and brain will have communicated enough so the bird will begin to understand his physical limits and be less likely to over exert himself.

With hundreds of feathers to choose from the best balanced set that showed up quickly were Green Wing Macaw primaries. I guess that makes this bird a human manufactured hybrid macaw. Mowgli had her wings clipped by the breeder the first day she started to fly so she has virtually no flight experience. Robert's expectation from the start was that Mowgli would spend significant time 'Outside of the Cage' as a flighted parrot and had already begun harness training with The Aviator Bird Harness. Within a few minutes of having her new wings Robert put on her harness and attached the lead to The Aviator Flight Line. Even though she had never flown before, her brain had developed to the point where flight was expected in certain situations. When Robert placed her on the ground and stepped back a few feet she played the perfect baby bird role and flew three wing beats to his outstretched hand held a few feet off the ground. Within 15 minutes Mowgli was already learning that these big long wings were good for animation and balance.