Chickens are great. They like to lay eggs, make comforting clucking noises, scritch in dirt, and, occasionally, fly about a bit.
If you own chickens and keep them free range, it is usually only the latter of these characteristics which can present a problem. You want eggs: you get hens, you build henhouse, you provide feed, and the bastards want to fly away! 'No bloody chance', I hear you say, 'I want those damn eggs!'.
The humane way to stop your precious hens departing your lovingly crafted henhome (eglu, if you're rich) is to clip their wings. This may sound harsh, akin to docking lambs' tails (when I was small, I used to think clipping wings meant using a paperclip to attach the wings to the bird's body - but that's another node...), however, done correctly, clipping your birds' wings causes them no more than a little inconvenience, and saves you no end of trouble. Clipping the wings involves removing the tips of the primary (flight) feathers from one of the hen's wings, so that taking off to fly becomes an unbalanced affair, in which case the lazy bird just decides to stay in your loving hen home.
So... to clip your bird's wings, you'll need:
- sharp, but round-nosed scissors: it is ridiculously easy to stab the bird with the end of the scissors, and having a dead bird kind of defeats the purpose of owning one in the first place...
- an old towel
- a pair of pliers
- your local vet's phone number
- some kind of lint dressing, or non-shredding paper tissue
- if this is your first time, a handy assistant who is not scared of birds
First you need to catch the bird which needs its wing clipping. This usually needs doing after every moult, although less frequently for older birds as their feathers grow back less quickly. Catch a chicken by grabbing it by its legs and feet. Snatching at it, or trying to pick it up by neck/wing/tail feathers is not going to impress the bird, who will simply run away from you rather quickly and leave you looking somewhat foolish. She will also probably lay less if you do this: picking her up by the legs is far more agreeable for all parties concerned. When you have the hen by the legs, support the body from underneath the breast with the palm of your hand and intersperse your fingers with her legs to stop her wriggling. Get your amiable assistant to wrap the towel around the hen to stop her scratching you with her toes: leave one wing free. Make coo-cooing noises to relax her. Have you got all your equipment handy, and is it sterile? Yes? Then you are ready to begin.
You now need to spread the free wing out to display all the feathers. If the wing has been clipped before, have a quick look for old clipped feather shafts which can have a harder time coming free than regular feather shafts. Remove any you find. Now get your handy friend to turn the chicken backwards, supporting the head and neck, so when you spread the wing you are looking at the underside and can see the feather shafts clearly. The feathers you want to cut are the primary feathers - the longest ones towards the front of the wing. These are often a different colour to the rest of the wing, and are hidden when the wing is tucked so you will spot them quite easily. Check these feathers for new growth feathers - the ones with blood in the feather shaft. Do not cut these feathers. Cutting 'blood' feathers is a jolly bad idea indeed: the shaft acts like a siphon and draws blood out of the bird, and chickens don't have much blood in the first place. Chopping off a new feather in this way will probably kill your hen. The feathers without blood are like hair and fingernails - dead, and therefore fine to cut. You want to use your sharp scissors to snip away a length of these - for most chickens up to about 6cm, to bring them in line with the rest of the wing. Keep making cooing noises as you do all of this to sympathise with your hen, and apologise for the inconvenience you are causing. Once done, move the scissors to a safe distance and gently release the hen from the towel. She will give an indignant cluck, ruffle her feathers and skip back to the rest of the gaggle. Congratulations! She will now be much less likely to jump the fence!
If you have the misfortune to cut a blood feather, you must put squeamishness aside for a moment, and apply avian first aid. You will know you have cut a blood feather by the large amount of blood that you have suddenly been covered in. Act fast. Use the pliers to pull out the shaft of the blood feather you have accidentally cut (handy friend must be holding the bird fast at this moment. Hen will be in pain), and make sure you pull in the direction in which the feather grows, so as not to worsen the wound. Throw a handful of cornflour towards the wound and grab your lint or tissue, apply to the wing with mild pressure. If the bleeding does not stop soon, CALL A VET as your gentle hen may be dying. If you are too squeamish to pull the cut feather out, you will kill your hen, and so you should probably get a professional to clip your bird's wings.
Some prolific escapees may need both wings clipped, but be aware that restricting the ability of the bird to fly to that extent can also restrict its ability to escape from predators - the evil fox loves to feast upon clipped hens. In addition to clipping the wings of your birds, you can encourage them to stay and lay in your vicinity by providing a well cared for henhouse which is cleaned out regularly, plenty of scratching and dustbathing space, plenty of space within your fences, and adequate feed. All this will ensure you have happy hens and a plentiful supply of eggs. Yum!
Note: I wrote this for curiosity value. If you want to clip your own birds' wings, get a professional to show you how to do it safely first.