How to Clip a Turkey's Feathers...and What to Do if You Mess Up
I LOVE turkeys!
They are super sweet, have wonderful personalities, and are great family birds. Last year, we raised broad breasted turkeys, and since we didn't really know the difference between heritage breeds and broad breasted, we just purchased the first turkeys we came across. I recently wrote an article about why we chose to raise heritage turkeys this year instead.
Heritage turkeys are smaller than broad breasted turkeys, and they are not hybridized for massive meat production like the broad-breasted varieties are. Instead, they retain many of the natural wild turkey characteristics...and this means they can fly! Weren't Mr. V. and I surprised to find them roosting in the branch (well over my head) of a juniper tree in the poultry run one evening! Yep! All five of them were sitting there together on their branch. I didn't have my phone with me, or I would have taken a picture.
As they have gotten larger, they actually began to fly longer distances and higher too! We knew we had to do something or we were going to lose our turkeys over the fence to a predator like a coyote or bobcat, both of which are prevalent in this area. If not a coyote, then most surely to a neighborhood dog!
I had to do some research, although my husband was very confident about how to clip a bird's wings. "It's EASY," he said! I, however, need to ask a lot more questions before doing something like cutting into one of our animals. So, I did. And we decided to go forth and clip.
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Simple Anatomy of a Bird's Wing
It turns out that a bird's wing has three (main) different kinds of feathers. The primary feathers are the longest feathers, and they can turn and twist independently to effect changes in direction. They are also responsible for the thrust needed to move the bird through the air. These are the feathers with the thickest shafts too.
There are also primary covert feathers. These are not as long as the primary feathers, but extend a bit past the smallest secondary feathers. See where Mr. V.'s thumb is in the picture below? (Sorry for the dirty fingernail---he's been busy working outside.) Those are primary covert feathers.
The secondary feathers are the smaller ones above and to the left of his thumb. These are responsible for helping provide lift to the bird as the primary feathers provide the thrust.
So, How Do You Clip a Turkey's Wings?
First off, I want to mention that evidently there's quite a bit of controversy about the whole practice of wing clipping. I didn't realize this until I started reading about it. However, when looking at our situation, including where we live, how close our neighbors are to us, the fact that we knew we'd never find our turkeys if they flew over our two fences, AND we live in an area filled with predators, we decided to get the clipping done. Here is an article about clipping chickens' wings by my friend, Lisa of Murano Chicken Farms, who is a chicken expert---and her directions are very good. I should have just asked her first!
Step 1) Identify the Secondary and Primary Feathers
We did this by spreading out the turkey's wing. It's easy to see the difference between the feathers this way. See the photos: The primary feathers are the longest ones, and the secondaries are the small feathers closer to the bird.
Step 2) Use Good, Clean, Sharp Scissors
Trust me. You do NOT want to use dull or dirty scissors for this task. The shafts are similar to fingernails, at least in how they feel in the cutting, and to me, cutting nails with dull trimmers is HORRIBLE. I chose sanitized, super sharp and strong scissors for this task.
Step 3) Clip the Wings
While one person holds the turkey and also extends the wing, the other person can find the right feathers to clip and quickly get it done. You clip about a half inch below the secondary feathers, in a straight line. You also only have to clip the first few flight feathers. These are located toward the front part of the wing (near where Mr. V.'s thumb is). We probably clipped too many primary feathers, and I'll clip fewer of them next time.
That's all there is to it....IF things go right!
What to Do IF You Make a Mistake
OK. There is no other way to say this: Making a mistake and hurting your bird STINKS. I actually cried. A lot. And I felt bad long afterward. I STILL feel bad.
It turns out that there is such a thing as "blood feathers." These are primary feathers that have a darker shaft, so you can usually tell them apart. If you cut too far up the shaft on these feathers, they will bleed. White Holland turkeys are all white. Their shafts are not darker, so you just have to judge by the distance from the secondary feathers.
Out of the five turkeys' wings we clipped, we had one (this White Holland, below), who didn't have different colored shafts. Two of his blood feathers were cut a bit too high. Luckily, we didn't cut way too high, and although he did bleed just a little, it wasn't much, and it stopped right away. But still.
I dabbed some Tea Tree essential oil on the wound a couple times a day for a two days, and he was fine. Actually, once I got the Tea Tree on him right away, he seemed fine and not stressed. We kept a good eye on him, too. (You can read more about the absolute wonders of Tea Tree Oil here!)
This was my first time clipping a bird's wings, and I have to say that I was a little traumatized when I accidentally cut the blood feathers. I can't tell you how many prayers I said asking for forgiveness. I have since researched this, and it turns out that sometimes you just can't tell exactly where to cut a primary feather because the breeds (as well as individual birds) are all a little different. In the case of this White Holland, I think his primary feather shafts (with the blood) were just a bit longer than the others.
Luckily, this little turkey still loves me. He's not afraid at all. THANK GOODNESS! Now that this happened, I know more about the process, and I'll (hopefully) never make this mistake again!
Last Thoughts About Clipping Turkey Wings
We only clipped one wing on each bird. They look a little lop-sided, but you really can't tell unless you are familiar with clipping wings, I think. When the Toms get older and start doing their mating dance, I'm interested to see how wing clipping looks (if we still have to do it---i.e. if they are still flying) and if it affects them.
At least right now, everyone's happy, and they can't fly into danger any more. I have read that after about 4 to 6 weeks, we will have to do this again, if they start flying. Frankly, I'm hoping they don't start flying again! :-)
Have you ever clipped a bird's wings? Maybe you have some additional advice for us?
I'll tell you what....homesteading and doing things you're not familiar with is certainly a learning experience and takes courage! And that's what life is all about, right?
Hugs & Self-Reliance!
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