Over the years we have been contacted repeatedly by rescuers and lay people, who were caring for corvids such as magpies, jackdaws and crows, and who observed that their foster birds showed difficulties with flying despite appearing otherwise fit and healthy. Some of these birds demonstrated abnormal flight feathers and showed an unusual or even abnormal behaviour not normally expected in wild birds. A closer assessment of the plumage showed quite quickly that these birds had been wing clipped.
What is feather or wing clipping, and why is this being done?
Wing clipping is the process of trimming a bird’s primary wing feathers so that the bird is not fully flight-capable, until the bird moults, sheds the cut feathers and grows new ones. It is a dangerous procedure for someone, who has not been properly trained to clip a bird’s flight feathers, because it can be difficult to tell whether a feather is a newly grown or still-growing “blood” feather. When cut, these sensitive blood feathers can bleed profusely. Injuring a blood feather is painful, distressing and potentially fatal for the bird concerned. Even when done by an experienced person, wing clipping is something we would never recommend. Birds need to fly to strengthen their chest muscles. If their flight is limited by clipping, their muscles won’t develop fully enough to enable adequate lift and speed. Young birds who are clipped never become good fliers even if their flight feathers are left intact in subsequent years. Even worse, there is the potential risk if feathers are being clipped before birds learn to fly that they may never develop balance, agility and normal flight skills and may become psychologically affected for life.
If flight feathers are improperly clipped, birds may get problems regrowing their flight feathers normally. Both wings must have the same number of feathers clipped, and to the same length, for the bird to balance properly, maintain flight control and prevent crashing and injury to the keel bone, beak, and wings. Wing clipped birds often develop psychological and behavioral problems, such as feather-plucking. Because clipping can cause irritation, birds will repeatedly pick at the feathers, which only causes more irritation and can start a vicious cycle.
Who would intentionally mutilate the wings of a bird?
There are usually two main groups of people, who would undertake wing or feather clipping, either by themselves, or by asking a veterinary surgeon to perform the procedure on their behalf. The first group are pet owners, who may use feather or wing clipping as a convenient method to limit or completely eliminate the birds’ ability to fly, which is done mainly to render the bird unable to escape. This means, when a tame appearing bird is being found with clipped wings, then this bird is likely to be an escaped hand raised pet or companion bird. These birds will also often show clear signs of being imprinted and are usually not afraid of humans or of being handled. The second group of people are gamekeepers, who perform wing clipping more or less for similar reasons, but do this obviously in a completely different context and with very different intentions. These birds also show an abnormal behaviour in a variety of ways, such as being lethargic, restless or in a constant state of panic, even when kept in a seemingly safe environment without human contact or interference.
Why would a gamekeeper clip the wings of a magpie or crow?
This is usually done out of convenience to make sure that a decoy bird does not escape easily. A decoy bird, which is also known as a call-bird, is a previously caught target species such as a magpie or crow, who is kept alive in the special decoy compartment of a Larsen trap. Territory holding birds of the target species will see a single call-bird as an intruder and will try to drive this bird away. Decoy birds are used to increase the efficiency of Larsen traps. As the General Licences do not permit to keep decoy birds in Larsen traps that are not in use, gamekeeper often keep their decoy birds in aviaries, and wing clipping, although not allowed, is being used to make sure that these birds will not escape and to make it easier for the gamekeeper to catch and handle these birds when moving them between traps and holding aviaries. In this context it is important to understand that wing clipped and mutilated birds, when retrieved from illegal traps, must not be released, as they are unable to survive in the wild. These birds need long term care and rehabilitation.
What are Larsen traps?
Larsen Traps were designed by a Danish gamekeeper but are now banned in Denmark because of their cruelty. They were introduced to the UK by the Game Conservancy Trust, which are a keen promoter of the game bird shooting industry. The traps are made from wire and wood and have a compartment where a live decoy bird is being kept to take advantage of the corvid species’ territorial and inquisitive behaviour. These traps are usually set in spring or early summer during the breeding season, when these behaviours are strongest. The investigating bird comes down and falls into a cage trap sprung by a collapsing perch and a swing door. When the gamekeeper returns, the caught birds are murdered, whilst the decoy bird is being kept alive and can only watch in horror. This is why these decoy birds often show very severe behavioural abnormalities, as they are psychologically traumatised.
Are Larsen traps cruel?
The Larsen trap has been condemned by many animal welfare experts, including the chief superintendent of the RSPCA, who stated that they were inherently cruel. It is difficult to comprehend that these kind of traps are still legal in the UK, despite very obvious animal welfare concerns. The decoy bird, according to law, is supposed to be fed and watered, but scant regard is being paid to this legal requirement in many cases. That is why decoy birds are often found dead through neglect or starvation, in particular during hot weather periods. Incarceration in itself causes severe stress and a psychological trauma to the wild decoy bird. The capture of adult parent birds during breeding and nesting season causes distress and death to corvid hatchlings and fledglings. Furthermore, confined in this trap, and due to the close proximity to the ground, these birds are often terrorised by predators. The traps are also indiscriminate and may catch other non-target species. It is also known that gamekeepers commonly ‘abuse’ Larsen traps and use illegal bait birds to catch raptors and foxes.
Even when Larsen traps are being used as the questionable law intends, there is no doubt that the so called and so much praised ‘Five Freedoms of Animal Welfare’, as declared and praised by the RSPCA, are not being adhered to.
- Freedom from hunger and thirst: by ready access to fresh water and a diet to maintain full health and vigour.
- Freedom from discomfort: by providing an appropriate environment including shelter and a comfortable resting area.
- Freedom from pain, injury or disease: by prevention through rapid diagnosis and treatment.
- Freedom to express normal behaviour: by providing sufficient space, proper facilities and company of the animal’s own kind.
- Freedom from fear and distress: by ensuring conditions and treatment which avoid mental suffering.
Considering all these factors, it is even more shocking that Larsen traps are not being opposed by a leading UK wildlife conservation organisation such as the RSPB.
It doesn’t come as a surprise that all decoy birds we have encountered so far over the many years we have been involved in wildlife rescue and rehabilitation, have shown severe behavioural problems, which have ranged from being lethargic or in stupor to being restless and in constant distress. Although these findings are not well documented for birds in the available scientific literature, we can see unequivocal parallels to human patients suffering of a Post traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which is more and more being discovered in non-human animals like elephants, apes, cetaceans, dogs and cats.
We do strictly oppose the use of Larsen traps, or any form of trapping, snaring or hunting. In fact, we do oppose all forms of oppression and violence. We are unwilling, directly or indirectly, to take part in violence, to profit from the harm of others, or to willfully ignore oppression. We are refusing to intentionally take away the dignity, bodily integrity, freedom, or the life of another individual, no matter how they may differ from ourselves, be they a fellow human or a fellow animal.
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