My 17 year old daughter, the youngest of seven, periodically gives me lessons on clipping chicken wings. She learned it years ago from her older brother, who learned it from some unknown source back before we had the internet. Every once in a while, when one of my flocks seems to get some odd migratory signal, they take off randomly over their fences, reminding us that we need to clip their flight feathers again. We got such a reminder last Saturday.
I had just run 10 miles on that sub-freezing morning. My engineer and I were problem solving the electrical outlet down by the chicken coop so that the chicken water heating stone would function. I had changed into insulated overalls and a coat, but my engineer was still in his running gear from a relay race. He had my hair dryer in hand to verify electricity, while I would be resetting the red GFI switch at his instruction.
As we approached the large, empty pen (the chickens being confined to the PVC hoop house pen), he asked why I hadn’t been letting them out lately. It seemed like the hawks had given up hunting there, plus, there were plenty of autumn leaves piled in the pen for them to enjoy. I replied that a couple of the chickens had flown over the four foot fence last time. I was thinking I needed to clip their wings. I was concerned they would try again. My engineer does seem to have a second sense about animals most of the time, so when he suggested that the poultry had probably just gotten spooked once, and that I was giving their bird brains too much credit for memory capacity, I listened and opened the gate.
The flock proceeded happily to the leaf piles, looking very content. Foraging appeared to be foremost on their minds. So, my engineer began work on the outlet. The first thing that needed to be done was to turn on the hair dryer.
I do not know what chickens think a hair dryer is. Whatever it is, it must be terrifying. Chickens flew everywhere, in every direction. One poor biddy actually smacked into the taller fence just on the other side of the fence attempting to pen her in. She landed in the foot of space between the two fences and I wondered if she would get up. A few birds went straight into the air, and one scampered over the top of the hoop coop. Yet another went the other way into our front yard.
We were able to herd a couple of them right back in through the gate to the larger open pen, then my engineer asked me to herd those in the open pen back into the hoop covered area before any further search and rescue. That went amazingly smoothly for most of them. I clapped and about ¾ of them ran for safe territory like they were just waiting for instructions.
Unfortunately, a couple of them took a detour to the left. I surged that direction strategically, only to find my feet suddenly trapped in a heap of tree roots from a huge locust we dug up months ago. As my feet sunk into the woody barrier, my left thigh smacked into a huge root near the top of the pile. A violent whisper of pain escaped my lips, followed by a low groan of how much more that was going to hurt soon.
Meanwhile, the hens ran through the thick forest of dried sunflower stalks. As they headed for that imaginary opening in the other side of the hoop pen, that has NEVER been there, I tried to stomp down stiff, scratchy stems in order to catch them before they broke their necks straining against fencing. It’s like in their minds they keep hitting an invisible wall, saying “Who put that there?” Bird brains.
Working with their self-imposed mania, we prodded them this way and that, until we only had one hen left to catch. One had gone into the neighbor’s yard, last seen heading toward the back, where there is a large horse pasture surrounded by hot wire fencing. She was no where in sight now.
As I went to the front door to knock and ask permission to access their backyard, my engineer was walking up their side yard. The wife of the family answered the door, while the husband of the family came out a back door to check on the unusual activity around the side of his house. One can hardly blame the neighbor for wondering why a man in tights, brandishing a hair dryer, was hunting chickens next to his house.
Finally, everyone else gave up on the search. I hobbled up and down the street looking for my chicken, only to find her hidden under that same neighbor’s long utility trailer in the shadows of the tires. This was the same hen that had plastered herself against the fence, but she was pecking away now like she had always lived under the trailer.
Suffice to say, the chickens were not going to go out to play again until we clipped some flight feathers. Three days later, when I could walk again without pain, my daughter reviewed with me the safe way to clip their wings. She would catch each chicken, using her special ninja-yoga skills. She is advanced enough in chicken wing clipping that she can hold the chicken in the crook of one arm, fan out the wing with the same hand, and use the scissors with the other hand. She did put down the scissors to catch them. I was having a hard time holding and cutting at the same time, but after watching the video of her doing it, I think I can see better how she did it.
Sometimes the chickens act like they are going to die when they are caught. They are chickens, and really, they do have legitimate concerns. But some gentle covering of their faces and stroking of the feathers helps them calm down. It is best if they are both calm and held securely so that cutting is always under control. Sharp scissors are needed to do the job right.
We decided to trim the first 10 long feathers on only one wing this time around. Trimming only one wing is supposed to limit their flight more than cutting both because it creates imbalance. Imbalance had always seemed cruel to me before. Now, keeping them grounded was most important. She showed me the basics again, like the distance out from the smaller feathers to make the cut. She says that in all the years she has clipped them, she has only accidentally made one bleed once. It was not an emergency, but that is why she cuts about an inch away from the other set of feathers.
Each chicken was let out after treatment. Partly this helps us keep track of which ones have been processed. It also diminishes the commotion when trying to catch the next
victim patient. This time in the outer yard, they showed no inclination to fly. They puttered around in the leaves while the doggie held her position in the middle of the chicken yard.
When we were all done, the silly chickens let me herd them all back into the pen like there had never been any fuss. I really do love my chickens and have no intention of holding a grudge against them. I do think they’ve forgotten the whole affair anyway.