12th May 2023 - Dr Andrew Kelly, Director

The wonder of bird migration

Saturday 12th May is World Migratory Bird Day, which celebrates the migration of hundreds of millions of birds across the globe. Recently, I was fortunate enough to witness a visible bird migration day at Dundalk Bay on the east coast of Ireland.

Hundreds of swallows, dozens of house martins, the first swift of the year, all heading north along the coast towards breeding locations inherited from their parents.

Willow warblers, sedge warblers and whitethroats newly arrived from west Africa announced their arrival in a cacophony of song. A bar-tailed godwit, one of the most travelled of migratory birds was feeding on the mudflats while the unmistakable seven-whistle call of the whimbrel marking their migration from west Africa north along the coasts of UK and Ireland on their way to their breeding grounds in Iceland and Scandinavia. Just recently, in March and April, tens of thousands of ducks, geese and swans started migrating to their arctic breeding grounds from the UK and Ireland where they spend the winter. The wonders of bird migration.

Pinioning – a cruel and painful mutilation

But spare a thought for the thousands of birds, such as flamingos, storks and cranes kept in zoos and wildlife parks throughout the UK and across the world, species for which migration would be a normal behaviour but which are prevented from doing so by pinioning.

The process of pinioning involves the cutting of one wing at the carpel joint, without anaesthetic or pain relief when just a few days old, thereby removing the basis from which the primary feathers grow. This makes the bird permanently incapable of flight

This mutilation, because that is what pinioning is, a mutilation, prevents these birds from flying - a normal and basic behaviour for most birds. These birds are permanently unable to fly and will never be released to the wild. It is illegal to pinion farmed birds’ wings but the zoo industry has been carrying out this cruel and painful practice for decades with impunity. We reported last year how 25 flamingos and a pintail duck were sadly killed at Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington by a fox which broke into their enclosure - the birds were helpless and could not escape because they had been pinioned.

Why do zoos mutilate birds’ wings?

Zoos and wetland centres have tried to justify these mutilations by claiming it is necessary for a number of reasons. Firstly, zoos claim that pinioning is necessary for conservation reasons – that the welfare issues are outweighed by the conservation benefits of breeding these birds in captivity.

This doesn’t stack up for a number of reasons including the reality that neither the birds nor their progeny are likely to be released to the wild and also the vast majority of species that are mutilated in zoos are not even endangered in the wild.

Another common excuse given by zoos and other captive facilities, such as wetland centres, is that wing amputations are in the birds’ welfare interests, allowing large birds to be kept in large, open enclosures. The idea that cutting off part of a birds’ wing is somehow good for the birds is, of course, ludicrous. Another common excuse is that it is against the law to allow non-native species to escape into the wild under the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981), but zoos do not apply this argument to mammals or reptiles, just birds so this argument can be dismissed.

The reality is that birds such as flamingos, storks and cranes, ducks, geese and swans are pinioned so that they can be easily displayed to the public – in other words for entertainment.

In no other circumstances would an unnecessary mutilation of an animal be allowed for entertainment purposes. The British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums (BIAZA) has described pinioning as a “routine management practice” – in other words they do it because they have always done it.

What does the law say?

Sadly, conservation, welfare, legal requirements, entertainment and tradition have all been used as excuses to continue to deny many birds that most basic of behaviours that most birds enjoy – flight. As a result of extensive lobbying by the zoo industry following the introduction of the Animal Welfare Act 2006 in England and Wales, pinioning was included in the Mutilations (Permitted Procedures) (England) Regulations 2007. These mutilations are therefore legal and thousands of birds continue to have part of their wings cut off in the name of human entertainment.

Pinioning – one of the zoo industry’s dirty secrets

The zoo industry doesn’t want visitors to know that they routinely mutilate the birds in zoos or wildfowl captive facilities – because they know that the majority of people would be horrified that birds are routinely mutilated. Despite extensive lobbying to allow pinioning to continue legally, the zoo industry did not call on the public to support their calls – I wonder why? Even now, the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust contains no information on pinioning, it simply does not mention it. Searching for ‘pinioning’ on their website yields no results. What have they got to hide?

What would Freedom for Animals like to see happen?

Freedom for Animals believes that pinioning should be prohibited. We will continue to campaign for a ban on pinioning until no bird is subjected to this cruel, painful and unnecessary practice. Visit our Fight for Flight page for more information.

What can you do to help?

Read our report Mutilated for your viewing pleasure – pinioning birds in English zoos

Don’t visit zoos, safari parks or wetland centres

Order our fight for flight leaflet and hold a protest or information stall calling for this to be banned

Donate to help further the campaign to finally ban this horrific practice

- 12th May 2023