past issues of the DVRC Journal
of interest to other wildlife rehabilitators.
A Return To Imping
written and illustrated by Wayne J. Trimm
Editor's Note: Imping, a valuable technique for repairing broken feathers was developed by falconers several thousand years ago. Falconers and raptor rehabilitators still imp damaged feathers, but unlike falconers of old, the traditional method, explained by Wayne, of binding feather shafts together with steel pins and vinegar has been abandoned in favor of fast-setting superglue and more pliable pins made of bamboo or the shafts of slightly smaller feathers.
Almost all of my life I have worked with birds of prey in falconry, education and as models for photography and wildlife art. In my years of training eagles and hawks for falconry, I have often had to repair hunting damage to major flight feathers through a process called "imping." When I gave up training and hunting with raptors, I thought my days of imping were over. I recently discovered how wrong I could be.
Although I had used my trained birds for education programs, it is relatively recently that my wife and I have started to use unreleasable birds that have some permanent handicap which prevents them from surviving on their own in the wild. In most cases, our education birds come from rehabilitators who have treated the birds with the proper medications, food and adequate space.
Our goshawk is an exception. Due to unexpected crowding at a New York rehabilitation center where the goshawk received its initial treatment, it was kept for three years in a space so small that all that remained of the wing and tail feathers were broken stubs. At the time we acquired the hawk, it was starting its next molt; however, since there were no old feathers to support the new ones during the "blood" stage of growth, the young feathers were breaking off almost as they started. Something had to be done if we were to ever have this bird look presentable for programs. Using molted feathers of another male goshawk that I had years before, I carefully clipped the ragged feather stubs to a uniform length and, using the "second hand" feathers, gave the hawk some used "new clothes." The change in appearance and behavior the imping made in the bird was fascinating. Although the goshawk has only restricted wing use due to its impact with a window, after nearly three years of enforced immobility it is suddenly discovering it can fly, even if in a limited way. The ramps in the flight enclosure are now unnecessary. Instead of a hunched over bird cowering in a corner, the gos now sits up with an air of confidence. It is also more relaxed and easier to handle. With the successful molt nearly completed, it is again the handsome bird it was meant to be and will soon be out with us educating the public on the beauty and essential roles of our wild birds.
How To Imp A Feather
Imping requires a thin support that can be inserted into the hollow shafts of the broken feather and the imped feather. These have to be secured so the feather lines up correctly and won't rotate. The traditional way is to use a thin piece of stiff iron wire three-quarters of an inch long, shaped to a double taper and triangular in cross-section. This imping needle is dipped in vinegar and inserted into the feathers. If done at night, the iron will start to rust by morning, binding the parts together. In our case, we needed immediate bonding because we had so many feathers to replace. We used contact cement which secured the feathers instantly. By working at nights we gave the glue additional time to set as the bird rested.