Recently I was in the news a fair bit. A story about feather imping went viral on Facebook and the news media picked it up and ran with it. The case, a tawny frogmouth (a member of the nightjar family) became stuck in a fence and lost some of its primary flight feathers. We used a feather implanting technique called “imping” to restore this bird’s ability to fly and to release him sooner.

Imping, it turns out, is a centuries-old technique to replace a broken feather with a close match from a previous molt or from another bird, usually—but not always—of the same species. Basically, the process involves joining the broken feather to its replacement by inserting into the shaft of both feathers a thin piece of bamboo, metal wire, or other material, known as an imping needle, fixed with a bit of adhesive.

While sometimes used on corvids, seabirds, and other species at rehabilitation centers, imping is most closely associated with raptors. Falconers have been imping for thousands of years. The earliest written reference found is from a book written in the 1240s by the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II of Hohenstaufen. Translated from Latin as The Art of Falconry, the book uses the term imponere (from the Latin “to place upon” or “to fix”) to refer to the process. Since then, the methods have changed little, though the tools of the trade have evolved. Imping of old typically involved dipping an iron needle in salt water to create rust as a bonding agent. Today, feathers are often joined with graphite or fiberglass imping needles dabbed with fast-drying epoxy.

Feather implanting relies on a broken feather shaft remaining within the follicle to act as an anchor point for the new feather, so anyone thinking it might be a good way to fix those “tailless wonders” in the aviary, unfortunately the same technique cannot be applied to these budgerigars!! At work, we do apply this technique to budgies and cockatiels that have had their wings clipped too short and are in danger of hurting themselves. We will often replace two or three flight feathers to these birds to allow them to land safely. It is not uncommon for a normal sky blue budgie to go home with a light green spangle’s flight feathers, making for a very beautiful, but somewhat eclectic budgie.

The process of feather imping is shown in detail below to help you better understand.

Feather implanting kit including pliers, emery boards and glue with various imping needles.

An appropriate feather must be selected from the feather library. The feather should correspond with the same feather being replaced, from a bird that is the same size, sex and colour.

The damaged or broken feather is trimmed back to leave a short, hollow shaft.

The imping needle is introduced and here, a black line is used to ensure that when the feather is glued in place, it is lined up perfectly. You can see the join in the feather just underneath the black marker pen. This feather was a practice feather before replacing the flights of the more valuable falcons.

This is a summary of the process below. The broken feather is identified and trimmed, a bamboo skewer is whittled and shaped to fit within the shaft perfectly and then glue is applied. Paper strips are used to keep the glue from going on the other feathers and then once dried, the bird is able to begin flying again.