Tale of a Tail: Repairing broken feathers for 'Maverick' the falcon
We all know more or less what’s involved in repairing a broken bone, but what about a broken feather? Our resident male peregrine falcon, ‘Maverick’, recently underwent a procedure to fix his damaged tail feathers in a process known as “imping”. We sat down with our Wildlife Curator (and falcon fanatic), Frank Mikula, to get the scoop on imping and find out how Mav is going with his new feathers.
Why did Maverick need his tail feathers fixed?
“Tail feathers are essential for flight, especially for an aerial predator like the peregrine falcon which can reach speeds of over 300kph. In order to manoeuvre at such high speeds every feather needs to be in perfect condition. Any damage means less chance of catching a meal. Although in a managed environment, Maverick still has to chase down his prey. He does this a bit differently than his wild counterparts, either by chasing a swinging lure or, more recently, his robotic prey. We noticed that Mav had sustained damage to a few of his tail feathers so we decided to repair them through imping.”
(Image right: one of Maverick's old tail feathers versus new).
What is imping and what does it involve?
“Imping is actually a pretty straight-forward process that has been around for thousands of years and was first used by falconers in medieval times. It involves swapping out the damaged feathers and replacing them with new feathers from a donor bird.”
How does it work?
“First, we have to identify the damaged feather and find a donor to replace it, which can be tricky. The replacement has to be from the same species and sex to be a perfect match. We usually collect feathers from our birds as they go through their yearly moults to keep on hand for these exact situations.”
“Once a perfect donor feather has been found, both damaged and donor feathers are trimmed at the exact same spot along the shaft, so they are of equal size.”
“We then prepare what’s called an “imping needle” using a piece of fibreglass fishing rod that is whittled down so that it can be slid inside the hollow portion of both feather pieces to join them together (image right).
Back in medieval times they actually used sticks for this.”
“Once the imping needle has been made to size, we apply a small amount of glue and join the two feathers together, making sure that the new feather aligns perfectly with the pre-existing feathers on either side.”
How did Mav's imping procedure go?
“It went really well. We successfully imped eight tail feathers in the space of an hour. His keepers have reported that since the procedure he is flying faster and demonstrating increased agility in the air, which is fantastic news”.
Well, we think Maverick looks very handsome with his new tail. We would like to give special recognition to Frank and our veterinary team. It is with their superior knowledge, experience, and dedication to our wildlife, that all of our animals are able to enjoy the best life possible.