When birds of prey damage tail feathers, it can take over a year for them to moult the broken feather out, to allow new growth to take place.
In order that birds can get back to efficient free flying more quickly, it is often necessary to “imp” or implant new feathers into the tail or wing affected.
Falconers gather feathers for this purpose throughout the moulting season, so that they have a “feather bank” with which to work when necessary.
The feathers are kept carefully, clearly labelled and in the correct order, so that they remain undamaged until needed.
The attachment of the implanted feathers is a skilled job only undertaken by the most experienced falconers, as the object of the exercise is to replace the damaged feather as quickly and efficiently as possible, in order to avoid stressing the avian recipient for any longer than is necessary.
Each feather plays a part in helping birds to glide, dive, weave and turn, so a proper imp job requires careful trimming, measuring and alignment so that the replacement feather matches the original in length and orientation as closely as possible.
Basically, the process involves joining the broken feather to its replacement new feather by inserting an “imping needle” (a thin shaft of metal, bamboo, fibreglass or other material) into the shaft of the broken feather.
The implanted feathers are held securely in place with a special quick drying glue - once this is dry, there is no outward evidence of this “enhancement” as the feathers all blend seamlessly together. Here Falconer Matt is replacing one of the all important tail feathers of one of our Red Kites, Nessa.
Imping is not painful for birds - like human hair or fingernails, feathers are essentially dead matter made of keratin, without sensation.
Once the procedure is completed, the bird will be rested for a day or two to ensure that the implanted feathers are remaining securely in place.
Imping is an ancient technique, originating hundreds, if not thousands of years ago.
The earliest written reference to the practice is thought to be an account from the 1240s by the Holy Roman Emperor Fredrick II of Hohenstaufen, in his revered work, The Art of Falconry.
In the Latin work, Frederick explains the necessity for Imponere, to"place upon” or “to fix” feathers and refers to essentially the same process that we use today, though the tools of the trade have evolved.
In ancient times imping involved dipping an iron needle in brine to create rust as a bonding agent, rather than a blob of glue!
Even Shakespeare was aware of the process - in Richard III, the Earl of Northumberland beseeches his fellow noblemen to “imp out our drooping country’s broken wing” by rebelling against the king.