You probably don’t think too often about your parrot’s nails until they’re painfully poking into your skin. But did you know that your parrot’s feet are just as important to her as her beak and wings are? In fact, you could argue they’re the most important part of your bird’s body, since most parrots are on their feet 24/7!
Nails play a large role in that, too. Both in the wild and in our homes, parrots use their nails to help securely grasp onto surfaces so they don’t slip. They also help them in gripping objects such as toys or food.
Since your parrot uses her nails for so much, keeping them properly groomed is critical.
Why It’s Important To Trim Your Parrot’s Nails
You might ask, “Why do I need to keep my parrot’s nails properly groomed?” I’ll explain. In the wild, parrots’ nails are constantly being worn down as they climb and grip and hang from branches, bark and other surfaces. In our homes, not so much. Your parrot’s nails don’t get worn down as quickly, and if they get too long, it causes problems. Some of those problems are even life-threatening.
“When a parrot’s nails start getting too long, they can break off too short or they can start to curl,” Gloria Medina, an associate at Omar’s Exotic Birds in Lake Forest, California, says. “Their nails can also get caught in a toy or the cage bars.”
Too short nails are bad because a parrot can’t grip as well. Curled nails are bad, because then a parrot can’t extend their foot wide enough to grip onto a surface. Long nails can be killers. As Medina pointed out, there are plenty of horror stories in which a parrot’s foot gets caught in a toy or rope because their nails were too long. Those stories usually end with a bird injuring herself and even dying from thrashing around to get free.
To avoid that, constantly check your bird’s toys for any frayed or loose parts she could get her foot (or beak or other body part) caught in. Along with that, keep your bird’s nails trimmed.
How To Tell When It’s Time To Trim Your Parrot’s Nails
So when’s the best time to trim your parrot’s nails?
“I tell people to trim their bird’s nails when they get too sharp for you,” Medina says. “If you’re handling them and the little points of their nails are painful against your skin, it’s time for a trim.”
There’s no mistaking that feeling!
How To Trim Your Parrot’s Nails: A Step-by-Step Guide
What You’ll Need
● You and a volunteer
● A towel
● Nail clippers for smaller parrots (e.g., budgies, cockatiels)
● Dog nail clippers or a Dremel tool for larger parrots
● A perch for your bird to grip onto (optional)
● Styptic powder or cornstarch, for bleeding
Step 1: Secure your parrot in a towel.
When it’s time to trim your parrot’s nails, you or your volunteer needs to hold onto the bird to keep her from moving. A towel is the best way to do this: It contain the parrot’s wings contained and keeps her secure.
Warning: When you’re restraining your parrot, do not put pressure on her chest in any way, shape or form. Your parrot’s respiratory system is incredibly delicate and any pressure on the chest can suffocate her or cause injury.
Step 2: Hold your parrot’s head under the lower mandible.
During nail trims, you don’t want your parrot to be able to twist her head. Whether it’s because she wants to bite you or just try to get free, you want a secure grip on your parrot that keeps her head from moving side-to-side.
Unfortunately, doing this looks like you’re strangling your parrot. However, you’re not putting any pressure on a bird’s neck, Medina points out. Medina grooms parrots at the store, and if a bird owner is alarmed by what she’s doing, she’ll explain what’s happening.
“We’ll show people that we’re holding them right under their lower mandible and not their neck,” Medina says. “They can also see how we’re not actually gripping the parrot’s neck, and we’re just stopping the parrot’s head from moving up and down.”
Use your fingers to lightly hold your parrot’s head. You don’t need a lot of pressure; just enough to keep your bird’s head from moving too much in any direction.
Step 3: Look for the quick in your bird’s toes.
If your bird has dark-colored toes, move onto Step 4.
If your bird has light-colored toes, look for the quick inside them. The quick is the blood supply inside your parrot’s toes — you don’t want to cut into it. If you do, it’ll hurt your parrot and make her bleed.
Use the quick in your parrot’s toe to give yourself a baseline for how far you can trim.
If your bird does start bleeding, use your styptic powder or cornstarch to help stop the bleeding. These powders clog up the blood and help the coagulants get to work. (Note: Don’t use styptic powder or cornstarch on any other part of your bird’s body! It’s for nails only.)
Step 4: Decide how much to trim.
It’s a judgement call for how much you’ll want to trim your bird’s nails. Some experts recommend trimming right up under the quick line. Medina doesn’t like to go back that far because a parrot might not be able to grip a perch properly.
“I normally do just the tip of the nail,” she says. “If you look at the tip of the nail, you get to the point where it’s really pointy. That’s the part I round off so it’s not as sharp.”
What if your bird has dark-colored nails and you can’t see the quick? To be safe, just trim off the pointy parts of your bird’s nails.
Step 5: Trim!
Depending on how much you decided to trim in Step 4, cut to that point. For smaller birds, you can use standard nail clippers. For larger parrots, dog nail trimmers easily cut through their thicker nails.
The easiest way to trim your parrot’s nails is to lift each toe individually and cut the nail.
Note: Some bird groomers use Dremel tools in lieu of clippers too grind toes down. I’d recommend learning how to do this from a groomer or veterinarian first. If you don’t have the experience, you could easily lose your grip on your bird and hurt her with the Dremel.
Some parrots are champs and will let you trim all their nails at once. Some only tolerate one or two nails at a time before they want out of the towel.
You’re the best judge of your bird’s tolerance level. If you see your bird start to pant excessively or feel her body temperature spike — you’ll feel her toes get very hot — let your parrot go to cool down. Spray her body and toes with a light mist to help lower her temperature and calm her.
Step 6: Release Your Parrot And Let Her Cool Down
As mentioned in Step 5, not all parrots like being restrained and need cool down periods for safety reasons. However, it’s not a bad way to end a grooming session overall: A nice cool bath to relax makes every parrot happy.
Other Ways To Trim Your Parrot’s Nails
The steps above are not the only ways to trim your parrot’s nails, but certainly the easiest. The other ways require a lot of training, patience and a strong relationship with your bird where she trusts you completely. It’ll also depend on your bird’s species as well, and how well your bird tolerates her toes being touched.
If you do plan to try these methods, you need to work up to it. The best way is to start by gently playing with your bird’s toes while she’s on your hand. Touch them with your fingers at first. Work up to lifting up her foot, or individual toes one by one. (You can also train her to lift up her foot.) Bring nail clippers close to their nails without trimming them so she gets used to the sight of the clippers.
A lot of parrots don’t like their feet being messed with, but you can overcome that by making the experience positive. Treats and praise are the best way to do this: When your parrot lets you touch their toes, reward them.
Trim Your Parrot’s Nails While She’s On Her Back
Some parrots love to lie on their backs, such as African grey parrots and the Poicephalus parrots (e.g., Senegal parrot, Meyer’s parrots). If you see your parrot playing while lying on her back, you can train her to go into that position when it’s time to trim her nails. Then you just trim each toenail individually while she’s on her back.
This can be a slow process and you need to start by training your parrot to like having their toes touched, as mentioned above.
Trim Your Parrot’s Nails While She’s On A Perch
All parrots sit on perches. While on a perch, you can train your parrot to lift up her foot. Once there, you can trim your parrot’s nails by gripping each toe and cutting what’s needed. Again, to even attempt this, you need to start with trust-building exercises first.
When Should You Not Trim Your Parrot’s Nails?
Believe it or not there are cases where you shouldn’t trim your parrot’s nails.
“If your bird is clumsy or old and they’re not perching well, I wouldn’t recommend trimming their nails too often,” Medina says. “Parrots that have seizures should only have their nails trimmed once in a blue moon since they need to be able to grip perches properly and not slip off.”
Medina also recommends the same for very young parrots who are still learning how to climb and grip onto perches. All three need longer nails to help them stay on perches and prevent any falls that can easily lead to injuries.