When we think of birds, we often imagine these fascinating creatures flying through the air. Yet, what goes up must come down. Let’s focus on birds’ feet, which allow birds to maneuver and rest while taking a break from flight.
Feet & Toes
The bird foot includes the outer covering of skin that ends in the claws or nails. This skin, or epidermis with the underlying dermis, covers over the tendons and the bones of the foot along with the metatarsal pad, which is more like the palm of your hand. The number of phalanges (think toe segments, the parts between joints) that make up a toe or digit varies as well.
In general, digit I — the hallux or big toe — has two phalanges; digit II has three phalanges; digit III has four phalanges and digit IV has five phalanges. The last phalange on each toe or digit is the claw or nail. All of the digits have underlying bone. A bird’s nail is like your finger nail; there is a bed of germinal tissue, and the nail grows out from that bed. In the wild, constant growth is needed to maintain nail length because the tip is constantly being worn as the bird uses its feet and nails for its normal daily functions. Depending on the bird species, the toes of a bird will get worn from walking, running, swimming, climbing and food gathering.
While people have five toes on each foot, most birds have four toes. However, the exact number of toes can vary by bird species, and the direction a bird’s toes point can differ, based on function. There are some bird species that have only three functional toes, and these include many of the waders, the rheas, cassowaries and emus, some woodpeckers and one of the passerine species. In most of these birds, it is the toe comparable to the big toe of humans, or the hallux, that is missing. This occurs in some fast-running birds or wading birds; these three-toed species thus exhibit tridactylism. However, one bird goes further — the ostrich — with only two toes!
The arrangement of a bird’s toes depends on function. Most species of birds have three toes pointing forward and one toe back. That arrangement is called anisodactyly and is often seen in songbirds. With these birds, the first digit or toe points backward, and the remaining three toes — digit 2, 3, and 4 — point forward. But our parrot friends have two toes forward and two toes back, a trait shared by some woodpeckers, toucans and cuckoos. This is called zygodactyly, or yoked toe, where toes 2 and 3 point forward and toes 1 and 4 point backward. Owls, osprey and turacos basically have this zygodactylous foot but have the ability to move that fourth toe forward when needed. This zygodactylous foot of two toes forward and two toes backward is designed for climbing and grasping, which parrots are very good at!
From a functional perspective, there are three main functional foot types: grasping; walking and wading; and swimming. Common examples of each are parrots that grasp; mallards that walk and wade; and mergansers that swim.
Many of our companion birds have a grasping type of foot, as is commonly found in parrots. As a result, properly sized perches should accommodate a parrot’s normal grasping behavior.
Cleaned, natural branches are ideal perches for pet birds. Branches should not be sprayed with chemicals or insecticides if you are going to use them in your bird’s cage. It’s important to spray them with an antibacterial soap and to rinse with hot water. You can use a spray made up of 1-part chlorine bleach and 20-parts water. When using chlorine bleach, make sure there is good ventilation and that other birds are not in the room where it is sprayed. Leave the solution on for 15 minutes and then rinse with clean water and let dry.
Here are some more perching tips:
- Most birds enjoy chewing on fresh branches, especially if the outer bark has not dried. It’s good exercise for their beaks and provides enrichment. Make sure to remove any splintered pieces of wood or sharp pieces that could cause injury.
- Select a perch size that is appropriate for your bird. Your bird’s nails should reach about half around the perch and never all the way around. However, the perch should not be so wide that the bird is unable to grasp it appropriately. Perches should vary in size and shape to vary footpad and toe pressure. Inappropriate perches can harm foot health and lead to bumblefoot.
- A soft wood, such as pine or aspen, is preferred, especially for African grey parrots. Manzanita perches are harder on an African grey’s feet and slipperier, which can cause the bird to feel insecure. It may lead to a fear of falling, which inadvertently can create an adverse behavior. Cockatoos are notorious for chewing wood, but softer wood perches should still be available for them. Harder wood perches as the only perch option can cause foot problems to develop over time.
- When positioning perches, be sure that droppings do not fall into food and water dishes. Make sure perches in your bird’s cage are placed in a comfortable location for your bird to perch high but allow the bird to get to the food and water dishes.
- Sandpaper perches do not reduce the length of a pet bird’s nails; instead, they can cause trauma to the foot pad and lead to bumblefoot — an infection that may be hard to treat successfully.
- The undulating perches that get bigger and then smaller can harm the feet if that is the only perching option available.