Grooming Companion Birds: A Review

Key Points

  • Although grooming is a basic procedure it is not simple, and should only be performed at practices experienced in the handling, wellness care, and emergency care of birds.
  • Nail trims, particularly one in which the tips of the nails are rounded off, can increase the risk of falls–particularly in young birds.
  • Primary feathers provide the lift and thrust needed for flight. Secondaries allow the bird to slow its descent and land safely. This is why during a wing trim, the primaries are clipped but the secondaries are left intact.
  • A good trim is performed in a bilaterally symmetrical fashion in such a way that mature feathers provide some protection for newly emerging blood feathers.
  • Perform wing trims, conservatively taking as few feathers as possible.
  • Be particularly conservative when trimming young birds, obese birds, or stocky, heavy-bodied species. Smaller, lighter-bodied birds require more feathers be clipped.
  • A ‘show clip’, in which primary feathers #9 and #10 are left in place, can be more aesthetically pleasing to clients, but it may also increase the risk of blood feather trauma.
  • Excess keratin that builds up on the lateral surfaces of the beak, can be smoothed away during a “routine” beak trim, however this procedure is generally unnecessary if the bird is fed an appropriate diet and allowed to practice normal grooming behavior on abrasive cage furniture like a lava stone or cement perch.
  • An abnormally long beak is most commonly caused by chronic, severe malnutrition and/or liver disease. Always screen these patients for disease before commencing the beak trim.

Introduction

Grooming in the bird can refer to clipping wing feathers, trimming nails, and smoothing and/or trimming the beak. Grooming can be performed by the veterinarian or an astute, skilled veterinary technician, however before the procedure begins one must always ask should the bird be groomed (discussed below in each section) and should the bird be groomed at my practice?

    • Are you and your staff experienced in bird handling?
    • Do you have experience in wellness care for birds?

Some chronic disease states can result in nail and beak problems, therefore all birds (including those presenting for a “routine” grooming) should undergo a complete physical examination annually or biannually. Are you confident that you will recognize signs of disease on exam?

  • Are you equipped to manage the patient if (and when) something goes wrong?

Although avian medicine has grown tremendously over the years, grooming is one area that remains somewhat controversial. There are few standards of care, and lots of personal opinions. Probably for this reason, few veterinary texts cover grooming.

 

 

Nail trim

Nail overgrowth is very common in captive birds and many pet bird owners request routine nail trims. Perches marketed for keeping nails trim, like concrete perches, generally do not work. Abrasive perches should never be provided as the only perch or the highest perch since this increases the risk of pododermatitis, particularly in overweight birds.

 

Understanding nail anatomy

Most birds have four toes. The first digit or hallux points caudally. Digit two through four are counted from medial to lateral (Fig 1).

Bird foot diagram

Figure 1. Most birds have four toes. The first digit or hallux points caudally. Digit two through four are counted from medial to lateral. Drawing by C. Pollock. Click image to enlarge.

 

In smaller birds, the blood supply is often visible within the tiny toenail. Transilluminating the nail can provide a better view of the blood supply. The nails are pigmented in most medium-size to large birds.

 

Potential complications

Nail trims, particularly when the nail tips are rounded off, can increase the risk of falls, particularly in young birds. Falls, in turn, can cause not only physical injury but psychological problems as well since a loss of balance and falling can easily feed fear patterns. Therefore juveniles should only have their toenails slightly filed or trimmed.

 

Equipment needed

Use human infant or adult nail clippers to trim the nails of small species. Hand held rotary tools (e.g. Dremel) are used in larger birds (Box 1). With practice, use of the Dremel with a conical bit can make nail trims fast and relatively easy.

 

Box 1. Nail trim equipment

  • Infant nail clippers (small birds)
  • Cat or Rescoe nail clippers (medium to large birds) (Fig 2)
  • Rotary grinding tool (larger birds)
  • Styptic powder
  • Emery board (optional)
  • Facemask (veterinary staff)
Nail trim clippers

Figure 2. Cat nail clippers can be used to trim the nails of medium-sized to large birds. Photo from the Expert Companion Bird Care Series: Vol 3. Click image to enlarge.

Another advantage to the Dremel is that it can also cauterize the nail. If the “quick” is accidentally cut, lightly hold the rotary tool on the nail to generate enough heat to cauterize. Apply styptic powder (Fig 3), then complete the nail trim. Some clinicians avoid silver nitrate stick use in birds because if the bird ingests the silver nitrate, it can cause caustic burns. Finally, the dust created by grinding the nails and beak is a health hazard for human handlers therefore wearing a facemask is also recommended.

Styptic powder

Figure 3. A single bleeding toenail can easily be placed into a 1- or 3-ml syringe (with the tip removed) filled with styptic powder. Photo provided by Dr. M. Scott Echols. Click image to enlarge.

Step-by-step instructions for nail trims

  1. Restrain the bird.
  2. The bird’s ability to clench its feet closed is unsurpassed. To open up the foot, it can help to gently yet firmly extend the stifle by pushing on this joint from above.
  3. NEVER hold the foot merely by the toe. Either the handler or groomer grasps the foot around the tarsus while extending fingers on either side of the digit in question (Fig 4).
    Nail trim with Dremel

    Figure 4. Place fingers on either side of the digit of interest near the nail base. Note the hock or tarsus is held by the handler. Photo from the Expert Companion Bird Care Series: Vol 3. Click image to enlarge.

     

  4. Draw an imaginary line from the plantar surface of the foot towards the toe to identify where the nail can typically be trimmed (Fig 5).
    Nail trim diagram

    Figure 5. When performing a nail trim, draw an imaginary line from the plantar surface of the toe towards the toenail to identify where the nail can typically be cut (solid white). With experience and practice, the nail can then be ground higher to a point distal to the blood vessel (yellow dash). Photo from the Expert Companion Bird Care Series: Vol 3. Click image to enlarge.

     

  5. Round off the tip of the nail with the grinding stone or an emery board in select, adult individuals (Fig 6).
    Nail trim with Dremel

    Figure 6. Round off the tip of the nail with the grinding stone or an emery board in adult birds. Rounding off the nail tip increases the risk of falls in pediatric patients. Photo from the Expert Companion Bird Care Series: Vol 3. Click image to enlarge.

     

Aseptically clean rotary tool grinding bits and nail trimmers between birds. Grinding stones can be placed in a gas sterilizer. Change sterilized grinding stones once a month or as needed.

 

Wing trim

A wing clip or wing trim is the practice of trimming or cutting flight feathers to limit the bird’s ability to fly. The primary goal of trimming the wings is to prevent the bird from developing rapid and sustained flight. A wing trim does not make a bird incapable of flight.

Although flight is a natural behavior that provides a wonderful form of exercise, the decision to trim wings comes from concern for the companion bird’s safety and security. The owner and bird that can forego clipping altogether is the exception to the rule. Roles of the wing trim include:

  • Reducing the risk of injury (e.g. flying into windows) in the household
  • Reducing the risk of escape (e.g. by flying quickly through an open door)
  • Allowing the bird to play outside of its cage with less risk of injury
  • Reducing aggression in the assertive bird
  • Aiding in training and socializing the bird

A wing trim should never be a replacement for good training, and as our understanding of parrot behavior and training techniques continue to grow the need for wing trims in training will decrease.

 

Understanding wing anatomy and the biomechanics of flight

Owners sometimes ask if a wing trim is painful. The mature feather is made of keratin. As long as a blood feather is not involved, a wing trim is no more painful than a hair cut or nail trim.

Two layers of feathers cover the bird wing: flight feathers and coverts (Fig 7).

  • The flight feathers or remiges are long feathers visible over much of the wing. Remiges can be divided into primaries and secondaries.
  • Primary feathers arise from the carpometacarpus, major digit, and minor digit. These long, stiff feathers are numbered from the carpus outward.
  • Secondary feathers come off the ulna primarily and the humerus to a lesser extent. These shorter, softer feathers are numbered from the carpus inward.
  • Coverts are the small, soft feathers that cover the flight feathers.

Classically there are ten primaries and ten secondaries although in reality the number varies among individuals and species.

Outstretched wing labeled

Figure 7. Flight feathers consist of primary and secondary feathers. Primaries arise from the carpometacarpus and are numbered from the carpus out (P1 to P10). Secondaries arise from the ulna and humerus; they are numbered from the carpus inward (S1 to S10). Note the primaries tend to curve away from the body; secondaries curve inward. Photo from the Expert Companion Bird Care Series: Vol 3. Click image to enlarge.

Each group of feathers serves a different function:

  • Coverts provide streamlining of the leading edge of the wings.
  • Primary feathers provide the lift and thrust needed for flight, especially the most distal primary feathers.
  • Secondaries act as brakes or aerodynamic “flaps”, allowing the bird to slow down and land safely.

Of course this description of flight is an oversimplification of a complicated, dynamic process. For instance, there is some crossover in function depending upon the dimensions of the wing and the bird’s body mass. In aerodynamics, wing loading is the loaded weight of the aircraft divided by the area of the wing. Wing loading in birds (body mass divided by wing area) varies with the species. That is why the short-winged, stocky African grey parrot (Psittacus erithacus) tends to require a more conservative clip than the lightly loaded cockatiel (Nymphicus hollandicus) wing.

The alula feathers, a collection of three to five feathers that come off the bird’s hallux or alula, also play an important role in maneuverability during flight (Fig 8). When flying at slow speeds or landing, the bird moves its alula slightly upwards and forward, which creates a small slot on the wing’s leading edge. This prevents “stalling” at slow speeds and points to the likelihood that the outer secondaries and inner primaries are probably the most critical regions for lift production (another good reason not to clip this region) (Ford 2008)

Plumage diagram

Figure 8a. The alula feathers are a collection of three to five feathers that arise from the hallux or alula. Alular feathers play an important role in maneuverability during flight. Drawing by C. Pollock. Click image to enlarge.

 

Alular feathers labelled

Figure 8b. Alular feathers (arrows) in a California condor (Gymnogyps californianus). Photo by Dr. Ed Ramsay. Click image to enlarge.

Potential complications

Wing clipping is not a procedure to be taken lightly because a poor clip can cause physical and behavioral injury (Box 2). Birds given an improper clip can lose balance, fall, or when attempting to fly they can even “drop like a rock”. The worst clip-related trauma generally involve one-winged clips, clips that include secondary feathers, and clips that involve all or almost all of the primaries in heavy-bodied birds.

 

Box 2. Potential problems associated with a bad wing trim

Physical problems Behavioral problems
  • Phobic behaviors
  • Feather damaging behavior

Behavioral problems after a bad trim are particularly common in relatively heavy-bodied birds with short wings like the grey parrot and some poicephalus species (e.g. Senegal parrots or Poicephalus senegalus, Jardine’s parrots or P. gulielmi ), particularly younger individuals.

 

Wing clip patterns

There are basic principles that most avian veterinarians agree make up a good wing trim (Box 3). First, when restraining the bird be sure to support the wing at the carpus as well as the propatagium, the tendon within the leading edge of the wing (Fig 9).

Outstretched wing of Amazon

Figure 9. Support the wing at the level of the carpus and along the leading edge of the wing. Photo from the Expert Companion Bird Care Series: Vol 3. Click image to enlarge.

Then before beginning the actual wing trim, check the bird for evidence of molting or the presence of blood feathers on both wings (Fig 10).

Broken blood feather (arrow)

Figure 10. The blood feather (yellow arrow) is encased within a keratin sheath. Its characteristic blue cast is caused by the presence of an axial artery and vein. Click image to enlarge.

 

A good trim is performed on both wings in a bilaterally symmetrical fashion. Never, ever clip just one wing since this makes the bird aerodynamically unstable and unable to land safely. In fact, awkward crashes are a common problem with a one-wing trim. Additionally, only clip primary feathers. Leave the secondaries in place to allow the bird to achieve a smooth, controlled landing. It is also important to trim in such a way that mature feather shafts provide some protection for newly emerging blood feathers. Finally, perform conservative trim wings, taking as few feathers as possible. It is possible to take more feathers later if need be, but if you take too many feathers your patient can suffer a bad fall.

 

Box 3. Basic principles of a good wing trim

  • Always check for blood feathers first
  • Trim both wings symmetrically
  • Trim only the primaries
  • Provide some protection for new blood feathers
  • Be conservative, taking as few feathers as possible

Despite these basic principles, the wing trim is NOT a generic procedure. Each wing clip is different since pattern selection will vary with patient age, species (bird size and weight), and as well as the athletic ability of the individual bird. It is also important to know what the owner hopes to achieve by wing clipping (Sacks 2012).

Be particularly conservative when trimming young birds, obese birds, or stocky, heavy-bodied species. Take as few feathers as possible. If too many feathers are trimmed in slower, heavy-bodied birds they risk falls and injury. Smaller, light-bodied birds require more feathers clipped (Box 4).

 

Box 4. Wing clip patterns vary with bird size and weight

Body type Examples Trim pattern
Tiny, experienced fliers Budgerigar parakeet May require all 10 primary feathers trimmed
Light-bodied, strong, fast fliers Cockatiel, mini macaws, lorikeet Trim at least seven primaries: Primary (P) #4 to P#10
Slower, clumsier, heavy-bodied birds Grey parrots, Amazon parrots, Poicephalus spp. Trim the distal four to six primary feathers: P#6 or P#7 through P#10

The wing clip pattern classically called a “show clip” or “vanity clip” leaves the last two primaries (primary #9 and #10) in place (Fig 11). The next five to seven primaries (P#8 through P#4, P#3, or P#2) are cut relatively high beneath the level of the coverts.

 

Clipped feathers

Figure 11. Although not a show clip (primaries are cut well below the coverts), the last two primary feathers (#9 and #10) are left in place here. Photo from the Expert Companion Bird Care Series: Vol 3. Click image to enlarge.

 

Pros of the show clip:

  1. When feathers are cut longer than the coverts (see section below), some individuals can be bothered by the stiff, cut edge of the quill. It is possible the bird can even begin to demonstrate feather-damaging behavior over the flank region or on cut feather tips. Trimming the primaries beneath the coverts can “cushion” these cut edges.
  2. Some clients request a “show clip” because it gives a more cosmetic appearance when the wings are folded.

Cons of the show clip:

  1. Aerodynamically speaking, the more distal the primaries the more important their role in lift and thrust. Therefore if primary feathers #9 and #10 are left in place, this can provide enough lift to allow flight in light-bodied birds like cockatiels.
  2. In contrast, when primary feathers are trimmed short beneath the coverts in heavy-bodied, slow flying birds like the grey parrot, individuals are at increased risk of falls and injury.
  3. Blood feathers are relatively fragile and their emergence can benefit from the support and protection of mature feather shafts. Clipping feathers above the level of the coverts, removes some of this support increasing the risk of broken blood feathers. Of course leaving primary feathers #9 and #10 in place provides some protection–until these feathers molt out.
  4. The uncut primaries can also catch in cage bars and become damaged.

At what level should the feathers be cut? What cutting implement should I use?

    • Many avian veterinarians trim each feather anywhere from 0.5-2.5 cm beyond the upper wing coverts. Cutting the primaries at this length leaves enough of the mature feather shaft to protect emerging blood feathers.

It is not uncommon to arc or taper the wing clip so that the most distal primary feather is shortest and each inner feather is trimmed slightly longer in a progressive manner. This practice provides a more aesthetic appearance, while retaining protective mature feather shafts.

Bandage scissors often serve well for this type of trim. However regardless of the shears selected, point the tip away from the bird’s trunk whenever possible. Some infectious diseases are transmissible by feather dander, so cutting implements should be cleaned and sterilized between patients.

  • When a ‘show clip’ is performed (see wing pattern above), each feather is cut shorter than the coverts. Since each feather has to be cut individually, sharp cat nail clippers or suture scissors work well since they hook around the feather shaft.

How do I perform a wing trim in the juvenile bird?

Always postpone wing trims in juvenile birds until the bird is able to fly and land with confidence. Once the fledgling can fly, the wings should ideally be trimmed gradually over a small number of visits over the course of a few months (Box 5). If the first wing trim is performed before the bird learns to fly, some individuals will be unable to fly later in life.

 

Box 5. Wing trim schedule in fledgling birds (Speer 2006)

Species Number of feathers cut initially Feather length saved initially (%)
Cockatiel 5 50
Grey parrot 2 to 4 66
Large macaws 2 to 4 66

What if I find a blood feather?

If a blood feather is encountered, ideally the trim should be postponed. Depending on the size of the feather, a blood feather typically matures relatively rapidly. So the patient can return in approximately one to two weeks.

Alternatively the non-vascular portion of the blood feather can be trimmed. Estimate how much is left to grow and CAREFULLY trim the plumaceous part of the blood feather to reduce the risk of bumps and other trauma (Fig 12). The base of the blood feather is extremely sensitive to bending or pressure, so do not be surprised when your patient reacts.

Blood feather (yellow line)

Figure 12. If a grooming is performed with a blood feather on the wing, the plumaceous or feather part of the blood feather can be CAREFULLY trimmed (yellow line). Photo provided by Dr. Ed Ramsay. Click image to enlarge.

Cutting mature feather shafts on either side of the blood feather to the same length also provides additional protection and support.

 

Client education

Remind the owner that wing trims are not a guarantee the bird cannot escape. Clipped birds should never be taken outdoors unless they are in a cage or (when trained appropriately) on a harness. Owners must also protect their clipped bird from predators or accidents indoors.

 

How often should I trim the wings?

Clients often ask how frequently their bird’s wings need to be trimmed. This depends on where the bird is in its molting cycle during the trim. Molting occurs all year long in parrots, with only a few feathers replaced at any one time. Clipped feathers are lost at the same time they would normally molt out and new feathers emerge in their place. If clipped immediately after molting a wing clip can last up to a year. If clipped just before a molt, new feathers can emerge within weeks (Doneley 2006).

Birds will usually need to have their wings trimmed between two and four times a year (Doneley 2006), however it is the responsibility of the bird owner to monitor their bird’s wings and flying ability, and have the clip repeated as needed.

 

Evaluating the wing trim

Follow-up of the groomed bird is very important. Contact your clients to learn:

  • Is the owner happy with the results of the wing trim?
  • Does the bird seem happy? Have any falls or changes in behavior been observed?

An important reason for the controversy and strong personal preferences encountered with wing trims is that currently there are no easy, objective, universally agreed upon parameters for evaluation of the wing trim.

The “flight test” is a crude method to evaluate the effectiveness of the wing trim. The bird is dropped or gently “tossed” over a soft, padded area. If the bird can pump hard and float down to the floor with control, the wing trim is considered a success (Ford 2012).

 

 

Beak Trim

Birds use the beak or bill for more than eating and catching prey (Box 6). The beak is used in territorial defense, social displays, communication and of course grooming. The presence of the wings means that birds must rely upon their long, flexible neck and bill instead of the hands, paws, or claws in other species.

 

Understanding beak anatomy

Box 6. Beak vocabulary terms

Rhamphotheca Horny layer covering the entire beak
Rhinotheca Horny layer covering the maxillary beak
Gnathotheca Horny layer covering the mandibular beak
Tomium Cutting edge of the beak
Gonys Ventral midline of the lower beak
Culmen Dorsal midline of the upper beak
Rictus Small triangle of soft flesh at the commissure of the mouth

The structure of the beak is analogous to that of the hoof. the layers of the beak from outermost to inner include:

  • Keratinized epidermis (horn)
  • Dermis
  • Bone

The dermis is a thin, vascular layer that contains sensitive nerves. The keratin layer is a dynamic tissue that constantly grows, migrates, and is shed. Although some regions of horny tissue grow faster than others, beak keratin in parrots has been said to grow between 0.25-0.5 in (0.6-1.3 cm) per month (Clipsham 1997).

 

Reasons for beak trims

    • Excess keratin can build up on the beak, particularly over the lateral surfaces (Fig 13). During a “routine” beak trim, this keratin can be smoothed away with the grinding bit of a rotary tool, or even your fingernail and an emery board. This procedure is generally unnecessary when birds are fed an appropriate diet and are allowed to practice grooming behavior on abrasive cage furniture like a lava stone or cement perch.
Excess keratin on beak

Figure 13. Excess keratin can build up on the beak in companion birds that lack an appropriate diet and/or abrasive cage items that can be used for self-grooming (e.g. lava stone, cement perch). Photo from the Expert Companion Bird Care Series: Vol 3. Click image to enlarge.

 

  • Malocclusion and other beak deformities require a corrective beak trim, which will not be discussed here.
  • An abnormally long beak is most commonly caused by chronic, severe malnutrition and/or liver disease. Always screen these patients for disease before commencing the beak trim. Use a photo guide to determine normal for your species of interest. Some species like grey-cheek parakeets (Brotogeris pyrrhopterus) and slender-billed conures (Enicognathus leptorhynchus) normally have a relative long upper mandible.

Performing the beak trim

  • Gather equipment needed for restraint as well as grooming the beak:
    • Rotary hand tool with grinding pieces and cutting discs
    • Emery boards (optional)
    • Facemask, eye protection for veterinary staff (optional) since the dust created can be a health hazard for handlers
  • Restrain the bird
  • Even when an assistant is available, the person performing the beak trim generally restrains the head, or at least the beak, to ensure the mouth remains closed—thereby protecting the tongue (Fig 14).
    Beak trim

    Figure 14. The groomer generally restrains the head, or at least the beak, to ensure the mouth remains closed—thereby protecting the tongue from the grinding stone. Photo from the Expert Companion Bird Care Series: Vol 3. Click image to enlarge.

     

  • Remove excess keratin on the lateral beak surface with light strokes of the grinding stone (set on low) or even with your fingernail and an emery board.
  • To trim back a markedly overgrown beak, remove a portion (often two-thirds to three-fourths) of excess beak length with a cutting disc.
    • Carefully take the presence of the “quick” into account. The blood supply tends to be more distal than normal in beaks that have been chronically overgrown. For this reason, the overgrown beak may need to be trimmed back in stages as the “quick” recedes.
    • Carefully shape the beak using a rotary tool grinding stone. Although the beak can be trimmed further with the grinding stone, it is always better to leave the beak slightly long than to shorten the beak excessively and cause the tip to bleed as this is incredibly painful for the bird.
  • Anecdotal reports suggest the use of a rotary tool in small species, like the budgerigar parakeet, may be traumatic to small bird brains. Cautiously use a cutting disc or a human nail clipper* to remove excess length (as described above), then file back the remaining length with an emery board as need.

*Note: Some veterinarians report successful use of nail clippers to cut back the beaks of small species. Some veterinarians report the use of clippers is associated with a risk of the beak splintering.

  • Clean and maintain grooming equipment as described for toenail trims

 

References