Grooming: Beaks and Toenails

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An overgrown beak may get in the way of the bird feeding and grooming itself. Overgrown toenails may impair the bird’s ability to perch, may force inadequate foot posture, and may cause the bird to get entangled. If a toenail gets caught and in its frantic attempts to free itself the bird rips the nail off, bleeding will ensue. This is why providing your bird with lots of chew toys and proper perches is essential.

Remember that the beak tip may be “dead” (in the same sense the tips of our own nails are dead) but it IS attached to living tissue. That living tissue is provided with ample blood flow (this is what brings in oxygen and the “building materials” that make up the beak) AND with nerve endings (because the bird uses the beak to palpate and sense its food and environment). The beak should be treated gently!

Beak grooming is usually done in two ways: by using a file to wear down the tip, or by using a dremmel to likewise remove excess growth. A dremmel can be a handy tool, but only at the hands of an experienced operator. [Should bleeding occur, it can be staunched by using a coagulation aid and direct pressure. Ferric compounds can be used on a bleeding beak and on bleeding toenails BUT SHOULD NOT BE APPLIED TO FLESH because it can cause tissue damage. So, if you must use a ferric compound (such as QuikStop(tm)), be careful not to apply it to the insides of the beak, or to the bird’s cere (“nose”) nor any other fleshy body part.

Toenails can likewise be groomed using a file or dremmel, but most often the tips are simply clipped off. With small birds, this is easily done using scissors or toenail clippers. Special toenail scissors are also sold: these have a little notch upon which to rest the toenail, and also have rounded tips for added safety. If the toenail is very overgrown, it is likely the “quick” (blood supply) will also be overgrown which means that when the toenail is clipped, it probably will bleed.

In such cases, it’s recommended that the toenail be trimmed anyhow and the ensuing blood flow staunched. A few weeks later, the toenails will be groomed again (in the interim, the quick will have receded), and this process is repeated until the toenails are brought to a safe, comfortable length.

If bleeding happens while grooming the beak or toenails, the owner should attempt to stop blood flow. Direct pressure helps and so does applying some QuikStop(tm), flour, cornstarch, even a small piece of paper. It’s a good idea to have some sort of coagulation aid nearby BEFORE grooming begins.

Another “trick” to help keep the beak and toenails in good shape is to provide the bird with safe, natural tree branches as perches. Birds love stripping the bark, and the rough surface does wonders for dulling the tips of the toenails and for helping slough off the beak surface as it grows. Concrete perches are also available: the rough surface works as a stationary filing station! If you offer this kind of perch, make sure the bird also has other perches available.

Young birds are more easily taught to accept grooming. The ideal situation is when your bird allows you to trim its toenails while it is sitting on a perch! Birds also should be “towel trained” early, if possible so they will not fear that piece of material. Gently and with great patience, cover your bird with a towel while speaking soothingly to him or her. Cover the eyes and the beak as you trim the nails on first one foot and then another. Have an experienced bird owner, aviculturist or veterinarian demonstrate the technique to you.