Cut & Trim

Pet retailers looking to add avian services should brush up on the basics of cutting birds’ nails and trimming wings.


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People may not be spending like they used to, but they still want to pamper and care for their pets.  Pet specialty retailers can capitalize on this trend by offering services that cater to this hot consumer trend. But when it comes to avian services, it’s critical that pet retailers know exactly what they’re doing. Two services that are the most common to offer for birds are nail trims and wing clips.

All birds’ nails have a blood vessel growing in them called the quick. It looks like a red line in clear nails and grows longer as the nail does. It should not be cut into, as it can cause pain and can bleed badly, so clip in front of the quick a bit. A cauterizing agent such as a powder should always be available in case a blood vessel is cut (or for any other bleeding emergencies).

Because with black nails you cannot see the quick, it’s best to grind the nail because it will cauterize as it grinds and can stop the bleeding. However, if grinding is not an option, then it is best to take off the end of the nail, usually just below the place where it gets thinner. If the nails are extremely long, do a short trim, and then tell the owner to come back in a month to cut off a bit more; the quick will pull back over time as the nail is cut back.


Caring for Wings
Young parrots are usually easier to tame if their wings are clipped, but it’s not the most important reason to keep a bird from flying. Many bird owners choose to allow their birds to fly and manage to do so safely. But how often have we heard about a pet parrot flying out a door or slamming into a window or large mirror? Keeping wings trimmed will prevent these situations.

Flight feathers will grow back approximately every six months. How many flight feathers to take off and the length depends greatly on the age and species of parrot. Taking off too many or too much can cause injury to the wing itself, or can cause a bird to fall like a stone, breaking its breastbone or even killing it. Pet stores offering this service must employ people who know what they are doing.

Clipping feathers is like trimming hair; it will not cause pain if done correctly. But what if you pull a hair out? That will hurt as the hair itself is dead but the root is in living tissue with nerves. The same is true of a feather shaft. Cutting a feather too short can damage the shaft and cause irregular growth of the new feather. Sometimes in extreme cases, the feather will not grow back at all.

A flight feather should never be cut anywhere close to the covert feathers that cover the top of the flight feathers. For larger birds, leave a good inch below the coverts, or even a bit more for rounded-winged parrots. With smaller parrots, a good half-inch works in most cases.

Parrots have 10 flight feathers. These are the longest feathers at the end of each wing. There is never any reason to cut more than ten, and less is better. Some parrot species, such as parakeets, cockatiels and macaws have long, pointed wings, and therefore are very strong flyers. Cockatoos, lovebirds and Amazon parrots have rounded wings and are less powerful flyers. More flight feathers, approximately seven to nine, need to be trimmed on birds with long, pointed wings, while six to seven is enough on those with rounded ones. If the bird is young, then clip even less. Sometimes trimming as few as four or five flight feathers is plenty on a bird that has just fledged.

To figure out the right amount to trim on a parrot’s wings, start with less than what seems to be required and then test the bird by holding it not too far above a soft surface and letting it go. If it “helicopters” to the ground, then that is perfect. If the bird can get some level flight, trim another one. What’s important is that the bird does not drop like a stone.

Also, be careful to avoid blood feathers. These are brand new shafts of feathers, and they still have a blood supply. Before trimming, always look carefully above and below to be sure no blood feathers are present.


Robyn Bright has a master’s degree in parrot biology and more than 35 years of pet retailing experience. 

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