Primping and Preening
The How-To of Grooming and Bathing Your Bird
Birds don’t need to be brushed and combed, and will certainly take offense at a little pink bow tied to the top of the head, but will appreciate a regular bath, feather grooming, and nail clipping, when necessary. These things constitute basic bird care, the same as offering proper nutrition, housing, and exercise. Maintaining your bird’s skin, feathers, and nails, goes a long way toward keeping your bird healthy.
Bath Time for Birdy!
Wild birds don’t need anyone to remind them to take a bath or groom their feathers. Just walk outside after a heavy rainfall and watch the sparrows dipping their heads in and out of puddles at the curb. Not the most sanitary bath, but a bath nonetheless.
When you say the word b-a-t-h in front of your feathered friend, does he immediately start looking for a hiding place? He’s not alone. Many companion parrots like water about as much as they like toxic fumes. This is a parrot that cringes when the spray bottle comes out, that flies off its perch and makes a beeline for the space behind the couch just as your finger triggers the first drop. It’s not that Polly doesn’t want to bathe. He might now know how.
It seems strange that a wild animal—your companion bird—doesn’t understand that a bath is fun and healthful, but it makes sense when you realize that certain bird behaviors are learned by watching other birds. Since most companion birds don’t have other feathered role models, some behaviors, perhaps even bathing, may seem as foreign as eating broccoli (another thing we’d like our birds to do!). Even if terror glints in your bird’s eye when you break out the hose, there’s a way to bathe him and still maintain his dignity—and yours.
Bathing is not just for aesthetics. Water on the skin helps to keep the amount of dander down (especially on cockatiels, cockatoos, and African greys) and adds much-needed moisture to the skin. Bathing promotes feather grooming (preening), which promotes the spreading of oil from the oil gland at the base of the tail, leading to tighter, shinier, more waterproof feathers in most species. Bathing helps a molting bird remove itchy feather sheathes, and allows breeding birds to take essential moisture back to their eggs in the nest.
Using Natural Instincts to Bathe a Dirty Birdy
Some companion birds are natural bathers, jumping in the water dish or underneath the running water in the sink at every opportunity. Presenting this bird with a special bathing dish is about all you have to do. But some birds are more reluctant, and owners of these birds often give up on proposing a bath. Don’t be daunted. Using your bird’s natural instincts may help to get him appreciating bath time.
Some wild parrots don’t often have the luxury of landing on the ground to bathe—this would make them easy targets for predators. Parrots that feed primarily on the ground in dry grasslands, such as budgies, cockatiels, and lovebirds will be more apt to bathe in a shallow dish of water placed at the bottom of the cage. Birds that feed primarily in the treetops, such as Amazons, macaws, and conures, may respond better to a simulated rain shower, which is how they would receive a bath in the wild.
Bob and Liz Johnson know about bath time better than most bird owners. They live with over one hundred macaws and a handful of cockatoos, African greys, lories, and conures in a sub-tropical rainforest they built themselves to house abused and abandoned birds. Bath time for the Johnson’s flock comes mainly during the wet season.
“Our birds bathe in the rain,” said the Johnsons. “Some people recommend bathing them every day, even twice a day. We see them in a natural situation and they don’t bathe every day. The first time it rains after it hasn’t rained in a while, they go crazy and get drenched. If it rains the next day they hide under the shelter. In a natural setting, given the choice, they don’t bathe every day. In a drier climate, or indoors, it makes sense to mist them every day. It depends on the weather.”
Actual rain might be an ideal bath for most birds, but it’s not ideal for most bird owners—even the weatherman can’t accurately predict rain, and it might be cold or dangerous to allow your bird to bathe in it. A simulated rain shower will have to do. Using a mister, spray bottle, or hose, aim a light flow of water up and over your bird’s head. Make sure there’s ample room on the perch for your bird to step out of the shower should it want to. Drenching your bird to the skin once a week is ideal. If your bird likes bathing, you can offer a bath frequently, but don’t force it. Remember, always avoid spraying directly into the eyes and don’t continue to spray a terrified bird.
The Johnsons have also found that simply hearing the sound of rain compels some birds to bathe. The handicapped birds that don’t live in the rainforest bathe in their water dishes when it rains and even when Liz runs the blender! The Johnsons suggest that the noise of running water might help a reluctant bather to take the plunge.
Bathe a bird only in warm weather or when it will have ample time to dry in a warm place. Bathe in the morning or afternoon so that your bird doesn’t go to sleep wet. Blow-drying is possible, but not recommended—it can cause fright and overheating.
Use only warm, plain, clean water for bathing. Some people use commercial bathing products, but these can cause eye irritation and have added scent that your bird doesn’t need—healthy birds do not have a foul odor (please excuse the pun). For an added health benefit, add a few drops of colloidal silver to the bath water, as the Johnsons do; silver is a natural antibacterial agent and does not irritate the eyes—the pioneers put silver coins in their milk and water canteens to keep the liquid fresh. Some people add drops of aloe or glycerin to the water when they plan on showing a bird in a bird show. These items make the feathers very shiny, but prolonged use is not recommended.
Cockatiels, cockatoos, and African greys have a fine powder that comes from the powder-down feathers growing close to their skin. This powder serves as a natural bath to keep the feathers clean, but also serves to create allergies in their owners. You may find that no matter how much water you spray on one of these birds, it simply doesn’t get wet—the water rolls right off. You might have to try harder to get a reluctant powdery bird to bathe, but the payoff is worth the work.
Grooming the Feathers
Birds groom their feathers by “preening” them. Each feather is made from thin strands that “zip up” to form the feather. Each feather has a distinct place and function. The bird must make sure that every feather is properly zipped and in place so that it can fly and regulate its body temperature. You don’t have to worry about this minuscule grooming—a healthy bird will do it on its own.
Birds that live together will preen each other—this is called “allopreening.” Birds in pairs groom hard to reach places, such as the top of the head. If you are your bird’s only buddy, then you can help to remove the feather sheathes that emerge on his head during molting, but be careful because removing them too forcefully can hurt. Simply rub a fingernail over the sheath and it should begin to come off if it’s ready—if not, your bird will let you know with a little nip!
Clipping the Wings
Wing clipping is the act of cutting the first seven to ten flight feathers on a bird’s wings to disable it from flying. There are two camps on this issue: one camp that opposes the practice and one that endorses it. Some say that birds are meant to fly and are at a disadvantage in many ways when the wings are clipped. The other camp asserts that a flighted bird living in the average household is in jeopardy from the many dangers lurking within ordinary things, like ceiling fans and open windows.
Both sides have valid points—it’s up to you whether or not you clip your bird’s wings. Most bird owners do clip, ensuring, at the very least, that they don’t lose their bird.
Wing clipping hurts just as much as a haircut hurts us—except that we don’t use our hair to move us around! It’s not a good idea to trim your bird’s wings yourself if you don’t know what you’re doing. This can lead to a poor clip and a freaked out parrot. Your avian veterinarian or local bird shop will provide this service for a small fee. Once you see it done a few times, you may feel confident enough to try it on your own.
Clipping isn’t necessarily difficult to do on your own—it’s mastering holding your bird properly that’s tricky. Two people are often better then one during the clipping procedure: one to hold the bird wrapped safely in a towel or washcloth and one to extend the wing and clip the feathers. Remember, a bird’s bones are very fragile and manhandling can be deadly. Birds have air sacs (part of the respiratory system) in some of their bones, and can die or become very ill if one of these bones breaks.
The flight feathers are the first ten long feathers at the end of the wing when you are looking at it from underneath. If you look at the wing from above you will see that these long flight feathers are covered halfway by a set of shorter feathers. The flight feathers are clipped at the point where these two feathers meet. To make a clean clip, cut each feather individually with sharp scissors—if you cut them all at once they will be uneven and pointy. A ragged clip doesn’t look nice, and the ends of the feathers can stick into the bird’s body uncomfortably and cause him to start picking and plucking.
Heavy birds, such as Amazons and African greys, need a conservative clip—you will only trim the first five to seven flights off of the wing, though this varies from bird to bird. These heavy birds need some of their flight feathers to glide to the ground should they fall, or risk breaking the breastbone or beak on a hard floor. Lighter birds, such as cockatiels and budgies, need a more drastic clip, consisting of all ten flight feathers and maybe even some of the next set of feathers toward the body on the wing, the lift feathers. Cockatiels have been known to fly with only their flight feathers clipped.
Feathers grow back with the next molt, about every six months or so, which is why it’s important to keep an eye on feather growth. Many an owner has lost a bird to the great blue yonder thinking that the bird was still clipped.
Bleeding is the one physical danger in clipping a bird’s wings, which happens when a new feather, called a blood feather, is accidentally cut. The blood feather is recognizable by the sheath surrounding it or by a reddish or dark vein in the center of the feather. If you notice bleeding, grip the wing firmly and pull the feather out of the wing in one quick motion. If you’re squeamish, put some coagulant on the wound and take your bird to the veterinarian immediately.
Trimming the Nails
Trimming the nails is a procedure done as much for the owner as for the bird. Bird’s nails are like our nails—they keep growing, and unless they are trimmed or filed, can become uncomfortable.
A long-time theory holds that wild birds’ nails are kept filed by landing on branches and other rough surfaces. According to the Johnsons, who keep their birds in an environment as close to a natural setting as possible, say that nails may become sharp for a good reason. “Many people have said that birds’ nails don't overgrow in the wild because they perch in trees with various sized branches. We have not found this to be true. Ours still become sharp. In the wild, the sharpness is an asset, because they can grip and fight better with sharp nails.”
Unfortunately, sharpness is not an asset in the average home. Overgrown nails can curl around and stab the feet, and are surely painful for the owner. Trim nails when you notice them becoming sharp. It might be necessary to hold some birds while clipping nails, but most tame birds will allow an owner to pick up a foot and snip the nails one by one. This is the preferred method. If your bird is reluctant, trim one nail a day and offer a treat each time for good behavior. You can use the same clipper you use on your own nails.
Just like us, a bird has two parts to the nail: the dead part and the living part, commonly called the quick. Trim only the dead part at the very end of the nail. The quick is where the blood flow is, and cutting into it is painful and causes bleeding. The quick easy to see in birds with light colored toes as the darker red part of the nail. You will have to be much more careful trimming dark nails where you can’t see the quick. If the nail begins to bleed, apply a coagulant and trim the other nails another day.
A concrete “grooming perch” is a fine addition to your bird’s cage, but will not do all the work of keeping the nails trimmed. Make sure you offer perches of a wide variety of materials and sizes. Sandpaper perches can trap moisture and cause foot problems, so opt for the solid concrete perch instead.
Ultimately, your bird is responsible for most of its grooming, and if it’s healthy and happy, it should be primping and preening too. Regular bathing, grooming of the wing feathers, and nail clipping are all you have to do to keep your bird well groomed and gorgeous. Shiny, tight feathers, healthy feet, and a properly grown beak are the result of an all-around healthy bird eating a nutritious diet and living in the proper housing. Think of grooming using the chicken and the egg paradox—keeping your bird well groomed helps to keep it healthy, and keeping your bird healthy helps to keep it well groomed. Voila! A pretty bird.
1. If your bird’s toenails are drastically overgrown and curling under, seek veterinary advice. This could be a sign of mites, foot disease, or nutritional disorders.
2. If your bird’s beak is wildly overgrown and is curling in on itself, or is strange looking and bumpy, visit your avian veterinarian right away. This could be a sign of mites or a nutritional disorder.
3. If your bird is “over grooming,” working its feathers so much that it’s chewing them and/
4. If you notice bald patches on your bird where there were formerly feathers, make a veterinary appointment right away. The exception is breeding females who may pluck out a “brooding patch” on the chest to keep her eggs warm.
5. Molting, or the changing of feathers, happens about twice a year. You will notice feathers in and around your bird’s cage. This is normal. If you notice the molt going on for longer than a few months, seek a doctor’s advice.
6. If your bird is drastically changing color—say, from lime green to dark red—and it’s not a result of maturing, seek veterinary help. This could be a sign of stress or malnutrition. The same holds for excessive barring on the feathers, when not associated with a normal color change.
--Never trim any other feathers than ½ of the flight feather on the wing. Never trim the tail or body feathers. Birds use these feathers for balance and body temperature regulation.
--Never pull your bird’s feathers out in lieu of trimming them. There are occasions where feathers may need to be pulled, but not as a substitute for clipping.
--Never trim the wing feathers on a finch, canary, robin, quail, or other similar birds.
--Never try to groom the beak. Only your avian veterinarian should do this. You can damage your bird for life if you make a mistake.
--Never restrain a bird forcefully. Gentle tactics result in a happier bird. If you have to groom over several days to save your bird from stress, do so.
--Never bathe your bird in cold weather when there’s no warm place to dry.
--Never spray commercial bathing solutions into your bird’s face.
--Never soak a bird that doesn’t want to bathe. If water frightens your bird, use gentle tactics to get him used to the bath, not trial by fire.
--Never bathe your bird like you would a dog, in a tub or sink full of soapy water. Do this only if your bird comes in contact with oil (which also requires a veterinary visit).
-- Never try to paint your bird’s toenails—not only is the paint a potential toxin, your bird may not like your color choice!
Don’t do it. Grooming the beak is best left to your avian veterinarian. Sometimes a bird’s beak will become misaligned, overgrown, or cracked, and will need to be fixed—but not by you. Trying to groom the beak when you don’t know what you’re doing can lead to serious injury for your bird.