Training Voluntary Nail Clipping

Posted by Heather on

Me with Green-winged Macaws, Bonnie (left) and Alfie (right)

Clipping your parrot’s nails can be a hassle, but keeping nails trimmed to a comfortable length is an important part of caring for them. Sometimes a textured perch is enough to keep them worn to a sensible length, but occasionally a manicure is needed! On my recent trip to ZSL Whipsnade Zoo, I was very impressed to see the bird trainers there demonstrate how they had trained the parrots to lift each foot when asked, and have each nail clipped. No fuss, no stress, no resistance whatsoever, and the parrots got a treat once every nail on the foot was trimmed.

Bonnie and Alfie, the free-flying Green-winged Macaw siblings, seem to have spectacularly fast-growing nails and, having Alfie sat on my forearm before he flies in the shows and when I’m carrying them both (Bon sits on my hand) means I certainly notice it, especially when he’s in a silly mood and leans back and his nails dig in, ouch!!

Needless to say, I was determined to achieve this wonderful hassle-free method of nail trimming with the Tropical Butterfly House flock. I’m not quite at the point of doing this and it may take several more weeks until they are both totally comfortable with having their nails trimmed but I’ve been surprised at how quickly they are progressing.

Bonnie, Green-winged Macaw

The tactic to trim Bonnie and Alfie’s nails before has been to quickly trim a nail at a time through the cage bars and give a big reward afterwards as ‘compensation’ – this would sometimes mean it took 3 days to trim both of their nails (getting 1 or 2 on each foot at a time!) – not ideal really is it?! With such a big flock, my fellow trainers, Ben and Amanda, and I, decided we would begin this training with one or two birds for each of us, instead of all 3 of us trying to train this with all the birds (it would be very difficult to keep track of the tiny advances and improvements at each training session, so we have our ‘own birds’ to focus on).

So initially, I just began touching their feet and rewarding. Alfie was pretty happy for me to do this anyway, but Bonnie used to start to lunge for me when I reached towards her feet – within one day after about 6 sessions of foot touching and rewarding (1 or 2 minute sessions at a time), Bonnie had stopped lunging already. I have also been working on Bon and Alf becoming comfortable with me lifting their wings which I will work up to getting on cue, but for now is great for checking them over.

Alfie having his wings lifted (and Bonnie being a nosey girl as always!)

The next step is to get them to lift their foot on to your hand: if you’re bird willingly steps up, you can use this as an easy start and put your hand in front of them, but prevent them stepping up and bridge and reward the moment their foot is placed on your hand. Moving forward from this, I have gradually built up to holding the foot, and then touching each nail individually, then gently holding each nail individually. I’m really proud of Bonnie and Alfie to have reached this stage within around 2 weeks (2-3 training sessions per day at 1-2 minutes per training session) – they key is to do the training as many times as possible, keeping them short and sweet and finishing on a success.

Alfie having his toe held :)

The final stage will be to hold the foot, and touch each nail individually with several different objects (toys, pens, anything), so that they are totally fine with things being held against the nails. ONLY at this point, we will introduce clippers into the situation. Most of our parrots already recognise the nail clippers and it’s not a positive reaction, so introducing them too early could have a detrimental effect on the training process.

Molly, Citron-crested Cockatoo, having her foot held and nail gently held.

This training can easily be adapted to become a cute ‘shake hands’ trick, and could prove really useful in checking the health of your bird’s feet without the risk of a bite. NOTE: Every bird will progress at a different pace so don’t be disheartened if you don’t seem to be moving fast, this could take months for some birds to even begin to understand and be comfortable with. Pushing a training session to the point where your bird is stressed (and you are too) will leave you both having had a negative experience, and neither of you will look forward to doing it again. Regular brief sessions and a ‘slowly but surely’ attitude to this kind of training is best, there’s no rush!


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9 comments

  • I have a male Eclectus and he is loosing feathers on the side of his head and by his neck.Could that be from too long of nails? He doesn’t get a lot of attention and we have a female in the same room in a separate cage. Do you have any ideas as to his feather loss.

    Taffey on
  • I have a rescue Blue and gold that took a LONG time to gain his trust. He seemed to hate and lunge at any human, or anything placed near him. He also had very long grown out nails. I did the same clip through the cage trick for a short period of time, but I could tell it was taking trust from me. I also don’t like to use clippers because of the chance of getting into the quick and starting a bad bleed.

    Eventually once I had his trust, I was VERY surprised to find he would allow me to hold each toe as he stood on my leg, and let me use an emery board on his nails without any fuss or trying to bite.

    For those that are not used to trimming nails, I would HIGHLY recommend using an emery board to file down their nails instead of using clippers. If you were to get into the quick while filing, the power from the filing will fill in the quick and prevent a sever bleed.

    If you must use clippers, I would also suggest keeping a little dish of corn starch handy in case you do get a bleeder. Just pack a little of the corn starch into the end of the nail to stop the bleeding.

    Happy Trimming!!!!

    Simi on
  • I have a budgie, and he absolutely does not want to be touched. He’s quite bold about approaching me and will play with my hands and fingers but it has to be on his own terms. He will not allow any feather petting or touching from me except on his beak. This could be because of the few times in 5 yrs I’ve had him when I did have to clip his nails and had to gently towel him on my lap to do it. What I want to know is, do the textured perches irritate a bird’s feet and cause foot problems? I read somewhere before I got him that they do, so I have never tried them. Having one would help until I can get him properly clicker trained which is very difficult for me since I have a chronic pain condition and am just not predictably able to keep to any kind of training diet or schedule for training at the moment with the pain and exhaustion of my illness. It is a challenge to do these things for me, but my bird is very precious to me and I do my best. I have the basic training program and have used several of the tips very successfully, as well as all of the health information.

    Joanna on
  • My Senegal, Moxie also uses his beak to step up & do other things so sometimes he hurts me without meaning to, he isn’t biting! Any ideas for sharp beaks?

    Shirley on
  • Thanks for the great information—I have a question about the stepping up part—my cherry head conure steps up, but she always uses her beak first. Any tips on training her to just step up with her feet?

    Janis Warne on

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