One of the things that distinguishes parrots from many other birds is their zygodactyl feet. It sounds really prehistoric, but it simply means two toes forward and two toes back, specifically the second and third toe point forward, and the first and the fourth point back. This configuration of toes allows for greater ability in grasping and manipulating objects like food and toys, climbing and perching.
Since they are on their feet 24/7, many perches should be made available in your parrots cage. They should vary in texture, material, and in width or diameter. Sandy or cement perches should not be the main perch for the cage. These textures are unnatural for them and their time on them should be limited.
Don’t use them as a means to get out of nail trims. It is the parrot’s skin that has the most contact with the surface. If the nails are so long that they are making enough contact with a sandy perch to actually be filed, they are not perching correctly. This could lead to tendonitis or arthritis.
Poor perching opportunities, dirty or wrong sized perches and frequent perching on rough surfaces can cause pressure sores on the bottom of the feet, which can become infected. This is often referred to as bumble foot and can be moderate to severe. The skin is so thin on the bottom of a birds feet that bacteria passes easily through.
Once a skin infection sets in on the bird’s foot, it can quickly turn into a bone infection as there is not much between the skin and the bones in their feet. If there are any red or shiny/smooth spots on the bottom of your parrot’s foot, find more suitable perches for your species of bird. Watch the sores for signs of infection and call the vet for direction.
Are parrots left or right…footed?
An interesting question, right? Studies have shown most parrots to be left-handed, meaning that they prefer to eat or hold objects with their left foot. Mine seem to fall in line with this.
However, they will sometimes lead with their right foot. When I reach to step Linus up with my left hand, he will lead with his right foot. This may be because he sees the area closest to my thumbs as a wider, more stable, perch and prefers to stand on it to steady himself before applying all of his body weight. If I reach with my right hand, he will step up with his left. When he steps off of my hand onto a flat surface, he might use either foot.
What about the parrot that has no feet at all?
You read that right. There are accidents, birth defects, or diseases that sometimes require the amputation of toes, feet or entire legs. When you consider how important a function these body parts provide for an active bird, it might seem like the end of the road. This simply isn’t true. Most carry on quite well and learn quickly to adapt.
A friend took in a pair of African greys from a breeder whose parents had bitten their feet off when they were just a few days old. One has only stumps at the end of his legs, the other fared a little better, and has slight remnants of feet, but not enough to really support balance. He looks a bit like it would if you put a child’s feet on a man’s body.
Both bird’s have had handicap cages ingeniously devised for birds that lack the ability to grasp and climb well, including ramps, and soft, flat perches. Everything is nearer to the bottom of the cage, to reduce the need for bar climbing and to prevent a falling accident, while still encouraging exercise.
Neither of these birds has a clue that they are different. They are happy, well adjusted, playful and full of themselves. They will flip over on their backs and play with foot toys just like any other, except, no feet. There really isn’t much they can’t do that a footed bird can accomplish. If they don’t feel like there is something wrong with them, why should we? They’re perfect just as they are.
Photo credit: Macaw & Cockatoo Rescue of New Mexico.
Author Patty Jourgensen specializes in avian health, behavior and nutrition and has been working with and caring for rescue birds since 1987.
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