What You Need To Know To Give Your Bird A Perfect Nail Trim


Earlier in the week I made an appointment with Linus (my umbrella cockatoo) for a nail trim. Some of his nails were a bit long and one was painfully sharp. I hunted for my favorite nail trimming clippers and couldn’t find them, so I put off the trim until they could be located.

I had bought these clippers perhaps as many as 12 or 13 years ago. I brought them home and tested them out on my dog and loved the handling so much that I returned to the store the next day to purchase enough replacement blades to last until either the clippers gave out, or I did. We will never know who might have won that race because now they are gone without a trace.

I went to the store today for new ones and found a pair with an exciting feature that my old clippers didn’t have: a movable bar that creates a barrier preventing us from cutting off too much of the nail. If I had known there was any possibility of an advancement in nail trimming technology, I would have made this bold move years ago.

When I was checking out, I couldn’t contain my excitement and told the sales girl all about my new discovery and how great this safety feature is for parrots. She stared at me blankly. Either I was that day’s most boring customer, or she had no idea what I was talking about. If only to preserve my ego, I went with the latter.

If someone in a pet store doesn’t understand how a nail trimming can go wrong, maybe some others don’t either. So…here’s your nail trimming post.

My new clippers – Safety Pet Nail Clippers by Four Paws. Meant for larger birds.

How your bird’s nails grow

A bird’s nails are made of keratin, the same material our fingernails are made of. In the center of that hard shell is a soft area with a live blood supply and nerve endings called the quick. The quick extends part of the way down the center of the nail. Unfortunately, with dark nails it isn’t possible to see where the quick ends so that we can avoid cutting into it during a nail trim.

Because there are nerve endings involved, a cut through the quick is painful. And because there is an active blood supply, there will be bleeding, which is never a good thing with a parrot. Whenever your parrot bleeds it is essential to stop it right away. It is smart to always have a coagulant on hand such as styptic powder. In a pinch, flour or cornstarch will usually work and I have resorted to a scraping a bar of soap over a bleeding nail in the past.

Don’t let the nails get too long

As nails grow, so does the quick inside. When we allow the nails to get too long, it is tempting to simply cut off all the excess at one time. However, the longer the nail is, the more it increases the likelihood that we will cut into the quick. Long nails need to be trimmed back tiny bits at a time. The slight trimming encourages the quick to recede so that a little more can be trimmed, usually within a week, until they are the proper length.

The perfect nail length

You will want you bird’s nails to be as close to just right as possible all the time. Climbing accidents happen when they aren’t the proper length. Parrots lose their grip when nails are too short, so always resist the urge to cut nails shorter than they should be to delay the next trim. Long nails can get caught in the most surprising places and birds struggling to free themselves sometimes pull their nail off.

Your bird’s nails are the perfect length when they are just a hair above a flat surface they are standing on. In other words, if you were to get on eye level with the table top your bird is standing on, the nail would be only slightly above the surface of the table.  (see diagram below)

Judging the right the place to make the nail cut, however, is tricky. If you were to look at your bird’s foot while it is perching, and try to estimate where to make the cut, you would always cut the nail much too short.

The pad on the toe joint closest to the nail is thicker than it is further back on the toe. When a bird’s foot is flat, the pressure on that pad forces the nail upward. Without the pad repositioning the nail, birds would struggle on a flat surface because their nails wouldn’t allow their foot to rest flatly and comfortably. The pressure is on the center of the foot when a bird is perched and the nail appears longer causing some people to misjudge how far to cut them back.

The only way to truly judge at what point the nail should be cut is by observing where the nail falls when the bird is on a flat surface. Keep that measurement in your mind’s eye and make the cut in that approximate location.

How a nail should look on a flat surface when it is the perfect length – my birds wanted no part of posing for this shot.

Clip or file?

I clip the big birds and file the small birds. It is a personal decision. My reasoning is that clipping is faster with the large birds. Neither of my cockatoos can refrain from trying to participate in the trimming process and before long there is always a curious beak wrapped around a file.

With my small birds, I find that a few file passes over their nails once a week keeps them in fine shape. Naturally, I have never attempted to use the big clippers on the small birds – the margin for error is enormous and with a small, wiggling bird, a toe could easily be taken off. I also do not use fingernail clippers with my small birds. They dull easily with use on fingernails and the blades are just too thick for their delicate nails. There is a lot of pinching and nails get split when fingernail clippers are used. (Dull clipper blades will have the same effect on the bigger birds.)

Whatever method you choose to use is fine as long as you get it done when it is needed and that you take steps to make it as pleasant an experience for your bird as nail clipping might allow. Clippers are scary to some birds, and peculiar things to the rest. Keep in mind that your bird is aware that you have cut away a piece of its nail, and in the wrong setting, that might be perceived as violent. Do your best to make it non-threatening. Good behavior should always be heavily rewarded with favorite snack foods following a successful nail trim.

Finally, be grateful you don’t have to deal with these nails:

Eagle talons

Patty Jourgensen specializes in avian health, behavior and nutrition and has been working with and caring for rescue birds since 1987.



We just got a macaw and don’t have an aviation vet close by so it’s all on us… is it possible that this cutting technique works for macaws too?


lol. those eagle claws are out of this world. and here i am thinking my cockatoos claws were big.


My Green Cheeked Conure became a terrible biter. I have at least gotten her/him to move to the back of the cage when I need to change the food and water dishes, by saying “step back”. I also have a smaller cage that she/he willingly moves into so I can clean the main cage, or if she/he wants to accompany me around the apt. (I say “step over” and she/he has a choice to do this or not) But her/his nails are way too long, despite the cement-like perches etc. Thing is, I cannot see myself “forcing my pet into submission” in order to trim their nails, and expecting anything good to come out of it! This seems like a no-win situation …HELP!!


I’ve recently heard something new about clipping and want to know if it’s true or false. I have heard that clipping causes nails to curl, have you heard this and is it true? I personally don’t see how clipping would cause this and never sew it in my own birds in the past. As for keeping nails trim I try to use pedi perches and they work great for my GCC but my tiel doesn’t seem to use them as much.


It’s a struggle for me every time I try to trim my sun conure’s nails. She is 9 months d and she does not like to be touched on her back and I’ve been working with her trying to get her comfortable with it but she’s very willful and stubborn. She hates it when she goes “wee”, which is where I gently flip her to her back holding her feet, the method shown on the bird tricks DVD. And when I try to do it on her perch she wiggles all over the place and won’t let me hold her foot. So right now it’s near impossible! Idk what to do. I’m trying to be patient and get her comfortable at her pace but she really needs her nails trimmed. Should I just take her to a professional in the mean time? I just don’t know. This is my first parrot and I want to be the best mommy I can!

Janis Warne

My question is how do you get your birds to let you file or clip their nails?? My conure bites at the file or clippers, and the one time I tried it myself, by towelling her, I ended up bloody and bitten and she was one very p…. off birdy! I’ve since taken her to the vet for clipping (at $25 a pop!), but I’m housebound this summer with foot problems myself and haven’t been able to get there. And your very informative column and helpful drawing made me realize that she does need a manicure.

Janis Warne

My Cockatoo allows me to file her nails. I brought her to a vet before to get her nails clipped, and the first nail they cut it bled right away! after a few months, i brought her to an avian vet and they would file it down with an electric file.. but she would start screaming! :( i didnt want her to go through any of that anymore! i made her get used to me filing her nails. Everyday, i’d file one nail a few times, then reward her for it, then kiss her on the beak. kept doing that til she got used to it and just allows me to file all her nails, plus she kisses me after im done with each nail <3 :)


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