Think for a minute about all the things your parrot does with its beak: It forages for, transports and breaks apart food. It builds nests and feeds the babies. It’s used for climbing, gripping and balancing. It’s used in daily grooming. It’s their tool of choice in picking the padlocks we put on their cages, and, in conjunction with pressure capabilities of up to 1500 psi in their jaws (in macaws, according to tests done with a veterinarian’s oral speculum), it is a formidable weapon.
We mere humans require power tools to break apart surfaces a parrot can effortlessly crush. Anyone who has been on the business end of an angry beak regards it with awe and utter respect.
The beak itself is made up of keratin, the same substance as fingernails, and is attached to the jaw bones. The upper part of the beak is known as the maxilla and the lower is the mandible. The fleshy part where the beak meets the head is called the cere, where, on the upper maxilla, the nostrils, or nares, are located. The beak areas closest to the head contains nerve endings and a blood supply but there is no feeling in the areas towards the tip. Like our fingernails, the beak is in continual growth.
The shape of your bird’s beak will tell you about their natural diet and habits. A hookbill is one where the top of the beak extends beyond the lower. It is designed for cracking and breaking open nuts and hard skinned fruits. A raptor’s beak is designed for ripping and shredding.
The softbill, which includes canaries, toucans, lories and budgies have beaks that are for eating softer foods which they don’t need to chew; such as insects, fruits and berries. The upper and lower portions of their beaks come together at the tip. Let me assure you that the term softbill has nothing to do with the actual hardness of their beaks. They can deliver a painful bite. A finch’s conical shaped beak makes it easy to forage for seed. A spoonbill has a beak perfect for digging and shoveling. Nature has provided each bird with the appropriate tool it needs for survival.
Beaks tend to take care of themselves and do the work they were intended to do, but sometime things can go wrong, usually in the early growth stages, that can cause a malformations. The beak abnormality most often seen is scissor beak, most commonly seen in macaws and cockatoos. This is when the top and bottom potions of the beak are misaligned. The top lays off to the side of the bottom.
This usually occurs during early developmental stage and can be managed and often corrected by careful, professional trimming. In severe cases, it can inhibit the ability to eat, and cause excessive wear on the sides of the beak. Overgrowth often accompanies this defect since the bird has limited use of its beak. There are surgical techniques used for corrective measures in severe cases.
“Parrot beak” is the strangely named condition for when the upper tip of the beak rests against or inside the lower beak. This is usually found in cockatoos. It may be caused by genetics, or improper feeding by the parenting bird or by inexperienced hand feeders. It can sometimes be corrected.
Rubber bill is a too-soft beak that can be the result calcium or vitamin D3 deficiencies in the diet. This is usually found in cockatiels.
Overgrowth usually occurs in the tip of the beak. Since the upper beak grows at a faster rate than the lower mandible, it is more common to see overgrowth there. Overgrowth can be the result of developmental abnormalities, trauma, nutritional imbalances or liver disease. These same factors contribute to nail overgrowth.
The cockatoo‘s beak should be covered in a light powder.
Even though the beak is living tissue and continues to grow, you should never need to have your healthy parrot’s beak trimmed. Receiving (and accepting) a constant supply of wood and shredding toys and their daily activities that engage their beak will wear down any new growth naturally. It is normal for the outer layers of a beak to crack or peel away somewhat to reveal new growth underneath. It is part of the process and as long as the beak doesn’t change in shape, color or texture it’s okay. (Please note that I am referring to the appearance of cracking, not actual cracks in the beak!)
Whenever there is trauma to the beak that causes breakage, it requires a trip to the vet. Broken beaks can be repaired with the use of acrylics (like those used in artificial nails) and dental bonding and reconstructive techniques. It will not bond or grow back together on its own any more than a cracked fingernail will. Your parrot relies on its beak in almost everything it does, and relies on you to provide the chewing materials and good nutrition to keep it healthy!
Patty Jourgensen specializes in avian health, behavior and nutrition and has been working with and caring for rescue birds since 1987.