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Parrot Grooming Q&A

From overgrown and flaky bird beaks to dry skin for parrots, find your answers to common parrot grooming questions.

By Margaret A. Wissman, DVM

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Q: I noticed that my parrot’s beak is getting quite flaky. Is this related to molting and do I need to have it taken care of when I next get him groomed?

A: A flaky beak may be a normal part of growth and aging; however, many pet birds don’t chew and play with bird toys with enough vigor to adequately wear down the beak, so sometimes the beak will become too long or will develop abnormal flaky areas. In such cases, it is imperative to seek the assistance of an avian veterinarian familiar with your species of bird so that the beak can be trimmed and shaped to the normal anatomical form. Normal flaking must be differentiated from abnormal thickening and flaking, which can entrap bits of food within the beak keratin and result in infection or necrosis (tissue damage). Ask your avian vet to assess your bird’s beak the next time you have him examined prior to grooming.

When trimming and shaping the beak, I always use a new grinder head so that I don’t introduce organisms from another bird. Beak trimming should only be performed by a trained veterinary professional, since it is possible to damage the underlying tissue if too much grinding is done. I don’t routinely anesthetize or sedate a bird for beak trimming, but some vets may require anesthesia. I have learned that, by manipulating the upper beak so that the tip is inside of the lower beak, I can safely and easily trim both the sides of the upper beak and the front surface of the lower beak. Most birds naturally have a flat front surface of the gnathotheca (lower beak), so it is easy to trim it back if overgrown. Species that are the exception to this are the cockatoos and cockatiels, which tend to have points at the corners of this surface, and it is scooped out in the middle.

golden conure
Some parrot species, such as a Queen of Bavaria conure or golden conure (pictured), have longer beaks than other parrots. 

It is very important to also evaluate the lower beak and to have the beak trimmed back to normal proportions symmetrically when necessary so that it doesn’t end up skewing the rhinotheca (upper beak) to one side or the other, called scissors-beak.

Q: I have a 20-year-old white-fronted Amazon. Occasionally, he develops dry skin on his feet, just like a person might develop. A few times, I have put a regular, unscented lotion on his feet to help, and it has not negatively affected him at all. Is it safe and proven to put lotion on a bird’s feet regularly?

A: Dry, flaky skin, especially in Amazon parrots, may be related to nutritional deficiencies, most commonly vitamin-A deficiency. Unscented lotion (containing no steroids, antibiotics or other additives), may offer immediate relief for dry skin; however, I recommend that you discuss this with your avian vet in order to ascertain if there are any underlying medical conditions that could be causing the dry skin. Your avian vet will most likely run some lab tests and go over your bird’s diet with you. Your bird may need a supplement of some sort.

A more natural remedy for relief of dry skin in avian patients is the use of liquid squeezed from the leaves of the aloe plant. I keep a couple of these plants around just for such a purpose. The cut surface of the aloe vera plant oozes a nice, soothing liquid that is nontoxic if ingested (as long as the plant hasn’t been sprayed with or exposed to pesticides or other potential toxins).

Q: My cockatiel hates to bathe and lately, his feathers look a little messy. Should I force a spray bath on him and, if so, how often does this need to be done?

A: When it comes to bathing, some pet birds seem to not enjoy the whole experience. There are some tricks to tempt birds that appear uncomfortable or unhappy about bath-time. First, try misting your bird with tepid water during a thunderstorm, as sometimes the sound of the storm will trigger a parrot to begin bathing. Or you can fill a large, shallow bowl with tepid water and place it so your bird has access during a storm, and some will bathe under those conditions.

Many smaller birds, especially budgerigars, prefer bathing in a pile of freshly washed greens. They seem to enjoy crawling through, under and around wet greens to wet their feathers. You can also sprout grass seed (companies sell kits specifically for this purpose) and allow birds to play and bathe in a clump of wet grass. They often preen their feathers afterwards. Birds also often enjoy nibbling on the greens — a good source of beta-carotene and carotenoids — which are converted to vitamin A in the bird’s body after ingestion. Offer healthy greens such as kale, romaine lettuce, parsley, spinach, endive and other dark green leafy vegetables. Ingestion of greens will not cause diarrhea, but may cause a bird to urinate more due to the veggies high water content.

No matter how your bird bathes, allow it to preen and dry off in a warm, draft-free area. Some birds help each other by preening their inaccessible areas (such as the top of the head and back of the neck).

It is always important to check the uropygial gland (preen gland) and the wick feathers for any bird with beak, skin or feather problems. The secretions from this unique gland produce vitamin D precursors that are spread on the feathers during preening. When the feathers are exposed to natural, unfiltered sunlight or the UVB portion of a full-spectrum fluorescent light bulb, the vitamin D precursors are converted to active vitamin D3, which is necessary for proper calcium metabolism. This active vitamin D3 is ingested during preening.

If the bird is a feather-picker, it might have pulled out the wick feathers, so the secretions won’t be available to the bird. I have seen cases in which the secretion has dried up around the base of the wick, thus preventing the secretions from exiting the gland properly, resulting in an enlarged, sometimes impacted, uropygial gland. In other cases, if the bird is suffering from vitamin-A deficiency (hypovitaminosis A), the gland may not produce the secretions, which can also be problematic. The secretion helps water-proof the feathers and it has antimicrobial properties, as well.

Not all species of parrot have an uropygial gland. Amazons and the purple macaws don’t possess one. I’m not quite certain how they manage to have waterproofed feathers in the absence of the preen gland’s secretions, but their feathers seem as water-resistant as those of birds that do have one.

Bathing helps a bird by removing dust and dander from the feathers. The act of the bird running the beak over the uropygial gland wick feathers picks up the secretions, which are then dispersed over the feathers during the act of preening. Preening also helps to maintain the feather quality by causing the barbs and barbules to become reconnected, sort of like how Velcro holds to itself. Sick birds often have a ratty appearance to the feathers because they are not properly maintaining the feathers by preening. Sometimes, when a bird is due or overdue to molt, the feathers may lose some normal pigmentation, and develop a black appearance, and these older feathers may also not zip back together properly during preening.

For monthly information about pet birds and parrots, subscribe to BIRD TALK Magazine by clicking here.


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