The following is written with middle to larger sized parrots in mind.
Parrots' feet are unique in that they are the only birds not of prey to have this configuration. They have two long toes in front as well as two long toes in back, each equipped with long and very sharp and strong nails that curve as they grow and have sharp and pointed ends.
In raptors, this allows them to deftly grab moving prey and grasp them during flight. The nails are good for killing and manipulation of minute objects. Nails also help in digging out nests in cliffs, trees, barns, etc. Some scientists postulate that these birds might use scratch marks to indicate their individual territories.
In some parrot species, these feet help them firmly grasp food such as nuts, foliage, fruits, and veggies. The shape and flexibility of their feet allows them to make deft and swift maneuvers through trees and help in defense as well. For reasons not yet completely known, flocks of parrots will gather at clay pits to eat the clay. Theories suggest that this behavior aids in digestion and contains vital nutrients. Acute manipulation is necessary for maintaining grip and grasping the clay.
Domestically, parrots use their feet in a modified sense by climbing perches, grasping food, playing with toys, hanging on to small shoulders, swinging about playfully, and leaving marks on your arms. Nails are a secondary defense to the beak, but can still send a strong message of "don't mess with me!" Parrots can climb poles, moldings, shutters, and just about anything they desire.
Hence the need for trimming their nails. A razor sharp-footed parrot will not be a welcomed guest on shoulders and will use this as a tool of aggression, especially if it is sexually mature. Also, with the modifications of the artificial environment, blade-like nails are generally not necessary.
A passive approach to whittling down your parrot's nails is to buy a few concrete perches. You can find these at most pet shops, avian specialty stores, and online. Most perches are colored, so make sure to verify that the coloring agents are non-toxic. Perches will come with a screw to install on the side of the cage or a chain to let it hang from the top of the cage. These perches often come with toys for extra play time. Make sure that the metal is stainless steel or free of hazardous elements. After a week, you will notice that your parrot's nails are a lot more pleasant on you arms, etc.
If you need to trim your bird's nails because they grow quickly or are just excessively long (i.e. they look like little scimitars), please go by the following suggested instructions:
- You will need a partner, two sets of leather gloves, nail trimmers, finger or toe nail depending on the size of your parrot's nails, a towel, and anything else for soothing the bird during the process.
- Take the bird to an open place where it feels comfortable. Comfort it with its favorite foods, cuddling, or whatnot. Speak softly about what you are doing. As I mentioned before, this may backfire, but it is worth a shot.
- Don those gloves, both of you. Try not to do so by raising your arms above the bird, as they often find this threatening. Continue comforting the parrot and behave normally. Parrots sense fear, tension, etc.
- Place the bird on your non-dominant hand (if you're a rightie, put the bird on your left, and vice versa).
- Have your partner grasp the bird's foot at the base just above where the toes split. Have them grasp one toe at the space where the toe juts out from the "finger". Make sure to cover the place where the toe and finger meet. This area SHOULD NEVER BE CUT. There are blood vessels at the base of the toe and cutting at those points will stunt that toe's growth permanently and your parrot will seriously not like you.
- The person holding the parrot should use the nail cutter to clip only the very ends of the toe, just enough so that the ends are flat instead of pointed. This will not impair the parrot's ability to eat, climb, etc. in a significant manner.
- Spend time soothing the bird afterwards and rewarding it vocally and with new toys and food.
Combining the aforementioned method with concrete perches is a surefire way to keep your parrots nails trimmed and healthy. Again, if you do not feel comfortable doing this, go to a veterinarian that specializes in birds or a trusted breeder and ask them for their advice. This process should not take place too often, maybe once every two months or so.