Answered by Phoebe Green Linden:
Hello and thank you for writing World Parrot Trust about your 9 year old Timneh Grey. It sounds like you really care for him, which is great!
I'm glad he's getting regular check-ups from an avian vet. There is no substitute for regular check-ups and your relationship with an avian vet is great insurance so that if an emergency occurs, s/he has a record of your parrot's normal condition. However, I respectfully question the amount of grooming that's being done on him.
First, the beak.
In Clinical Avian Medicine, Vol. 1
, Harrison and Lightfoot, 2006 (pg 14), the good doctor writes: "Beak trimming is not necessary in birds unless the beak is overgrown due to underlying health problems or malocclusion." Therefore, unless your parrot's beak is growing unnaturally long or into an unusual shape, you can and should eliminate the beak trims. Beak trimming is not part of standard grooming because it's unnecessary, potentially painful and usually traumatic. It should never be performed for cosmetic reasons. There are ways other than trimming to ensure your parrot's beak stays healthy and those we'll review below.
The rhinotheca, "the final protective/germinal layer" of the upper beak is thin "and can easily be ground through or burned." (p15) You wouldn't necessarily see a burn because the dark beak would cover it, but your parrot would feel it, and that would hurt a lot because what's inside the thin outer covering is super-sensitive blood- and nerve ending-infused tissue. Pain is amplified by these nerve endings. Think of crunching down on hard foods (like pellets) with a broken tooth, or a toothache in all your teeth at once - the pain shoots right to your head - and that's correlative with a beak that's been trimmed.
His beak will need to heal completely (which may take 3 months) before you see him rubbing it to clean/groom it himself, which he will do when you follow the tips below regarding perches.
Next, the wings.
Unless you are taking your parrot outside without first putting him into a carrier, or keeping him inside but your household has unavoidable hazards, I'd recommend a moratorium on the wing trims, too. After nine years of trimmed wings, due to muscular atrophy and resultant enhanced caution, your parrot probably wouldn't fly even if his wings grew out completely. Linda, try letting his wings grow in, which they will over time, and you might discover a parrot who flaps more, plays more and is generally more confident than before, even if he never actually flies. From your note, you seem like a very conscientious caregiver - one with great attention to detail - so if you apply that same keen discernment to his flight capabilities, you may discover that wing trims can be either greatly diminished or eliminated altogether.
A diminished wing trim might be one where only 1 - 2" of the first 3 or 4 primary flight feathers are removed. This is the trim I formerly used on young fledglings so they wouldn't zoom around the confines of the house before they gained coordination. As years went by, I made the house increasingly flight-friendly and completely eliminated all wing trims. In your case, you can carefully watch your Timneh and see if he even uses his longer wings. If he's going to fly, he'll most likely give you plenty of notice beforehand by flapping while holding on to a perch, hanging upside down and flapping and generally testing his balance and coordination in ways that clipped parrots do not. Of course, if you let his wings grow out and whether or not you ever see him fly, if his feathers grow back, he will be capable of flight, especially if he's startled. So inside the house, give him plenty of places where he knows it's safe to land and practice "fake flying" with him to safe place A from safe place B. Additionally, you'll always want to keep him in a carrier or put him in an aviary when he goes outside.
Now, for the nails.
Nail trims can also be very painful and it's not uncommon for parrots to become depressed after a nail trim, even if only one of the nails bleeds or it's cauterized by a dremmel/drill during the trim. Think about your fingernails and toenails - all of them at once - being trimmed all the way to the quick and then being forced to use those painful digits for everything - eating, sleeping, walking, and standing. Now imagine those same nails being cut into the quick to the point of bleeding and having the bleeding stopped by burning and yeow - you'd want to be hand-fed, too.
Here at our home, our companion parrots rarely need their nails trimmed so I'm surprised when some guests complain about sharp nails. But I realize - with us, our parrots are totally relaxed, so their nails aren't digging in, but with other people, not quite. So when I hand a parrot to someone, I ask if they can feel the nails and if they say yes, I take the parrot back because I don't want the bird to be uncomfortable. (Plus our parrots can fly away if they want to.)So, practice holding him and rotating your arm or hand or shrugging your shoulder ever so slightly to learn which angles allow him to relax the most when he's on you. The more you practice being relaxed together, the less his nails will bother you.
Additionally, sharp nails help parrots with their confidence. In the wild - and your guy is probably only one generation away from the wild, with all those innate wisdoms still inside him - if they can really hang on during a storm, or in strong winds on flexing branches, they survive. Their nails are sharp for reasons that make sense to them.
That said, mitigating nail trims for captive African Greys is usually simple because they like to dig. Our Congo Greys in the aviary (4 adults each at least 30 years old) are incessant diggers. They've never needed their nails trimmed because those tips are blunt from digging in the fresh dirt we provide. There is nothing cuter than to see them, beaks down, red tails up, feet going a mile a minute, flinging dirt in long arcs behind them. Happily, there are ways to replicate this enrichment in the house that aren't so messy. Your guy may like to dig in an open-faced woven rattan basket that's stuffed with paper towels, or in brown paper bags stuffed inside each other - some natural-material container that sits flat on a surface for him to tear into using beak and toes will do the trick.
If he doesn't already have them, be sure your guy has natural fresh perches covered with bark in his cage and on his play gyms. After eating, he'll rub his beak on the surface and clean it himself. Similarly, he'll keep the tips of his nails blunt by walking on natural perches. Outside the cage, give him a natural wood platform to walk on for playtime and chewing. Vertical wood branches lashed to the walls of the cage using tie wraps are great natural beak cleaners. When they get soiled, refresh them by scrubbing with a wire brush and warm water, and then rinse them well. Perches should never be allowed to get slick - keep them rough-to-the-touch with regular wire-brushing and he'll learn to groom himself. Some parrots groom their beaks and nails on twisted cotton rope perches which you might also try. In any case, the more grooming tools you provide him - and calm compliments when you see him using them - the more likely his chances of good personal hygiene.
Now, in the case of a truly mal-formed beak, or if he absolutely cannot be trusted with any wing growth whatsoever and you cannot change those circumstances even with your best efforts, or if his nails are so sharp that you're left bleeding from contact with him, I'm going to recommend that you choose only one or at the most two most essential grooming options to be performed in the least degree possible at one time. Minimize the grooming. Dramatically.
Even with the greatly reduced grooming, ask your vet for MetaCam, a liquid analgesic (pain reliever) that we keep on hand in case of emergency. After a vet visit, or after anything where he might be feeling pain (like after a clumsy landing if he tries to fly), give him a drop. Our older arthritic Galah cockatoo eats it right off the kitchen counter and our other birds relish it (when needed) on a bit of cracker or toast.
Also, you may want to use some of the training tips that are wonderfully explained by other WPT experts to get him to increasingly accept your gentle manipulation of his toes and wings. Over time with consistent training, the two of you may establish a non-traumatic grooming routine so that his annual vet visits become a "Well Bird Check-Up," not a cause for stress.
Finally, in the case of unavoidable stress, yes, give him a little hand-feeding formula. After all, you hand-fed him so he'd trust you, and he does, which is great! I don't know if he'd actually starve himself to death, but he could definitely dehydrate and become fatally ill as a result of that, so it's far better to error on the side of caution and hand-feed him when he becomes anorexic. As a stop-gap measure, to be used when needed, a bit of hand-feeding formula now and then is fine, especially if it stimulates his appetite and makes you both feel better! Trust your instincts, Linda - they seem to be sound and you have his best interests at heart.
Thank you for your support of World Parrot Trust and for the opportunity to respond to this good and very valid question.
Santa Barbara Bird Farm