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Bringing Back the Magic: A Transformational Memior
By Elva Mathiesen

Keeping claws and wings trimmed is important for the well-being of our Grey companions. Unfortunately, however, these procedures usually require physical restraint, and restraint is stressful for many birds. The last time Clouseau, my wild-caught Timneh Grey, was wrapped in a towel, she clearly thought that her end had come. Luckily, there is another way....why not enlist your Grey's intelligence and teach it to voluntarily cooperate with claw-clipping?


This idea occurred to me several years ago while visiting the Brookfield Zoo. Barbara Weber, a Senior Keeper in the Primate Department, took me behind the scenes and introduced me to Sam, a diabetic orangutan. Sam had learned to voluntarily cooperate with insulin injections and with finger-pricks to test the amount of glucose in his blood. Barbara, Sam and Sam's daughter Batik demonstrated a training session for me, and then Barbara showed me a video demonstrating Sam's training, step-by-step. Because of this training, Sam was able to have his diabetes treated and monitored every day without having to be physically restrained, which would have been very stressful for him.

While watching the video and demonstration, I resolved to teach Clouseau to voluntarily cooperate with claw-clipping, using these same principles. I can now handle and play with her feet, and she even "shakes hands" (her own idea). She is now calm and cooperative while I cut her toenails, even while filing the sharp corners with an emery board. How did I do it?


The Command: I decided to use "foot" as a verbal command for touching and examining her feet, clipping her nails, and so on. A command word signals the beginning of the desired behavior: for example, holding still and letting me handle a foot (or a wing).

The Bridge: I decided to click my tongue as a "bridge." Animals can't make the connection between a certain behavior of their own and a reward unless the reward follows the behavior immediately, or even overlaps. But it's not always practical or possible to give a reward that quickly. The "bridge" is any sound that simultaneously signals the animal that 1) it may stop the targeted behavior (for example, Clouseau can stop letting me hold her foot); and 2) a reward is coming soon. After many repetitions the animal comes to associate the "bridge" with the reward. "Bridging" Clouseau's behavior and reward is the ONLY time I make these tongue clicks.

The Reward: I decided to reward Clouseau with sunflower seeds, one of her favorite foods which she does not ordinarily get. (Clouseau always has plenty to eat in her dish, and I never make her go hungry before a training session or nail-clipping.) You can use whatever your Grey regards as a special treat and is willing to work for. Unlike the "bridge," a signal used only during training, the food rewards can be occasional treats for the parrots at other times too.


Before beginning a training session, I put some sunflower seeds in a bowl close at hand. If our training has progressed to the point where I'm using the nail clippers, I put them (and styptic powder and Q-tips) within reach too. When all is ready, I sit down with Clouseau on my left arm or hand. This leaves my right hand free for touching her feet, cutting her nails and giving rewards.

I have figured out exactly what I want Clouseau to do. If I want her to let me clip her claws, I want her to be very still while I put the metal cutters around each claw and squeeze. The clipping, however, is the end of a very long process. What I REALLY want her to do is to hold perfectly still while I get increasingly familiar with her feet, until I can handle them at will, and finally cut the claws. I have to break the procedure down into a series of very small, non-threatening steps. When the parrot masters one step (with rewards), I raise the ante and reward her for the next step.

A training session with Clouseau in the first stage of training looks like this: With Clouseau resting calmly on my hand, I hide a sunflower seed in the hand on which she is resting----but do not let her see it, or she may be too distracted to pay attention to me. "Foot," I say, laying my finger near her foot. I leave it there a few seconds saying "foot...foot...foot." When she and I have both held our positions for a second (or several seconds, depending on how steady and calm she is), I simultaneously remove my hand and make two clicks (the "bridge") with my tongue. As soon as possible after the bridge, I take the seed out of my left hand and give it to her, meanwhile telling her how brave and wonderful she is. Clouseau can take as long as she wants to eat her seed before we do it again.


When your parrot consistently lets you put your finger near his foot, then you can try putting your finger near and touching his foot before you bridge and reward. When your parrot accepts this calmly, alternate the feet you work with, and build up longer periods of contact.

Once this step is mastered, try putting your finger on a toe. Next, try picking up a toe. Next, pick up each toe in turn. Each step may take several trials, or many trials. If a parrot gets nervous or "freaks," you've gone too fast. Go back to the previous step and work on that some more. Perhaps you will have to break one step down into smaller ones, or spend more time habituating the parrot each step. The increase in handling has to be very gradual.

Eventually the parrot will let you play with his foot, and perhaps even let you pick up his foot and massage it. At this point in her training, Clouseau, who is right-footed, started picking up her right foot and putting it into my hand. So if I wanted to hold her right foot I started saying "shake hands" instead of "foot." (This is a separate trick, however. For trimming her nails, I want her foot resting on my hand or arm, and then the command is "foot.")

Since you've presumably established a bond of trust with your parrot before this training has begun, these small steps leading up to handling his feet might not take very many days. But next we are going to introduce clippers: cold, hard steel instead of warm human flesh, and evil-looking. Any self-respecting Grey Parrot is going to take one look at those clippers and say "No way!!!"

So, we start over. First I show Clouseau the clippers and let her bite them, since we're not as scared of strange objects if we have a chance to investigate them. Some parrots may need a period of habituation before the clippers are brought into their personal space. Leave the clippers at some distance from the bird's cage, but where it can still see them (as you would with a new toy), and gradually bring them closer as the parrot loses its fear. This period of habituation may take several days or weeks.

When the Grey is calm while you're holding the clippers near him, you can start training with them. Say "Foot" and lay them on your hand near the parrot's foot BUT NOT TOUCHING IT. When he accepts calmly, bridge and reward. Do this several times so you're sure it's not a fluke and he was paying attention. Then lay the clippers next to it and touching a toe. Bridge and reward. When this step is mastered, lay them on top of the toe. Bridge and reward. As before, alternate toes and work up to longer periods of contact. Then put the "jaws" around a toenail, BUT DON'T SQUEEZE.

At this point I do some trials with only my hand, teaching Clouseau to get accustomed to pressure on her toenails. I squeeze a toenail as hard as I can between two of my fingernails (bridging and rewarding as before).

When your parrot is accustomed to pressure on his toenails, and having the jaws of the clippers around his toenails, then, finally you can squeeze. Cut off only the very tip-no further. Remember to bridge, reward and praise, after every trial.

If you think that you didn't cut off enough toenail, you can always go back and cut off a bit more. But if you cut off too much at first, you can't put it back-and you'll cause the parrot pain. (It doesn't have to bleed for the parrot to feel pain.) You will also weaken your parrot's trust in you....and this whole "game" is about trust. I cut conservatively: usually I cut each toenail twice, and just enough so that Clouseau can stand comfortably on either a round perch or a flat surface.

When you're finally at the point where you can cut the nails, don't do them all at once; just do two or three at first. Since parrot feet are awkwardly shaped for pedicures, I find it easier to cut the rear toenails when she is perched on her T-stand dowel (a 1" dowel).


Parrots are individuals, and not all of them respond to training the same way. For example, I taught Phoebe, my cockatiel, to fly to my hand on command. While it took Clouseau only about a dozen training sessions to let me clip her nails, it took Phoebe two years to learn to hop onto my hand with a little flip of her wings. Phoebe's reward is a good head scratch around her ears. I've tried using rewards but Phoebe doesn't even see them, and all she cares about is having her ears rubbed.

Have I trained Phoebe and Clouseau? Perhaps. Have they trained me? Absolutely! Any successful training involves give and take: besides giving commands, bridges and rewards, a successful trainer has to be a good, careful observer of the animal. Its moods, its fears, its level of confidence, even its past history, all have to be taken into account. Some times of day may be better for training than others. Some individuals may be better candidates for some kinds of training than others. The most successful trainers are careful observers of their pupils and are also willing to learn from them.

Whether you are teaching your Grey Parrot tricks, or teaching it to cooperate with toenail clipping, it's important that the training be fun for both of you. Training sessions are a fun way to visit with each other, besides being a stress-free way to keeping toenails groomed.


Keep all training sessions short (10-20 minutes). Even one "trial" (a cycle of command, bridge and reward) counts as a training session and is valuable.

  • When starting a training session, don't start where you left off; but back up a few steps and start there. I always end a session with a success, even if I have to go back a step or two.
  • If a training session isn't going well, end it and try again a day or two later. Don't get mad at your Grey, as we all have our "bad feather days." If Clouseau does something wrong, such as not hold a position as long as I want her to, I don't scold her; but I just say "NO" quietly and start the trial over again.
  • If a training session is going very well, I sometimes give Clouseau a "freebie." I don't give her a bridge or command, but I give her a sunflower seed while saying something like, "You're doing great! Here's an extra seed for you!"
  • The whole "game" is about trust. In any training situation, it's important to put the relationship first: to keep the training session positive, friendly and non-adversarial. Parrots will pick up what you want. Often this means breaking down the targeted behavior into small enough steps, and spending enough time on each step.

This article was published in the Summer 1999 issue of the Grey Play Round Table® Magazine: ; ;

All rights reserved. This article may not be reproduced in any form without the permission of the author.

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