By Dr. Laurie Hess, DVM, Diplomate ABVP (Avian Practice)
How Birds Use Their Beaks
A bird’s beak consists of the bones of the upper (mandible) and lower (maxilla) jaws, which are covered by a layer of connective tissue (the dermis and epidermis) and a hard, keratin protein outer covering. Several blood vessels and nerves supply the different parts of the beak, and parrots have a concentration of nerve endings near the tip of the beak, called the bill tip organ, that makes the beak very sensitive to temperature and pressure changes.
Birds’ beaks function like mammals’ lips and teeth; they grasp and crush food, and they vary in shape and size from species to species. Beaks are also used to manipulate objects, aid in defense, explore surroundings, build nests, and preen.
Beaks Never Stop Growing
While the bones of the beak grow only until the adult beak size is reached, the keratin protein continuously grows in parrots from the base of the beak, nearest to the face, out toward the tip at a rate of ¼ to ½ inch per month. Pet birds that use their beaks to grasp food, climb, and manipulate objects will naturally wear down the tips and sides of their beaks as they grow, eliminating the need for beak trimming. Injuries to the base of the beak, nearest to the face, may inhibit regrowth.
What Causes Beak Injuries?
Birds that use their beaks to help them climb around their cages or that chew on cage bars or hard wood may occasionally chip off small pieces of the keratin outer-covering on the tips and sides of their beaks. This is normal and generally not a cause for alarm, as long as the chips to the beak are not too large, and as long as the bird continues to eat and act normally.
Severe beak injuries are commonly the result of direct trauma. They often suffer from beak punctures, crushing injuries, lacerations, bone fractures, dislocations/luxations, burns, and avulsions (the beak is detaching from the face). These traumas can occur as a result of attacks from other animals (e.g., cage mates, other household pets, wild animals) and blunt force contact (hitting walls, falling off perches).
Less commonly, beaks will have an abnormal appearance or shape due to congenital or genetic defects, malnutrition (most often from lack of protein and/or vitamins A and D, all essential to beak formation and growth), infection (with viruses, bacteria, fungus, or parasites), or cancerous growths. Some systemic diseases, such as liver disease, can actually cause beaks to overgrow.
How to Recognize an Abnormal or Injured Bird Beak
Some abnormal beaks are obviously not right, while others are harder to recognize as abnormal.
Congenital abnormalities are generally obvious and most often appear as either a malocclusion (misalignment) of the upper and lower beak, so that they don’t meet properly when the mouth closes; a scissor beak, where either the upper or lower beak deviates sideways, so that the two slide past each other like scissor blades; or a mandibular prognathism, in which the tip of the upper beak rests inside the lower beak.
Dislocated beaks typically affect the top beak and result from a forced hyperextension of the joint joining the maxillary bone to the skull. Birds with maxillary dislocations cannot close their mouths completely, have difficulty eating, and are visibly painful. The upper beak looks shifted upward, and in some cases, the jaw bone may be fractured.
Beaks that are soft, misshapen, or have a chipped or discolored surface can be the result of malnutrition.
Infected beaks may also appear chipped, discolored, pitted, grooved, or dry and flaky.
Fresh injuries may be painful and interfere with the bird’s ability to eat, while older injuries that have already started to heal may not significantly affect the bird.
Beak punctures, crushing wounds, and lacerations may extend only through the surface keratin protein or may penetrate deeper into underlying bone. Pieces of keratin may break off, exposing bone underneath. There may be bleeding or scabbing, depending on when the injury occurred.
Burns to the beak typically initially look red and inflamed and ultimately turn black and scabbed as the burned tissue starts to die off.
Beak avulsions (separations) are easy to recognize, as either the upper, lower, or both parts of the beak are pulled partially or completely away from the face.
Finally, cancerous growths may appear as raised lesions on the beak from just beneath the nostrils, where beak meets skin, all the way to the tip.
How to Treat a Bleeding Beak
A bleeding beak must be treated immediately. For serious bleeding, owners may need to control bleeding at home before they can get their birds to a veterinarian.
Bird owners may want to keep powdered clotting agents and a styptic pencil on hand in case a bird has a bleeding beak or bleeding toenail at home. Minor bleeding may be halted with the application of pressure to the bleeding spot (such as with a paper towel or small cloth). More significant bleeding may require the application of a powdered clotting agents, the kind typically used on bleeding toenails, or a styptic pencil.
To protect the injured bird from ingesting the clotting agent or styptic, these substances are usually gently flushed off with water once the bleeding has stopped and a clot has formed.
Beaks contain many blood vessels and nerves; thus, beak injuries can result in significant bleeding and pain in some cases, inhibiting a bird’s ability to eat. Birds with bleeding or very painful beaks and those that are not eating should be examined by a veterinarian right away. Those with large open wounds, burns, or obvious fractures where bone is exposed, and those with avulsions or dislocations should also be treated as quickly as possible.
Medical Treatment for Beak Injury
Whenever an owner notices anything different about his or her bird’s beak, a veterinary appointment should be made to have it checked out. Some beak abnormalities require immediate veterinary attention, while others are less emergent.
Minor beak injuries may be simple to treat, while severe beak-trauma may not be treatable. An avian-savvy veterinarian can determine a treatment course after performing a full physical examination.
Birds with slowly developing beak changes (such as surface discoloration or pitting) or slowly growing masses on the beak are not typically considered immediate emergencies, but should be seen by a veterinarian as soon as possible.
Wounds, burns, and fractures can easily become infected, especially if food gets packed into them. Small wounds, lacerations, and burns may be cleaned with antiseptic and treated topically or systemically with antibiotics and anti-inflammatory medications and pain relievers.
Often, the keratin covering over the beak will grow back very slowly over weeks to months. Large defects in keratin may need to be patched with acrylic. Underlying damaged bone will not grow back in an adult bird. Severe crushing injuries, fractures, and dislocations may require surgical repair and administration of medications long term.
Certain congenital abnormalities may require surgical repair as well. Suspected beak infections must be biopsied and cultured so that proper medications (i.e., antibiotics vs. antifungal drugs) can be administered. Beak growths need to be biopsied and/or removed as well, to determine what they are and how they should be treated (e.g., with chemotherapy, radiation, etc.).
Beaks that have been avulsed (or torn away from the face) may be surgically re-attached only if there is still a significant connection between the beak and face so that nerves and blood vessels are intact. Often, avulsed beaks are not salvageable and must be removed. Birds missing either the upper or lower beak sometimes can learn to eat on their own over time, but their owners must be prepared to hand-feed them for weeks to months as the birds learn to adapt.
Birds missing both upper and lower beaks generally cannot adapt and should be humanely euthanized. While beak prosthetics are available, they must be custom-made to fit an individual bird and surgically placed by a veterinarian. These prosthetics commonly fall off over time, particularly in growing or very active birds, and must be replaced as needed.
Home Treatment for Beak Injury
Regardless of the type of beak injury, birds with injured beaks may be painful and not want to eat. They may be lethargic, fluffed up, and less vocal than normal. Birds with painful beak injuries should be offered soft, easy-to-eat foods — such as small bits of soft vegetable, fruit, cooked egg, or pasta — in place of hard-to-eat foods such as seeds and nuts.
Birds that are having difficulty eating should be separated from cage mates so that their food intake can be monitored, and so they can be hand fed, if necessary.
How to Prevent Beak Injury
While some beak abnormalities, such as cancerous growths, infections, and congenital defects, cannot be prevented, others caused by trauma or malnutrition often can be.
Safeguarding the House for Indoor Flying
If you are going to let your bird fly around, drape mirrors and windows with sheets or towels, ensure ceiling fans are off, cover open flames and pots of hot liquids, and close any open doors that may accidently slam on a bird in motion (whether flying or walking).
Prevent Flying with Proper Wing Clips
Another way to prevent injury from flight is to schedule a modest wing clipping by a trained individual who knows how to trim enough feathers to prevent lift, but not so many as to cause the bird to drop like a rock.
Along with taking steps to minimize chances for traumatic injury around the home, the best way to prevent beak trauma is to have your bird regularly checked by a veterinarian who will be able to recognize a beak abnormality early on, before it becomes advanced and potentially difficult to treat. Annual veterinary examinations can keep your bird’s beak and the rest of his body in tip-top shape.