Bird Claws: A Detailed Guide About Bird Nails

For birdkeepers, bird lovers, and bird hobbyists, bird claws are a topic that is always on people’s minds. This detailed article will provide an in-depth guide about bird nails to answer some of the most pressing questions about these hook-like structures such as: how do birds use their claws, what are bird claws made of, and what types of materials can they be found in?

This article will also cover problems with bird nails, common injuries related to them, and veterinary advice for treating them, as well as talk about toenail care in pet birds.

This knowledge might not encourage everybody to look at bird claws with the same interest though – it has been said that there are few things that humans fear more than the bird’s sharp claws.

However, bird nails interest bird owners because bird claw anatomy is directly connected to bird health and bird behavior.

Bird Claws: A Detailed Guide About Bird Nails

Anatomy of Bird Claws

A bird’s claw consists of 3 main parts:

1 – A hard keratin sheath, or nail that encases the bony core.

2 – The bony core.

3 – The feather follicle, which many people think is part of the bony core but isn’t. It’s hollow and filled with blood vessels, nerves, and fat cells. Between these three components, almost all the avian claw problems occur – this includes infection which leads to loss of blood flow to the toe or bird nail.

The bony core of bird claws is like the bones in our fingers and toes, but bird nails have thick keratin covering that makes them very tough as well as hook-like.

A bird’s claw consists of two digits – a hallux which is equivalent to our big toe and another digit which can be described as the forefinger equivalent.

Each one has a claw attached to it; on birds with three forward-facing digits often only one of these will have a functional claw attached while the other two are non-functional vestigial claws.

While bird care has evolved into an incredibly popular hobby, bird owners may not know much about nails or how they work together.

The bird’s “finger” – the digit that has the claw is called a bird toe.

Operations of Bird Claws

You may have wondered how birds use their bird nails to interact with their environment and go about their daily lives — well, the bird uses bird claws for many activities which can be divided into 5 categories:

1) For flight; 2) To grip onto objects to aid stability; 3) For feeding [for example: tearing food apart by its serrated edges]; 4) To defend themselves, and 5) In mating rituals as part of courtship activity.

While bird owners will mostly see birds moving around on solid surfaces, there are several bird claws functions that bird owners are less aware of.

The bird’s grip is often underestimated because bird nails help them reach stability in their environment. Birds have a gripping action which they use to cling onto surfaces or objects and the bird nail works with the bird’s beak to accomplish this by increasing the surface area so that it can hold a tighter grasp.

This is particularly true for pet birds who may become nervous or frightened – in these situations your bird will likely grip around you tightly for comfort.

Bird Claws: The Mechanics of Walking

There are several bird claw functions related to movement, and these include:

Preening: Preening is when a bird running its egg tooth (the sharp hook at the end of bird nails) through its feathers to clean or rearrange them. This bird claw function is essential for bird health because bird preening distributes oils from the bird’s body across its feathers, which keeps it waterproof and insulates it against the cold.

Climbing: Birds climb up trees to roost (sleep) at night – while they do this their claws are used to grip onto branches and surfaces so that they can perch safely, but also so that they can push off these objects with enough force to launch themselves into flight if predators come too close.

Swimming: Bird claws help birds move around in the water by improving their paddling motion [the bird moves forward by flapping its wings down into the water and pushing back with bird claws submerged, creating a paddling motion that propels the bird froward].

Landing: Bird nails are also important for birds landing – birds land by increasing their body surface area so that they slow down [this is like how airplane flaps work], but bird nails increase this surface area further which helps them decelerate even more quickly.

Bird Claw Functions: Gripping

Gripping is an underrated bird nail function because it means that certain types of bird claws have evolved to fit different habitats to help them survive. Gripping can be accomplished through several methods depending on the foot structure and environment.

For perching [birds often use their claws while perched], bird claws help them stay stable by increasing surface area and traction.

For climbing, birds’ nails work with bird beaks to provide enough traction for the bird to climb up trees.

For perching in more open spaces or on vertical surfaces bird claws use their ability to grip onto textured surfaces, which helps provide additional stability.

For birds that live in wet environments bird nails help them bond with objects underwater so as they can walk across rocks [in this case bird claws are used like flippers].

Bird Claw Functions: Feeding / Tearing Food

Birds have evolved bird claws into a sharp point at the end of their toe called an egg tooth because it is specifically designed for tearing things apart – bird nails are important bird tools for feeding.

– The bird’s beak tears at food, but the bird toenail often helps by finding and separating bits of food apart by its serrated edges [sharp bird claw edges that help cut up prey items].

– Some bird claws have evolved a hooked point to help them tear through flesh to feed on carrion (dead animals).

Bird claws are also helpful for ripping open fruit husks and tearing them into seed pods.

Bird Claw Functions: Defense/Defensive Behavior – Holding Something Tightly with Nails

In a survival, situation birds will often just hold on tightly to things with their bird claws instead of flying away from potential predators. This gripping behavior is likely an instinctive bird claw reaction that evolved to prevent bird predation.

Birds have bird claws on their wings, but they will still often hold onto objects tightly with bird nails because it is a more reliable grip and so bird claws help them stay stable while trying to get away [this gripping behavior helps birds protect themselves from predators].

This gripping behavior is also used when the bird is threatened by another animal or bird, like during mating, where the male bird may clasp down tightly onto shrubs around its territory as defense behavior against other males.

Bird Nail Types

There are several different kinds of bird nails depending on what part of the world they live in and what kind of environment they live in. All bird nails are designed for gripping, though they’re used more often in different kinds of bird habitats [the bird nail types below are just a general overview].

  • Blackbird claws
  • Pigeon bird claws: like blackbird bird claws with serrated edges.
  • Ostrich bird claws: these are the largest bird nails in proportion to body size – they’re claw-shaped and act like hooves. [this is interesting because ostrich bird claws help them run very fast]
  • Woodpecker bird nails: short, strong, sturdy, and sharp as a knife – woodpeckers use their pointy foot structure to cling onto bark when climbing trees. Their toe is also feathered so bird claw and foot stay warm, but a bird toenail is still exposed to help grip.
  • Swallow bird claws: small bird nails about the size of a pinhead with no real point – they have multiple joints in them so that bird can bend their toes down further for better gripping onto surfaces.


So, do you see bird claws as something of a very special and unique biological feature for birds? Of course, you do! As you have by now known that claws are not just only for gripping and helping birds to stay afoot- they even help in mating! If you have a bird pet, make sure you do give great care to its claws.

Julian Goldie - Owner of

Julian Goldie

I'm a bird enthusiast and creator of Chipper Birds, a blog sharing my experience caring for birds. I've traveled the world bird watching and I'm committed to helping others with bird care. Contact me at [email protected] for assistance.