Wing It - Bird Behavior

Bird Feather Plucking/Picking

Feather plucking is a complex syndrome. It can be an indication of either a physical or psychological problem with your bird. You'll need to observe your bird closely, commit to medical care and then be creative in solving this issue for you and your bird. This syndrome has many looks:

  1. Bare spot on chest
  2. Plucked area on back
  3. Plucking under wing
  4. Pulling out tail feathers
  5. Chewing feathers without pulling them out
  6. Naked head
  7. Body plucked except head
  8. Open sores on chest

Feather plucking may indicate a deadly disease or could just mean that your birds are feeling overcrowded in their current accommodations. Plucking can be a solitary activity, or may be performed by a plucker on a pluckee in your household. Feather plucking is a difficult syndrome to face for bird owners. Much of the beauty and delight we find in our birds is the beauty of their feathers. Underneath it all, a bird looks like a plucked chicken, albeit a plucked chicken with personality! Make a commitment to treat your feather plucking bird, as feather plucking can be alleviated or at least controlled in many cases. Causes of feather plucking in companion parrots include:

  • Disease
  • Allergy
  • Toxin
  • Skin Infection
  • Parasite
  • Dietary Deficiency
  • Hypothyroidism
  • Sexual Frustration
  • Attention-Getter
  • Anxiety Disorder
  • Separation Anxiety

Veterinary Checkup is the First Step

Since the causes of feather plucking range all over the map, it takes some investigation on your part to find the cause or causes contributing to the syndrome for your bird. Start this investigation with a medical exam by an avian veterinarian. Your vet will want to rule out hypothyroidism, infection or disease as a cause of the feather picking. It may take a series of lab tests to do so, as well as your good observations. Both of you should be alert to behavioral clues that will help you pinpoint the cause of feather picking. Don't be concerned if your avian veterinarian cannot find the cause of your bird's feather picking right away. Work as a team to resolve the problem, as this is such a complex syndrome. Carefully consider the symptoms your bird has and follow your veterinarian's directions regarding ways to rule out different physical causes.

Bird Watching

Your observations about your bird and her environment are key to determining her health status. Important observations include details about the age and history of your bird. Where did you get her, and has she lived with other birds, with other species of birds? Certain species of parrots are more prone to feather plucking behavior, though of course other species also may be affected. They include many of the sensitive, intelligent species. A parrot you chose as a companion because of these qualities is also at risk to develop behavioral feather plucking due to the same qualities! The untreatable, disfiguring disease Psittacine Beak and Feather Disease (PBFD) causes feather abnormalities and plucking. Your veterinarian will want to know if your parrot is under three years old (when it is most susceptible to catching this virus) and whether it has been in contact with species of birds which might pass on this disease. Cockatoos, African grey parrots, Eclectus parrots and lovebirds, for example, are likely to contract or carry PBFD.

Feather Plucking Parrots

  • African Parrots
  • Cockatoos
  • Conures
  • Eclectus Parrots

How long have you observed feather plucking behavior, when did it start? What does your bird eat? Do you see your bird picking? Is she pulling out feathers, mutilating feathers, or digging sores on her body? If your bird plucks feathers when you aren't home, separation anxiety could indeed be the cause.

Is this a seasonal pattern? Does your bird seem to have itchy skin? How does she react when you see her plucking feathers? Where is your bird plucking? A bird can reach her chest or back. If she's missing feathers from her head, then it's someone else in the flock who is doing the plucking.

Do you or someone in the family smoke, use sprays or chemicals in the home, or have you recently installed new carpeting, new scented candles or an air freshener? These indicate an allergic reaction or the presence of a toxin.

Is your bird getting a good diet? Does she eat a formulated diet supplemented with fresh foods or a homemade diet and vitamins? Do you feed something other than seed? Does she have access to cuttlebone? Do you have full spectrum lights in your bird's environment? Many African parrots, who tend to have calcium absorption problems, benefit from full spectrum lighting. Dyes in formulated diets, or even certain grains may be the cause of your bird's discomfort.

Environmental aids

Whether your bird is plucking feathers for medical or behavioral reasons, there are several changes you can make that may help your bird feel better about herself and her condition. Bathe your bird daily while her condition persists. This will minimize bacteria and molds as well as irritants to which she is allergic. If your bird is suffering from separation anxiety, her preening following a bath will give her something to do.

Don't give your bird any attention for plucking. That means don't admonish her to stop or say "no" or run over to distract her. It's not going to be helpful, and your attention may be exactly what she craves. Give your plucking bird attention for playing quietly or for resting peacefully. Tell her how beautiful she is in those moments, as that is behavior you want to encourage.

Offer a plucking bird other outlets for constructive preening. There are many toys available which allow her to preen and destroy a toy rather than her own feathers. These include peacock feathers or can be as simple as allowing her to perforate your junk mail or destroy rolled up newspaper. A whisk broom or piece of all-cotton rope offer preening opportunities. Change her toys, even if you only rotate the same toys on every other week. If your bird's plucking has anything to do with boredom or if there's a chance to redirect her behavior, this will be helpful. If your bird is stressed and fearful, this probably isn't a good route for her to follow towards health again.

Give a Feather Plucking Bird the Best Chance of Recovery

  • Bathe Bird Daily
  • Feed a Healthy, Varied Diet
  • Give Access to Full Spectrum Lighting
  • Ignore Feather Plucking
  • Offer Preening Toys
  • Partner with an Avian Veterinarian
  • Remove Potential Allergens

As a light source for your bird, use full spectrum lighting. They probably aid in calcium absorption and might help alleviate hypothyroidism as well. They "might" because we don't know for sure. Enormous strides have been made in bird medicine, but there is still a lot to learn. You'll probably benefit from new knowledge and new techniques over the course of ownership of your bird. If your veterinarian changes his mind about some aspect of bird care, ask him why. Chances are we've found out something new to help our companion birds stay healthy.

It's possible that your bird is plucking due to sexual frustration. Does your bird pluck feathers at certain times of the year? Would that be the spring and the fall? You should control sexual stimulation in this case, or work with your veterinarian to administer hormone shots. Though it's possible that sexual frustration may be a reason for feather plucking in parrots, breeding your bird isn't the best solution to this problem. If we breed feather plucking parrots, the result in future generations of birds is more feather plucking parrots. We should only breed our most outstanding companion birds so that we produce more healthy parrots who are well-adjusted to life as a human's companion.

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