Q: My bird is a feather plucker. He’s been to the vet a couple of times, but no medical condition was found. We've tried medications and topical sprays, but nothing seems to work. He’s worn a collar for a few months now and his behaviour has changed dramatically. He doesn’t talk nearly as much as he used to and doesn't play with his toys at all. Help!
A: Due to the complexity of this subject and the brevity of my column, I will address the subject in a two-part series. This column focuses on the environmental stressors that can contribute to feather destructive behaviours [FDB]. My next column will be dedicated to psychological stressors attributed to feather destructive behaviours.
As always with FDB, make sure your avian veterinarian has done a full medical workup before you make the assumption of a “behavioural” origin to feather damaging. Many experienced avian veterinarians consider medical and management problems the most likely causes of this behaviour, but there are also vets who automatically assume a FDB bird is “neurotic” or “bored.”
Such veterinarians are less likely to do a complete workup and, as avian veterinarian Joel Bloomberg often said, “If you don’t look, you won’t find.” Indeed, experienced Parrot behaviour consultants often refuse to work with a FDB case until a full medical work-up is performed.
[BirdChannel.com offers information on the possible medical origins of feather destructive behaviours.] Feather destruction is a symptom of a problem; or in veterinary parlance, a clinical sign. It is not the problem itself; instead it is a response to some type of stress. Once the stress of a medical problem is ruled out, experienced Parrot behaviour consultants then look for stressors in a FDB Parrot’s environment. In no particular order, environmental stressors include:
Many Parrots appear to need more sleep than they are getting in the human habitat. Americans are often sleep deprived and if our Parrots are keeping us company, they are likely sleep deprived as well. Offering a sleep cage in a room unoccupied by people at night can help this problem. Allowing for individual needs, many Parrots thrive with 10 to 12 hours of sleep, with eight hours the absolute minimum.
I cheerfully drive my clients crazy regarding their birds’ diet. I am not interested in what they feed; I am only interested in what the bird eats. According to many avian veterinarians, the generic Parrot (a.k.a., not specialized feeders like Hyacinth Macaws and Lories) should consume approximately 50- to 60-percent pellets and/or formulated diet, 25- to 35percent high-nutrition vegetables, with the last 10 to 15 percent composed of small amounts of high-nutrition fruits, nuts, seeds and animal protein. Incredibly, malnutrition is still the No. 1 cause of illness in companion birds and definitely contributes to FDB as well.
Cages that are too small stress Parrots, as does the lack of exercise and play that adequate-sized cages encourage. Another stressor is cage location. A recent study revealed that Parrots are more prone to FDB if their cages are alongside a wall with a door, constantly startled by people appearing abruptly. Many birds are also stressed when they are placed in front of a window with no hiding place.
Rain-forest species come from a high humidity environment, and the dryness of our homes is not good for their feathers. Bathing is an important part of grooming and most birds should bathe at least once a week, year round.
PROXIMITY TO PREDATORY PETS AND CHILDREN
Whether cage bars protect birds or not (and they often don’t), it cannot be relaxing for them to be constantly under the eye of a hungry cat or dog. One client’s bird ceased FDB when the family cat was no longer allowed to sleep on the top of the bird’s cage. Another stopped when her cage was raised above nose level of the family’s two 120-pound Rottweilers. The same applies to high-energy children, as many Parrots live in constant fear of them. How is a Parrot to know they mean no harm?
TOXICITIES IN THE HOME
Toxins abound in the modern household, but one of the most common is cigarette smoke. Smokers should take their habit outside. In addition, they should wash their hands and change their clothes prior to handling a bird. Many birds seem extremely allergic to the tars and nicotine they might pick up from smoky hands and clothing.
TENSION IN THE HOME
Tension in the human household definitely contributes to stress for a companion bird. Birds are extremely empathic and adept at reading our body language, so they always know when we are upset. Anxiety is unavoidable at times, but if owners quietly explain the situation to their birds, their stress is often reduced. Who knows how much they actually understand? Also, making certain the bird gets just five to 10 minutes a day of direct, calm attention from its favourite person can also help tremendously during high-stress periods.
Lastly is the issue of habituation. The precipitating reason for FDB might resolve, but a habit may be formed that becomes a self-comforting behaviour, rather like chewing one’s fingernails.
You said medications and topical sprays have not helped. This is logical, since such things often don’t address the reason why the behaviour exists. For instance, no amount of topical sprays will help if the family dog is terrorizing a bird. Additionally, there is no magic pill that will fix everything, despite the pharmaceutical ads on TV.
You mentioned that your bird’s behaviour changed dramatically when he was collared, and he no longer talks and plays like before. This isn’t surprising when you consider he is like a small child wearing a straitjacket. I dislike using collars with FDB and, in 20 years of working with avian veterinarians, I have rarely found them effective. After all, if a bird damages feathers due to stress caused by a medical, metabolic, management or psychological problem, it makes no sense that stressing it with a collar will help matters.
My next column addresses the psychological stressors associated with feather destructive behaviour; stay tuned!