In my first blog on feather destructive-plucking behaviour (FDB), I discussed the risk factors for Parrots developing this unwelcomed behaviour.
In this blog I will discuss simple strategies to help caregivers tackle this behavioural problem.
FDB may include over preening, feather barbering, pulling feathers out and mutilating the skin. The behaviour may be difficult to notice at first, with only a few feathers missing.
Caregivers may have little influence over the following primary risk factors:
- Single or multiple traumatic events.
- Rearing environment
- Re-homing stress
- Historic wing-clipping
However, caregivers may influence these secondary risk factors that are maintaining the behaviour:
- Hyper-attachment to a caregiver
- Position of cage
- Feather irritation
- Flock dynamics
- Continuing to wing-clip
- Lack of opportunity to perform natural behaviours
Prevention is better than cure
As caregivers we should be persistently updating our knowledge on how to care for our feathered friends while continually assessing their environment and making changes when necessary.
However, that isn’t as easy as it sounds; we are often too involved to be able to take a step back and look at the environment from our individual Parrot’s perspective. We caregivers also get into bad habits or, believe what worked for one Parrot, will work for another.
My Parrot is plucking what should I do?
The very first thing that caregivers must do is arrange for a veterinary examination to rule out any underlying medical causes; this applies to those with existing FDB and to those who are displaying the behaviour for the first time.
Although caregivers can do little about primary risk factors, they can influence secondary risk factors that are maintaining the behaviour. I find it useful to work through the list of secondary risk factors and to use this to assess the Parrot’s environment through a fresh perspective.
Case study Milo, a 14-year-old DNA male Grey Parrot, who had suddenly begun to display FDB following his caregiver’s absence from home for 5 weeks; he was however looked after at home by known others.
- There were no primary risk factors detected, other than a predisposition for Greys to display this behavioural issue.
- He wasn’t particularly hyper-attached to any family member and spent time with them all.
- He had plenty of rest time: he could nap with his family in the evening while they all watched TV.
- Nothing had changed about his cage, its position or furnishings.
- He was fed more junk food when his caregivers were away.
- He had plenty of opportunities to perform natural behaviours.
- The flock dynamics had not changed.
- He had never been wing clipped.
- The feather irritation was caused by a hot summer and a lack of showering/misting.
The FDB was resolved by ensuring he was fed a species appropriate food, in addition to regular showering and misting.
Case study Gizmo, a 5-year-old male Cockatiel, who had been displaying FDB for over a year; there were no underlying medical illnesses.
- There were no primary risk factors, other than the fact he was purchased from a pet shop.
- He had lost his friend over a year ago, and a new cage buddy was brought into the house to share his cage to keep him company.
- Gizmo and his cage mate shared the bird room with another cage which contained two Parakeets.
- They were rarely out of their cage due to their caregiver’s work commitments and a fear that if they were, that they would fight with each other.
- There was little environmental stimuli, as both cages were placed awkwardly against a wall.
The FDB resolved when his caregivers began to work from the bird room and reorganised the room, so that eac
h pair of birds had their respective privacy and could see out of the window. The birds were also given more out of cage time, with safety measures put in place, so that they could not land on each others’ cages.
Case study Benji, a 14-year-old DNA male Scarlet Macaw, who had been displaying FDB for a few months with no clear trigger; there were no underlying medical illnesses.
- There were no primary risk factors detected, other than the fact he came from a commercial breeding establishment and was hand reared.
- He had been an only bird for 10 years, and during the past 4 years, he had been introduced to a female Grey and a male Amazonian. He had good relations with the female Grey but was reactive to the male Amazonian.
- He was possessive over the female Grey and courted her.
- He was hyper-attached to his caregiver and became distressed when he saw care/attention being given to the other two birds.
- He had plenty of rest time.
- He was fed a species appropriate diet.
- He was regularly showered and misted.
- He had never been wing clipped, but choose to walk and climb rather than fly.
The FDB was resolved by a bespoke behaviour modification plan to reduce his attachment to his caregiver. Using environmental enrichment and ensuring all three Parrots had their own space, Benji’s possessiveness over the female Grey was significantly reduced. Furthermore, the caregiver begun to treat all three of the Parrots equally and rewarded Benji for accepting the others receiving attention.
So, you have been through the checklist, made environmental changes but s/he is still displaying FDB
There could be a few reasons for this:
- The behaviour has become compulsive to them, a habit, for example, like humans biting their nails.
- When a Parrot performs FDB, it causes pain, at which point the brain releases endorphins, nature’s feel-good hormones. Endorphins are very beneficial to any animal (or human), as they reduce pain and discomfort, increase pleasure, reduce stress/depression/anxiety, improve mood, boost self-esteem and support memory. These endorphins are very addictive and the Parrot becomes addicted to this chemical high.
- Some of the primary risk factors have impacted, more than the caregiver may have realised, on the Parrot’s emotional health.
- There are secondary risk maintaining factors that have not yet been identified by the caregiver, so these remain outstanding.
- The caregiver is inadvertently giving them attention, and, by doing so, is rewarding the behaviour.
Caregivers must be mindful of not giving any attention to this behaviour; this includes trying to divert the Parrot’s attention, either verbally or by providing a distraction. The best course of action is to completely ignore the Parrot by not looking him him/her, not talking to him/her and by simply taking no notice; often walking out the room for a few minutes can be helpful.
Assistance should be sought from a Clinical Animal Behaviourist (CAB) when simple caregiver driven strategies have not stopped FDB from continuing. It should be noted that training, including “target training”, will not work for these types of cases, as there will be an emotional and learned component to the behaviour.
Not only will a CAB work the case up by identifying any primary risk factors which may be causing emotional distress or secondary maintaining factors, but they will liaise with the Parrot’s veterinary surgeon. Some Parrots may require pharmaceutical support; drugs like amitriptyline can be useful in conjunction with a bespoke behaviour modification programme.
Whilst on medication, the Parrot will be supervised by both the vet and CAB. Medication rarely works on its own; they work only in conjunction with a behaviour modification plan that addresses the emotional needs of the individual Parrot.
Elaine Henley P.G. Dip CABC
Full Member Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors (APBC)
Animal Behaviour Training Council (ABTC) Registered Clinical Animal Behaviourist
Phone: 01294 833764