The three main categories of behavioural problems seen in our Parrots are: caregiver directed aggression, excessive vocalisation, and feather destructive behaviours (FDB).
Out of the three, it is perhaps feather destructive behaviours that cause caregivers the most guilt, as often they do not understand why the behaviour has started and feel powerless to stop their Parrot from performing self-inflicted injury.
In this article I will consider the risk factors for the behaviour’s beginning, so that caregivers may try to prevent this from happening at the onset. In the next article, I will consider simple treatment options to reduce the behaviour.
Feather- destructive behaviours may include over preening, feather barbering, pulling feathers out and mutilating the skin. The behaviour may be difficult to notice at first, as only a few feathers are missing.
It has been estimated that 10% of all Parrots presented to veterinary surgeons display FDB. When FDB is suspected, It is imperative that caregivers take their Parrots to their vets for a thorough medical work up in order to rule out and treat any potential medical causes – both injury and illness.
This should be done without delay, as the longer the issue is left, the more addicted the Parrot may become to performing the behaviour. Even when medical factors have been ruled out or treated, the behavioural component may remain. This is because FDB may become highly addictive to the Parrot.
When the Parrot pulls out a feather, 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.
Very soon the Parrot may become addicted to these feel- good hormones, and thus the behaviour continues.
With the correct treatment, both behaviourally and physically, the feathers may grow back. However, be aware that if the behaviour has been going on for some time, or all of the reasons why the Parrot plucked have not been addressed, or the feather follicle has been damaged, then there may not be sufficient regrowth.
Not having feathers is in itself not a welfare issue.
Risk factors for feather- destructive behaviours (FDB)
Although any species of Parrot may present with FDB, researchers agree that the Grey Parrot and Cockatoo are the most likely to display this.
Be aware of the species of Parrot that you bring into your home; and, if attracted to a Grey or a Cockatoo Parrot, aim to set the bird up for success from the beginning of your relationship.
Many behavioural problems are inherited, including FDB.
Aim to see your Parrot’s parents; or, if this is not possible, ask the breeder questions about their temperament. Avoid purchasing a chick whose parents had FDB.
The odds of FDB in Cockatoos rises for those who are obtained from pet shops rather than breeders. Similarly, to puppy farm individuals, these Parrots may experience periods of less than desirable husbandry, reduced stimulation and a lack of stable relationships with a clutch mate or parent.
Purchase your Parrot from establishments or breeders where they have been raised appropriately, with attention given to their developing needs.
Hyper-attachment to a caregiver:
Parrots who have not had the experience of being raised by their parents or with clutch mates are more likely to form very strong attachments to a single caregiver to the point where they become extremely distressed when that caregiver gives attention to another or leaves the Parrot.
From when your Parrot comes to live with you, build up tolerance to being on his or her own and with other family members or friends.
It is a common perception that Parrots need 12 hours of continuous dark, quiet, uninterrupted sleep per night. Researchers found that those Parrots that did have this regime were 7x more likely to develop FDB than Parrots that had 8 hours.
The reason for this may be that as Grey and Cockatoo Parrots are highly social, they may experience loneliness and boredom if left alone in the dark with no stimulation or company for a prolonged time.
Parrots will nap throughout the day when you are busy or working; by not sticking to the 12-hour myth, your Parrot will be able to spend more time with you and not be as lonely or bored.
Position of cage:
Although it is recommended that a cage should be ideally set up in a corner so that the Parrot feels safer, some Parrots– Cockatoos in particular– are more likely to begin FDB if their cage is farther away from their significant caregiver, as it may decrease social interaction between the Parrot and caregiver.
While we want our Parrots to feel safe, consider if the position of their cage results in less interaction with us and try to reach a compromise between safety and social interaction.
Many species of Parrots live in humid, tropical locations and have evolved to protect their feathers. Grey Parrots in particular produce a dust or dander, which when not exposed to rain spray will dry out– covering their skin and causing irritation.
Mist your Parrot daily– and Grey Parrots 3-4x a day– to reduce the build-up of dust on their skin.
Poor diets can lead to poor quality feathers and dry flaky skin, leaving the Parrot more vulnerable to secondary infection.
Take advice from your avian vet and good pet shops on suitable diets for your Parrot.
Some Parrots may be housed with other Parrots or birds that cause the Parrot some stress; this may be that they are too noisy, are aggressive or are competing over limited resources.
Stress may also be caused when there is disharmony among the humans in the house or when one family member does not like the Parrot- -even though they have not acted upon this.
Parrots may experience stress from other non-Parrot/human members of the family– from a dog or a cat.
Monitor flock dynamics carefully while being considerate to the needs of all who live in the house.
As Parrots use the power of flight to escape what they fear, the absence of flight may increase their stress. When a wing clip is not carried out by a veterinary surgeon, there is a risk that it could be done incorrectly and cause injury to the Parrot.
For very good reasons, veterinary surgeons will not routinely perform this procedure unless there is a very good reason to do so.
Many Parrots may experience 12 or more homes in their lifetime, and each time that they go into a new home causes them stress.
Parrots may live upwards of 60 years, so it is vital that those taking on a chick are aware of the commitment this entails. Parrots should not be purchased on a whim and one should make provision for them in the event of their caregiver’s passing. This requires selecting someone known who can assume this commitment –not just financially, but emotionally too.
Lack of opportunity to perform natural behaviours:
Parrots have a range of natural behaviours that are often suppressed or prevented in captivity. These include flock eating/socialization, nest building, flying, foraging, and play.
It is important to provide not only a range of activities to emulate these natural behaviours as far as possible, but also to give your Parrot the gift of your time. Parrots need to spend 4+ hours out of their cage each day with their family and have the opportunity to participate in family activities, meals, and hanging out.
Parrots need a variety of toys to shred, chew, or forage.
Provide cardboard boxes at the bottom of their cage to allow for nest building.
Single traumatic events:
Even Parrots that live in optimum environments where their needs are taken care of may develop FDB, much to the angst of their caregivers. What may be traumatic to a Parrot may not be perceived as such by us, their caregivers. These are perhaps the most perplexing of cases, as it can take detective work and a fresh pair of eyes to unravel what is stressing the Parrot so much.
Do you have any advice for dealing with feather destructive behaviours?
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
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