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Feather Plucking | What Is It And How To Stop It?

Dot Schwarz explains the medical, behavioural and environmental reasons that Parrots feather pluck, and what you can do to stop it.

Feather Destructive Behaviour

Feather plucking, also known as FDB (Feather Destructive Behaviour) is not seen in wild Parrots. It’s a behaviour of captive bred or wild caught Parrots, living in homes or aviaries.

You can take a look at some products that can stop feather plucking here.

Causes of feather Plucking 

When you examine reasons for any particular bird plucking there can be one of many causes or a combination of several. A plucked bird might be a rehome or second-hand Parrot or may be a pet Parrot who begins this worrying habit. The first thing to do is to stay calm, look for possible causes and then possible solutions.

feather plucking

Credit: Mason Brown

Causes of plucking can be described as fitting into three groups (though there can be some overlap): Medical, Environmental and Behavioural

For medical causes, you will need the help of an avian vet, who will discuss the Parrot’s home environment and behavioural issues in detail.

Medical 

·        Skin infections or inflammations
·        Parasites like ringworm
·        Feather cyst
·        Liver disease
·        Cancer
·        Poisoning by heavy metals like zinc
·        Metabolic disorders
·        PBFD

Environmental

–       Malnutrition
–       Allergies to environmental factors or food
–       Dryness of the skin due to low humidity
–       Dyes and preservatives in the food
–       Not enough time to rest in a too busy household
–       Lack of natural sunlight and fresh air
–       Nicotine in the birds’ vicinity
–       Lack of enrichment items

Behavioural

·        Boredom
·        Emotional stress

Medical Causes: Avian Vets & Diagnosis

Only an avian vet can properly diagnose feather destruction caused by illness. A vet visit is needed for a bird with plucked feathers so that medical conditions can be eliminated.

You can find the nearest Avian Vet to you here.

Some causes are obvious to the eye, like skin infections. If a bird is infested with worms, you can usually find a worm protruding from the vent. If not and you still suspect worms, faecal testing will be required.

Cockatoo feather picking

Credit: Mason Brown

From the cost point of view, vet laboratory work is extremely expensive.  Among tests that might be required are a complete blood count and chemistry profile, blood tests for virus and chlamydial infections and skin scrapes. Some vets may even include x-rays. These tests may resolve the medical causes of the plucking.

The prognosis with many medical conditions is guarded. Some vets have used drugs like Prozac but I have never seen evidence that the results were permanent.

When Cybil, my wild caught Orange-winged Amazon, began to have manky feathers and bad smelling faeces, I took her to the vet. Bowel cancer was diagnosed and she died.

Feather picking Amazons

Credit Dot Schwarz

This was the same bird, who earlier with plucked feathers, was suffering from psittacosis. Antibiotics and her devoted partner, Basil cured that, and she had 18 months of good quality aviary life before cancer killed her.

Environmental Causes: Atmosphere

Once you are sure there are no medical reasons for the feather destruction, environmental causes are not that hard to distinguish, although they might include a lot of heart searching on your part.

A common one is an atmosphere that is too dry for Parrots – central heating, shut windows, a lack of humidity can all cause feather picking.

Even in winter a bird should have the choice to bathe. In my aviary I have seen Parakeets like Kakariki and Rock Pebblers immerse themselves in the large water bowl when the air temperature is almost down to zero.

Cockatoo feather picking

Credit: Dot Schwarz

 

Over Preening and Picking 

Being in a cage with nothing to chew or gnaw can induce a Parrot to over preen and start picking. Preventative measures include providing freshly cut safe branches, at least once a week, as well as foraging toys.

A poor diet is often blamed for birds spoiling their plumage. Make sure that your bird is not eating too rich a diet, lacking in vitamins (particularly Vitamin A).

Amino acids from protein foods are also necessary for feather health. Some people like supplements, I favour chicken bones for Benni Macaw and the Greys.

Adding the right supplement at the right dosage can help eliminate feather loss

Casper Grey plucked his chest badly after a fight with another bird.  Malcolm Green of The Birdcare Company advised me to add a calcium supplement to his feeding. I followed the regime for six weeks and Casper’s plumage regained its former allure.

African Grey feather plucking

Credit: Dot Schwarz

Sunlight and Fresh Air

Another cause of feather picking can be lack of sunlight and fresh air.

I had a graphic example of this when a badly plucked Timneh hen joined our aviary flock. She had been kept in a box for the last 8 months. Put at liberty in a large aviary, the wild caught Parrot that I named Mirt, stopped plucking her neck and chest and refeathered completely within six months.

Behavioral Causes of Plucking

Sexual maturity can cause a bird to pluck. In the wild the Parrot would choose a mate. In our sitting rooms, the possibilities of a semi natural life are severely limited.

The Parrot chooses its favourite human and in frustration at the non-consummation may get aggressive or pluck its own feathers. This sexual plucking is often marked with Cockatoos. Providing a mate is not necessarily the best solution.

The Cockatoo whose innate nature tells her or him to mate is also habituated to living with humans. Presenting a Cockatoo bonded with a human with another Cockatoo can be a recipe for disaster.

Cockatoo and Rock Pebbler

Credit: Dot Schwarz

 

Habitual Plucking 

Giving the bird an enriched environment with branches to chew, toys to pay with often lessens the urge to pull out feathers and for the favoured human to avoid over petting.

Sometimes when plucking has become habitual, the bird relishes the sensation of pulling out its own feathers.  It becomes a sort of vice equivalent to a habitual nail biter or even analogous to human psychotic hair pulling (Trichotillomania).

If the feather is repeatedly pulled the follicles, unfortunately they will die and the feather cannot never regenerate. Anyone who has taken in badly plucked bird and enriched their environment, while rejoicing at the return of many feathers, has to be resigned to the fact that there will remain patches of bare skin.  In these sorts of cases it can be almost impossible to prevent it.

Boredom

Feather plucking from boredom, being too tightly caged, or from being alone for too many hours are situations that fortunately can be ameliorated with care and enthusiasm.

My success story concerns Bobo an Umbrella Cockatoo who had had her wings cut to the bone and her tail cut off. When she came here she was covered in fluff with no feathers to speak of.

Cockatoo on a tree

Credit: Dot Schwarz

After two years living in an enriched environment, my company and lots of out of cage time, her feathers mostly regrew. She even managed a few hop flaps.

What she never did was to enjoy the company of other Parrots. When the opportunity came to rehouse her to a loving one – Parrot household, I took it. A year later, Bobo has largely ceased plucking, although she can still snip her tail feathers.

There is no hard scientific evidence that wing clipping is a factor in feather plucking. In my view, it is a pernicious practice because since the clipped bird knows it cannot utilize its natural means of defence and fly away, this can cause anxiety and anxiety in a cage bird often results in feather plucking.

Get the right cage for your Parrot here.

Some suggestions for remedies

An enriched environment with provision of ample out of cage time. Regular bathing or spraying especially in warm houses. Many prefer to use Collars (self-made or veterinary acquired) or vests. Opinion is divided as to whether these work as a long term solution or not.

If the environmental or medical cause of plucking have been adjusted while the feathers regrow, the collar, bandage or vest will give them time to remerge. If the conditions that caused the plucking are still there, once the collar is removed the feathers will be ripped out again.

African Greys in a basket

Credit: Dot Schwarz

When his mate Perdy Cockatoo went to a new home last October, Casper plucked out many chest feathers.  A home-made vest from a red sock has helped alleviate the situation. When I took off the vest Casper had plucked feathers from the edges. I hope he will now let them regrow.

He did something similar when Benson, his mate of only 9 months died, 3 years ago. However when Archie the old Amazon died, Lena, his mate of 30 years, did not pluck.

So there is an element of luck in whether your bird will pluck.

Keeping each bird in the best possible conditions will help to prevent plucking. Find products to prevent feather plucking here.

Macaw eating

Credit: Della Collins





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