What’s heavier – a ton of coal or a ton of feathers
God loved the birds and invented trees. Man loved the birds and invented cages. Jacques Duval
Those of us who keep birds agree that feathers are one of nature’s most beautiful objects. How did they evolve, what’s their function, and what can they tell us about our bird’s health and well-being? Baby birds devoid of feathers with scales on their legs look just like their reptilian ancestors the dinosaurs.
Dinosaur fossils found in China possess traces of feathers that are more primitive than those of modern birds or even of the oldest known bird fossil. The Chinese fossils reveal feathers originated in two legged carnivorous dinosaurs before birds evolved. Some of their feathers were also coloured.
But whether, as in modern birds, feathers were developed initially for insulation or attracting the opposite sex nobody knows. It’s very probable that feathers were first developed for insulation. Reptiles are dependant on the sun for their energy, the reason they are cold blooded.
Birds by contrast have a high body temperature and their feathers, which are approximately 10 to 15% of a bird’s body weight, help insulate and maintain this temperature, but they’re high maintenance. As soon as a bird develops feathers it instinctively starts to preen them and will care and maintain its plumage for the rest of its life.
Types of feathers
There are six types of feathers. Each varies in structure, shape and function . The most obvious feathers are the contour feather that make up a bird’s body shape. These have a central shaft and barbs on either side which are called vanes.
One side of a contour feather has barbs the other side has hooks. Pulling a feather through your thumb and forefinger, as we have all done, the hooks become attached to the straight barbules of the adjacent feather like a zipper. As a Parrot preens the feathers it performs this task. (I wonder did the inventors of the zip fastener get this idea from birds)
Smaller contour feathers cover the body, and leading edges of the wings. Semi-plumes are the second type of contour feather. Barbs grow from the sides of the feather shaft, but the barbules lack hooks, resulting in vanes that are soft and fluffy. Most semiplumes are concealed under contour feathers and assist with insulation.
In order to perform the function of flying a bird needs long strong rigid flight feathers known as the primaries and secondaries. The shorter secondaries are located at the lower part of wing and provide lift, while the larger wing or main flight feathers, the primaries, provide thrust. A Parrots’ tail feathers function like a rudder when flying and like a brake when landing.
Long tailed Parrot species are usually birds of dense forests whose tails assist them to swiftly twist and turn. A third type, down feathers, are anchored in the skin by their quill, forming a short, loose, fluffy feather.
Both down feathers and semiplumes lie underneath the body’s contour feathers forming a mass of feathers that trap a layer of air for insulation. When a bird’s body temperature falls it fluffs up its feathers. If its body temperature keeps falling it hides its beak in its feathers (as it often does when roosting) to prevent heat loss via its beak.
The reason a bird bathes even in cold weather, is to enable it to clean its contour feathers more efficiently. Birds will also bathe in sand and dust to cleanse these feathers prior to preening. Preening the feathers back in place is called nibble preening, an apt description as it looks like the feathers are being bitten.
Even a Hyacinth Macaw with the largest beak of all Parrots can nibble preen some of the smallest of its feathers. The ones on its head and face are preened using its toe nails, like all Parrots and most birds do. The sword-billed hummingbird is unique among birds, possessing beak as long as its body and it is forced to use its feet and toe nails to preen its plumage.
But Parrots being social birds indulge in mutual preening allowing a colleague or male to preen their heads and offering the same service in return. This is why a Parrot will lower its head towards a human it likes. “You are invited to preen me.” My Artha will nudge my hand if `I don’t obey.
The other three types of bird’s feathers are specialized. Not every species will have them. Filoplumes and bristles, are hair-like. Filoplumes have only a few small barbs, near the tip. The feathers are found around contour feathers, especially on the wings. Filoplumes are associated with sensory receptors in the skin, and are thought to convey information regarding wind, air pressure, that birds require to maintain efficient flight. Bristles are short and stiff.
They’re are sensory in nature and are found around eyes and near the base of the beak. Those feathers around a bird’s eyes are the smallest of all bird’s feathers.
The final type of feather is the powder down, a specialty feather that looks like semiplumes. These are present in herons, bitterns, pigeons and Parrots and these grow continuously. Powder down feathers are located in patches usually around the chest. A preening bird will bite the tips of these and remove the powdery down applying it to the
feathers where it forms a waterproof barrier.
African Greys, Amazons and Cockatoos are among the Parrot species that have powder down feathers. They may cause health hazards for some Parrot owners as the dust is a known allergen.
The uses of feathers
Human use of feathers
Feathers have been used by indigenous people for centuries, mainly in ceremonies. Most notably the bald eagle feathered headdress of North American Indians, the feathered costumes of the Aztecs and Incas, and the mass of bird of paradise plumes worn by the native people of New Guinea.
The populations of these birds were never affected. But the European trade in birds’ feathers, an industry known as the plume trade, at its height in the 19th century, was responsible for five million birds a year being killed. Campaigns opposing it such as those led by Etta Lemon led to end of the plume trade in the 20th century and the formation of the RSPB.
Birds use of feathers
To fly – obviously. Feathers have other uses like insulation, recognition of another bird, communication through body language and camouflage.
Birds don’t sweat, and feathers can help keep them cool by fluffing them up and letting air flow through them. They also fan the feathers on the chest to increase air flow. To keep warm they fluff up the outer layer of feathers. The structure of the contour feathers provides a limited amount of water proofing.
Total water proofing is mostly seen in waterfowl who use oil from the preen gland to waterproof their plumage. The oil from the preen gland in Parrots is a feather conditioner, the preen oil also reacts with sunlight to produce Vitamin D.
Feathers are used by birds as part of their body language. And often to attract a mate. Birds can contort, raise and lower its feathers at will, depending on the circumstances, and change its whole-body shape. Birds express pleasure, affection and aggression via their feathers.
A scared or angry Parrot will fluff their feathers and raise feathers on the back, head and neck. They also use them to communicate. Learning through observation how your own Parrot expresses herself through her feathers, takes skill, knowledge and practice.
Learning Parrot body language has to be one the most absorbing activities when you are interacting with your pet bird.
Problems of feathers in pet birds
Pet birds can lose feathers from manifold causes. The natural, benign one is the annual moult. Some birds can moult twice or even three times. In my own mixed species, flock of
Parakeets and Parrots and two Macaws, I’ve only ever observed an annual moult. This usually happens after the breeding season.
The process involves the shedding of old feathers while producing new ones. Moulting feathers are generally moulted symmetrically. So, you’ll find a feather from one wing on the floor and next day a feather from the other wing.
Moulting is draining of the body’s resources. A bird in poor health, and an old bird will take longer to moult. A bird with few nutritional resources can get ‘stuck in the moult.’ High stress can even cause a ‘shock moult.’
A nutrient rich diet is important especially with the correct calcium phosphorus balance. Some Parrots get a scruffy look when moulting; others don’t. Bonded Parrots or simply Parrots who are friends will preen one another’s feathers.
And the tame Parrot may involve you in mutual preening sessions with you. Their beaks are delicate. Benni Macaw once preened several hairs from my eyebrows so gently (I was watching TV) I never realised he’d pulled them out until I looked in a mirror.
A Parrot can sometimes begin plucking and -pecking around a spot irritated by household chemicals, fumes, cleaners. It can sometimes be difficult to discover the cause. A friend’s Cockatoo was discovered to be allergic to pellets.
Once pellets were removed from the diet, the feather plucking ceased.
When a Parrot is growing new feathers during the moulting season, or when young birds are producing their adult plumage, feather bleeding can occur. A new ‘pin’ feather contains blood vessels, without which the full feather would not be able to grow.
If these are damaged by cage bars, a collision or another Parrot bleeding can occur. The larger pin feathers – primary wing and tail feathers – bleed the most if damaged. Once
spotted, you must stop the bleeding.
Hold the broken end of the feather for long enough for the bleeding to stop. Corn starch works as a coagulant. It’s safer to have the broken stump removed at the vet’s but some carers can do this themselves with sterilised tweezers or small pliers.
Cysts and lipomas
When the feather doesn’t break through but grows under the skin a hard lump – a cyst is formed. Cysts need to be surgically removed at the vets. No one is sure why they occur. Causes suggested include malnutrition, infection in the follicle or a genetic disposition.
A Lipoma isn’t strictly a feather disease; it’s a benign fatty growth under the skin. The causes are poor diet, obesity or possibly a thyroid condition. Large tumours although not cancerous look awful, can restrict the bird’s movement and thus affecting its quality of life and lead it to pluck around the area. Tumours may be removed surgically. They can sometimes be dispersed with exercise and the correct diet.
Poor Feather Condition
Feather colour can sometimes change as a result of damaged follicles, medication, or too much Vitamin A supplement. Once the diet is put right, at the next moult, the feathers will come through.
The feathers are one of the prime, visible signs of good health. If they look frayed or scruffy but otherwise the bird seems healthy there has to be some cause. One cause is a lack of amino acids. Methionine for example is essential.
Other symptoms of this deficiency include a flaking beak. Methionine can be found in many suitable Parrot foods, including pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, eggs, Brazil nuts, sesame seeds and spinach. Supplements maybe an option, too. The feathers and beak can take up to a year to recover.
Frayed feathers are usually a sign of mineral deficiency. Other symptoms include itchy skin and feather loss. Making sure your birds all have access to a mineral block will usually cure the problem, or a vet may recommend adding supplements to the Parrots’ water.
Plucking can start for a variety of reasons, physical or psychological or even a combination of both. If a Parrot starts plucking its own feathers, there may be an underlying health problem.
Unfortunately, it’s not obvious which of the many possible ailments is to blame. It could be parasites, an allergy, low air humidity, lack of fresh air, stress, boredom, mating hormones, liver disease, cancer, bacterial or fungal infection, malnutrition, heavy metal poisoning, or simply a bad habit.
A trip to the vet’s is necessary to see if the underlying problem can be diagnosed, and if it turns out to be an environmental problem rather than disease, you need to ascertain what in the Parrot’s daily life is causing it to mutilate itself.
Observe the bird, take notes, can you find a pattern or trigger? Does the plucking occur when the Parrot is bored or stressed? Is another bird or object involved in the incident that leads up to a bout of plucking? An example from my own birds. Casper Grey fought with Archie Orange-winged Amazon. I separated them.
After the fight, Casper plucked his own wing feathers so badly that he was flightless until they moulted and regrew. If the bird plucks when left alone for many hours without you the plucking is likely due to loneliness. Sometimes our homes are the cause of plucking. Not enough humidity, too dry, too warm environment. I keep a lot of plants where the Parrot’s live.
Is your Parrot getting enough bathing? Parrots love to bathe in rain-soaked leaves. In my planted aviary I often see the Parrots soaking themselves in bamboo leaves. My Greys and Macaws in the birdroom bath themselves in a large stainless-steel bowl.
Parrots enjoy being clean even if they're the messiest creatures around. My indoor birds do not shower with me but many carers report that theirs do so, to their mutual benefit and delight. Showering and bathing encourages preening rather than plucking.
Sometimes a carer can inadvertently encourage plucking by too much petting, thus stimulating the bird to want to mate. Mating birds will give each other a full body preening. It is better for us to restrict petting to the head and neck.
Parrots will also pluck one another. This is a habit hard to eliminate without separating them. Unfortunately, if the Parrot has plucked so much to damage the follicles feathers won’t regrow.
How to keep Parrots healthy and having perfect feathers
It is now accepted that a poor environment, lack of foraging, over caging, solitude leads to behaviour problems which encourage plucking behaviour. You can, and many do, keep a contented single Parrot, but they naturally belong in flocks.
The sole Parrot can learn to accept the family and possibly their pets as flock members. Such Parrots - if they do develop plucking behaviours - will often benefit from the presence another bird, preferably of the same species and same sex if breeding is not feasible.
This is the whole issue of modern husbandry. Space, company (human or bird) foraging activities, flight. Allowing your Parrot to engage in as much natural behaviour as you can allow in your home, is one of the surest ways of keeping a full flighted Parrot in excellent feather condition.
The author wishes to thank Bill Naylor for his comments and help with this article.
For everything you need for caring for your Parrot's feathers please click here
To be the first to read blogs like this, plus exclusive offers and the latest Parrot news, sign up to our newsletter. If you have a friend who you think may find this useful, feel free to share