Tips For Birds With Feather Destructive Behaviors

In keeping in touch with the avian community, I find more and more people who are coping with the heartbreak of their parrot’s feather plucking, barbering or mutilation.  The biggest problem with feather destructive behaviors is that we don’t know why it happens.  There are NO experts in this area, because, frankly, no one understands why they do this. There are people with a great deal of experience with pluckers who can recommend changes to make that they have seen good results with.  But as each bird is an individual, what works for some may not work for others.

Your veterinarian can determine if the cause is medical, this should ALWAYS be the first step you take.  By ruling out health and dietary problems, you can then move safely onto possible environmental causes.  More often than not, it is the bird’s environment that is to blame.

The bird’s environment is  comprised of everything that surrounds it: its cage and what goes into it, the room of the house the bird spends most of its time in (as well as any windows in that room that a bird might  look out of, and in that regard, it also includes the outdoors and any predators that might wander into your yard.)  It includes household noises, ringing phones and the sound of hawks coming from your TV when you are watching the Nature Channel.  It includes every single member of the family, including other pets.

Things in the environment that people often don’t consider are the temperature, the humidity, the amount and duration of light during the day and night, and the energy and activity level in the house.  It sounds like a lot to think about, and it is.

What is feather destruction? There are five main ways that a parrot destroys its feathers, although a creative parrot might find a variation that suits its needs at the time.

  • Over preening:  A parrot might “over-work” an area of the body while preening, sometimes causing feather damage or thinning in that area.  This is sometimes a precursor to plucking, but not always.

  • Plucking:  This is the removal of the feather.  When a bird continues this practice over a long period of time, the follicles are eventually compromised and new feathers cannot grow back to replaced those that were plucked. When a parrot intentionally pulls out a feather, it is painful and endorphins are released into the blood stream giving the parrot a sense of calm.  It is considered possible that this is the reason some parrots pluck.  Endorphins, like drugs, are emotionally addictive, causing an ongoing cycle.

  • Barbering:  this is the destruction of the feather that doesn’t involve its removal.  A parrot might chew at the feathers, destroying them, or might actually bite them off, sometimes down to the skin.  The shafts will eventually fall out during a molt and new feathers will grow in to replace them.

  • Rubbing:  This is when a parrot scrapes the feathers from its head and neck using the bars of its cage, perches or toys.  If you have two birds housed together, sometimes one parrot is responsible for the plucking of another.  It’s an odd behavior, and sometimes the plucked bird will stand calmly by while the other plucks him bald.  If your parrot is caged alone and has feather loss in areas that can’t be reached with his own beak, rubbing is probably the cause.  Parrots have been known, also, to remove feathers using their feet.

  • Mutilation:  This is the most heart-wrenching behavior of all.  Sometimes plucking escalates into self mutilation and a parrot will attack the skin once the feathers are removed.  Scabs appear over the wounds, which are peeled off, and the wound becomes fresh again, and larger.  There is a constant threat of infection and since the skin of a bird is so thin, healing properly becomes a major issue.

Do wild parrots pluck?

This is a hotly debated subject.  I have personally read articles by field researchers stating that they have found some members of flocks that, for whatever reason, appear to have been plucked.  I am unable to relocate these articles, but the Avicultural Society of America has pictures of plucked wild birds in their album.  If I were to make an educated guess, I would say that the reason that for a bald parrot in the wild would be illness or disease.  It doesn’t make sense that a wild parrot would endanger its life by removing the feathers that insulate it and give it flight.  Further, a bald wild parrot might as well paint a target on its chest.  A predator would surely pick him out in the crowd.

However, plucking doesn’t make sense, period, whether a bird be wild or domestic. If it is an emotional issue is causing the plucking, how can we presume that wild parrots aren’t subjected to stresses that might send them over the edge.  For instance, we know that the loss of one’s mate is a traumatic event in a bird’s life and this frequently happens in the wild.  We just don’t know enough about these behaviors to say with certainty that it is exclusive to companion parrots.  I think it is safe to say, though, that it happens FAR more frequently in kept birds.

A study I read recently suggests that plucking may be hereditary.  A parrot with plucking parents, might be predisposed to this behavior.  This is a frightening consideration, given that so many plucked parrots are relinquished as breeder stock.

Is this my fault?

We do the very best we can to provide our birds with a large cage, great foods, and loads of entertainment and enrichment.  They know they are loved, and yet, our birds pluck.  We are not parrots, and we are not psychics.  There is NO benefit to blaming yourself, guilt is counterproductive to this problem.  The worse you feel about  it, the more your parrot will pick up on your disappointment, adding another layer to his worries.

Some of the best parrot homes I know of  have faced this problem.  A good friend of mine has taken in many nearly bare parrots and had them feather out under her care.  One of her own flock started plucking this past year.  I also have some friends with mutilators.  They offer the finest care and enrichment to their flocks.  One of my cockatiels has taken to plucking the neck of the other, and Linus, my umbrella, has, on occasion, over preened his chest.  It happens.  Our only recourse is to do whatever we can think of to dissuade the behavior.

Are there any preventative measures I can take?

Since we don’t know what causes plucking, your best prevention is in observing your bird and understanding what unnerves her, overstimulates her, or stresses her.  Watch especially for signs of boredom, this is a major factor in many cases.  Get to know what your bird’s threshold for tolerance is. There are some birds that do well in a very active household, others do not.  If you take the time to watch what she’s watching, and observe her reaction to it, it will tell you her level of comfort with it.  Is she watching with playful interest, or concern?  Then make the appropriate changes.

It can’t be definitively said that if your parrot becomes fearful, bored or weary that it will respond with feather destruction, but these things are known contributors to the onset of plucking.  Keep your bird active, mentally stimulated, well fed and comfortable.  These are things we should be doing anyways.

What can I do to stop or alleviate it?

Here are some suggestions of things to look for, to do and to try:

See your vet

Rule out the possibility that there are any medical reasons for your bird’s behavior.  Some vets will prescribe Prozac or other medications for the plucking bird that is not physically ill.  I, personally, am not supportive of this practice unless you have a mutilator and it’s behavior is endangering its life.  While drugging your bird might inhibit or slow the plucking process, it doesn’t speak to the root of the problem. The result is a lifetime of dulling medication for your bird that will ultimately affect its quality of life.  A better plan is to find the problem.  If you do decide to go with medication, please be sure you are doing it for the right reasons.  Talk to your vet about decreasing your birds protein intake.

Change the environment in your house.

The first suggestion I have is to re-position the cage.  Sometimes a cage placed too close to a window, near a constantly opening door or under a skylight can be stressful to your parrot.  Windows often let in too much light for the bird’s liking and can leak air that is too hot or cold and drafty.  If you live in an area where there are a lot of hawks, your bird will notice them as they fly overhead.  You probably will not.  Change the lighting as necessary. Your bird will certainly not appreciate a light glaring in its eyes. Look for things that your would normally overlook.  Try to see things from the perspective of your parrot.

Do you have other pets?  Other birds? Children?  Remember that cats and dogs are predatory animals and might be a concern to your bird.  A macaw housed next to the conure might cause distress in the smaller bird.  Small children and teenagers carry their own special energy.  Watch how your birds responds to them and move him to an area where he might feel less threatened.

I know of a couple cases where rearranging the furniture in the living room made the difference.  Since we are willing to try anything to stop this problem, think creatively and don’t make the mistake of assuming that any change is too small or too ridiculous.  They get some funny ideas in their heads about their likes and dislikes.  I actually had to get rid of a new chair I had bought to stop my umbrella cockatoo from screaming well into the night.  When the chair was gone, so was the problem.

Change up the cage.

Does your bird have enough toys to keep him mentally stimulated?  Does he like the toys you are providing?  Some birds prefer wood toys, some prefer plastic or shiny things.  Provide your bird with more of the toys he makes the best use of.  Offer lots of shredders.  Some birds will go after their feathers because the need for these toys is not being met.

Foraging toys are designed to keep a bird mentally challenged.  Wild birds spend most of their awake time engaged in this activity, be sure to provide her with this opportunity.  They are easy and inexpensive to make with paper products you have in your home.  Rotate these toys often to keep them fresh and interesting.

Look at the perching in the cage.  Is it appropriate for your species?  Is your bird physically comfortable for daytime play or a good night’s sleep.

Is the water and food you are providing fresh? Are the bowls and cage liners clean?

Change the way you do things.

Try giving the bird more out of cage time, or less.  Some birds feel better in the protection of their cage. Change the way you cut its fresh foods and try offering things that have never been tried before. Offer them in new ways, such as on skewers.  Is your bird getting enough sleep?  Try an earlier bedtime for your bird and experiment whether she prefers a covered or open cage at night.  My birds prefer to be covered.  Make sure there is adequate ventilation with the cover on and that her space is quiet and dark.  Improved sleeping conditions can help a lot.  Change up your daily routine and make appropriate changes where you see the need.

Bathe frequently.

Itchy, dry skin is sometimes the problem, especially in the winter months. Baths wash away dander and provide humidity that moisturizes the skin.  If the air in your home is dry, look into a humidifier.  Wet birds go into preen mode following a bath. Watch that she isn’t over-preening with the increased bathing.  Try cooling the temperature of the water as well.  Many birds prefer cooler water, my Quaker likes it downright cold.

Make more time for your parrot.

For the parrot that enjoys fun with the family, try setting up a perch by the sofa so she can join you for popcorn and a movie.  If your parrot likes to go out, take her with you on your errands.  A lot of birds enjoy a ride in the car.  Set a perch up in your office. This is the perfect time to start trick training your bird. A busy parrot has better things to do than pull out it’s feathers and a parrot that has been active during the day will more likely sleep, and less likely pluck at night.

Anti-plucking products.

There are products available today, mainly topical sprays, that claim to inhibit plucking.  Their effectiveness is dubious at best.  At worst, they are herbal remedies that are intended to dull the bird’s senses thereby quelling the urge to pluck.  Further, there are ingredients that might have a toxic effect on birds.  I don’t recommend them, and again, urge you to address the problem at its source.

Plucking suits, collars.

For the serious plucker, and especially the mutilator, there are a variety of cones and collars available to limit your bird’s access to their preferred areas of plucking.  I know a number of people that have bought or fashioned leather or cloth “suits” for their birds to wear during times of incessant plucking or mutilating. I have a friend that modifies a tube sock with wing holes for her medium sized parrot with a history of mutilation.  She admits, though, that her bird can have it shredded in no time if determined to do so.
These are garments sometimes necessary, but they aren’t intended for lifelong use.  Constant use can irritate the bare skin and cause discomfort as new feathers start to grow in.  Sometimes this simply calls the bird’s attention to the area of concern.  Consult with your vet before you use any products such as these.

Understand your species.

Go online and gather as much information about your species of bird as you can find.  Some parrots species tend to be more prone to plucking that others, but no species is exempt.  I recommend that those with pluckers find a sympathetic online bird forum where the problem can be discusses, ideas shared, and up to date information passed along.  You will be amazed with the small, seemingly insignificant things that have turned around the lives of plucking birds and their owner.

Keep a journal.

Since tracking events will play a critical role in your progress, I highly recommend that you keep a journal with detailed notes.  I can’t tell you how many times I have referred to my notes to see if a certain behavior was present at this same time last year.  There are many small events that occur that might be a big deal to a parrot.  This is the best way to document them for future reference.

Understand that when your parrot plucks, in the cases where health is not a contributor, it is a response to some outside influence that is beyond its control.  When you buy a parrot and keep it in your home, you take on the responsibility of providing for its every need since it is unable to fend for itself while it is in captivity.

I know of many cases where a plucked parrot is banished to the garage because of its appearance. This is beyond my comprehension. I believe that parrots can feel embarrassed, and they can feel when you are embarrassed for or by them. These are highly intelligent and emotionally complex beings that live with us cooperatively outside of their natural environment.  They are not trophies.

If you have a plucker, I hope that you will find it in your heart to love her all that much more, as she is, and provide for her growing needs.  Instead of feeling embarrassed and disappointed, take her out and show her off.  Not only will she love and benefit from the attention, but you can use this as an invaluable opportunity to educate the public about the needs of parrots.  Let her become an ambassador for her kind.

A plucked parrot can be a happy parrot, especially when you continue to search for the answers to her condition, and find new ways to improve her life.  For those of you doing just that, you have my utmost respect and admiration.

Photo credit: Anna Sloan

Author Patty Jourgensen specializes in avian health, behavior and nutrition and has been working with and caring for rescue birds since 1987.

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