What is feather plucking?
Feather plucking is a behavioural disorder commonly seen in captive birds that bite or pluck their own feathers. The areas of the body that are mainly plucked are the more accessible regions such as the chest and thighs. Feather plucking has not been reported in wild birds, except in the case of a female of some species that pull out breast feathers to line a nest.
Medical And Physical Factors
Feather plucking is often a complex and multi-factorial problem. The avian veterinarian should rule out any medical or physical problems before looking at environmental and behavioural issues that may cause plucking. Many physical conditions can make the bird's skin feel extremely itchy and uncomfortable, causing the bird to pluck out feathers.
1) Psittacine Beak and Feather Disease. This is a contagious viral disease that causes progressive feather, claw and beak malformation and necrosis. In later stages of the disease, eventually all feather growth stops. There is also suppression of the immune system, often resulting in secondary infections. Testing for this disease is done by taking a drop of blood from a nail and sending off the sample for analysis.
2) External parasites eg mites or lice. These are rarely seen in parrots kept indoors unless they have been in contact with wild birds, for example when the bird's cage is outside. These parasites can be seen microscopically when a feather sample is taken, and can be treated by using a vet-approved mite spray.
3) Internal disease for example liver and kidney disease. These are chronic diseases that require long term medical treatment.
4) Metal poisoning from eating items containing metal such as pieces of jewellery, decorations or rusted items. Metal poisoning can be confirmed by taking an x-ray of the bird.
5) Bacterial or fungal infections of the skin and / or feather follicles. Antibiotics or anti-fungal medication will be necessary.
6) Nutritional deficiencies. Birds fed a limited diet often develop a deficiency in proteins, minerals and vitamins, especially Vitamin A deficiency. Vitamin A deficiencies result in poor feather and skin quality, which in turn will predispose to plucking. Please read our feeding guide for more information on the ideal diet for birds.
7) Skin irritation by toxic substances used on the skin. Birds can have severe reactions to products like soaps and perfumes. Do not use any products other than water on the bird's skin or feathers.
Exposure to poisonous toxins
Apart from extreme irritation of the skin, many toxins can cause organ failure and death. It is vital to be aware of the potentially deathly hazards in any normal household.
a) It's best to keep the bird out of the kitchen while cooking to avoid toxic fumes and dangers such as hot oil and boiling water.
b) Remove the bird from a room that is being cleaned and make sure that the room is well aired before returning the bird.
c) It's safe to clean your bird's cage with dish washing liquid.
The following list of toxins is not, a comprehensive list. Beware of keeping your bird away from the following:
household cleaning products:
Environmental Factors Causing Feather Plucking
Many birds are highly intelligent and sensitive animals that experience great distress when their complex needs are not met. Feather plucking is often a coping strategy used to alleviate stress, boredom or frustration in the same way a person might bite their nails. It may develop into a behavioural problem that is difficult to change. It is vital to examine your bird's environment to ensure that his life is as stimulating and fulfilling as possible.
1) Lack of exercise
A bird that is unable to exercise will often direct his pent up energy towards inappropriate behaviour, such as plucking. In the wild, birds fly long distances during the course of daily activities and are always moving in a search for food. While necessary for your bird's safety while you're not at home, any cage restricts natural movement. Even a bird with trimmed wings needs plenty of space to exercise, stretch out the wings and explore. The cage should be the biggest that you can possibly afford and should have plenty of different branches and climbing equipment such as ladders and swings.
2) Lack of mental stimulation.
Many birds are highly intelligent and need plenty of mental stimulation. Boredom and frustration are common causes of feather plucking.
How can I keep my bird mentally active?
- Timeout: Let your bird spend as much time as possible out of the cage when you are at home to supervise.
- Toys: Provide plenty of toys that you rotate on a regular basis to give variety.
- Tearing apart: Give paper and cardboard items that your bird can chew and tear apart for example boxes, toilet rolls, egg cartons and rolled up newspaper.
- TV: Leave on the radio or TV when you are not at home.
- Treats for foraging activities. Wrap up treats (like seeds or nuts) in pieces of paper and place them in different areas of the cage so that your bird spends time searching for them.
- Tricks: Take the time to teach your bird verbal labels for items or actions by consistently using the same word when referring to something.
3) Deprivation of social needs
Birds are highly social flock animals, travelling, feeding and interacting together as a group. Many birds experience severe distress and frustration when their social needs are not met and may pluck their feathers to pacify themselves.
Recreate social interactions of the flock by sharing meals together and including the bird in activities at home.
- Your bird may choose one person in the family as their 'mate' and may see other people as rivals to your affection. Remember to give enough time to your feathered 'mate' and be consistent in the amount of time you spend interacting with your bird.
- Recreate social interactions of the flock by sharing meals together and including the bird in activities at home such as watching TV in the evenings.
- If there is a new pet or baby in the household, make sure you give your bird plenty of attention so that he does not feel neglected.
- Threatening events.
In the wild, birds fly away to escape perceived threats, such as a bird of prey. A bird that is confined within a home environment cannot escape from situations that they find stressful. Although it is impossible to prevent all stressful occurances, you can remove your bird from noises, movements, objects, people or animals that scare him.
* If you are having a party at home, move the bird to a quiet room and leave a radio playing to block out the other sounds.
* Closely supervise any interaction between visitors and your bird. Birds are often terrified of young children because they tend to be noisy and boisterous, and often people inadvertently scare a bird by their actions.
- Environmental changes
Birds enjoy following an established routine and find unpredictable changes to their environment frightening. The simple addition of rituals to interactions with your parrot can add some appreciated predictability to his environment.
* Let the bird enjoy taking part in your daily rituals, for example keeping him with you as you eat meals, shower, dress, watch TV and so on.
* Use the same words and rituals as you greet him, leave home, say goodnight and so on.
* If you are moving home, rather leave your bird with a bird-sitter while you are packing, moving and unpacking to spare your bird from this stressful process.
- Emotional changes
Birds are extremely sensitive to the subtle changes in our own emotions as well as the emotions involved in the interactions between family members. Cases have been reported of parrots plucking their feathers when their owner goes through traumatic circumstances or if there is a lot of fighting in the home.