This article was previously published in Bird Breeder magazine and is reprinted here with permission of the author.
by Laurella Desborough
As we work with our pet birds and breeding pairs, we are constantly coming up with new problems and, hopefully, new solutions to the problems. Feather chewing, pulling, clipping and plucking is something that can occur in a pet birds or breeding birds, and can be the behavioral result of a variety of causes. Articles on feather plucking have been written by veterinarians, pet bird owners and bird breeders. Surveys have been made to seek causes for the problem. Certainly, I would suggest a review of the literature that has already been written on this subject. The August 1997 issue of Bird Talk presents a good overview of the problem.
I believe one of the simplest and perhaps most profound statements made about feather plucking is that it is an extension of normal preening or originates from the preening urge. In feather plucking, it becomes excessive in duration and in the mechanical work of the beak on the feathers. There are probably at least three major causes of feather picking in birds: severe physical pain; chronic condition of poor health or disease; and emotional causes; such as boredom, frustration and anger.
Feather plucking caused by pain can be exemplified by the pain of toenails cut far too short, the pain of a failing heart or the pain of a broken wing. Another type of physical cause is extreme irritation from a chronic condition or disease: examples include a Giardia infection, vitamin toxicity from feeding an excessive amount of man-made vitamins, extreme dryness of skin, along with dirty feathers from the lack of a good bath and a bacterial infection of the skin follicles. These are just a few physical conditions that can lead to feather picking. All of the foregoing examples are known to me, some from experience with my own birds over the years but most are from the experiences of other bird breeders or owners of pet birds. Obviously, most of these situations can be remedied with the result that the bird stops feather picking, and eventually the lost feathers are replaced with the next molt.
Emotional causes of feather picking are many and varied; however, the pattern of the plucking is not necessarily varied. When a pet bird or breeding bird is continually stressed or frustrated without being able to escape from the situation, a common response is feather picking, chewing or pulling. Generally speaking, the bird does not respond to a frustration situation with immediate feather picking, but experiences the negative situation for many days or weeks before beginning to chew at feathers. A good example of this is provided with the case of a small conure whose owner took a second job in the evenings. This bird, which had the expectation that every evening it would spend some time with its owner, now found over many days that this did not happen anymore. After about a month, it began to chew the tips off the upper wing coverts. Eventually, the owner realized that an excessive amount of feathers were on the cage bottom and sought help. With changes in his schedule to make some accommodations to the needs of his conure, the bird stopped feather chewing.
An interesting feather-pulling situation developed with a male yellow-naped Amazon in a breeding facility. He was in a cage alone, since he showed a serious dislike for his potential mate. Not only was he caged alone, but he had been removed from the Amazon section. He was placed about 20 feet away where he could see the other Amazons, but he was not near them. In the following months he seemed happy, then one day the feeder found a lot of green feathers on the floor under the bird's suspended cage and made the assumption that the bird was starting to molt. The next day, the floor was covered. The feeder looked closely at the bird and found the entire right leg and body around the leg bare. An area around the neck and upper back was also bare--the feathers had been pulled out.
After providing food and water to this bird, the feeder serviced the other flights, keeping an eye on the Amazon. Although he moved to the food dish, the bird was so intent on pulling feathers that he pulled some between each bite of food. The feeder thought it must be a serious disease or pain situation. After completing his morning feeding, the Amazon flew to an upper perch and leaned over, wings quivering in the typical pose of wanting something.
The feeder asked herself several questions: What does this bird want? Does this bird want to return to its potential mate? Does it want to be with the other Amazons? The bird was moved back into its cage with a female yellow nape. He flew furiously at the female with intent to do serious physical harm. She was netted quickly and removed from the cage. He remained in the Amazon section, exactly where he had been previously. Immediately, he flew to the side of the cage facing a pair of double yellowheads and started very loud Amazon parrot "talk." All the Amazons began loudly vocalizing and continued to do so for 30 minutes. The yellow nape male never pulled another feather, and all the pulled feathers grew back. To this day, over a year later, he remains a beautifully feathered bird, still unpaired.
In this case, a positive change was made to the bird's situation on the second day of pulling. Since the feather-plucking behavior had not become habitual, it was easier for the bird to stop. One may assume that he had been extremely frustrated at being separated from the Amazon flock. This example may indicate that a quick response to the problem is more likely to achieve positive results.
In addition to actual physical causes, such as an infection in the feather follicles, this behavior may follow severe stress. It may also be associated with the onset of a molt, indicate acute boredom or result from a bad wing clip. When feather follicle infection is not the cause, an analysis of events affecting the bird during the 10 days prior to onset of feather picking may reveal the cause.
Placing a new bird in the cage of a single pet bird can devastate the original bird, just as adding a new bird to a single-bird household can be upsetting to the first bird. First, seek to define and correct the problem by changing the situation for birds that seem to be picking due to stress. An easy way to slow down or totally stop feather-picking is to stuff the cage with clean tree branches or stalk-type plants, such as ornamental ginger, that are nontoxic for birds. Stuffing the cage means to literally pack as many branches or plants into the cage as possible while still leaving a space near food and water bowls. The bird should have to chew its way through the branches. Of course, do not use fruit branches that have been sprayed or branches from trees that grow along roadways where the county may spray them. These tree branches and plant stalks provide many hours of activity for birds that need to chew, clip or otherwise work with their beaks. This also distracts the molting bird from the itchy feathers dropping out and the new pins coming in. Many parrot species will spend happy hours turning branches into debris.