Birds pluck their feathers for several reasons. In the wild, they use plucked feathers to line their nests during breeding season. Many bird feather also come out as a bird performs its normal preening and grooming routine.
Feather-Picking Problem Behavior
In captivity, a plucking bird can be a sign of veterinary or environmental problems. It is also known as feather-picking. You might note your parrot chewing its feathers or going as far as damaging its own skin.
Parrots can also pick at the feathers of their other bird companions. You will usually see the damage to feathers on the breast and neck, which are easiest to reach with the beak.
If you suspect that your bird has been plucking its feathers, the best advice is to get your bird to an avian vet as quickly as possible. If the vet determines your bird to be free of psittacine beak and feather disease (PBFD) or other medical problems, then your bird’s plucking is most likely due to an environmental issue.
Causes of Feather Picking
Birds that are stressed will pluck as a means of pacifying themselves, and sometimes do it out of boredom or lack of interaction. There can be medical causes due to diet, toxic exposures, and infections. Your veterinarian is likely to ask questions to try to get to the root of the problem, as well as doing a physical exam and lab tests.To determine if there is an environmental cause for the bird’s behavior, ask yourself the following questions:
- Does the bird eat a healthy diet? A nutritional deficiency can stress a bird to the point of plucking and other self-mutilation. If you find that your bird’s diet is less than spectacular, try mixing it up a bit by adding some fresh fruits and vegetables on a daily basis. If you have only been giving your bird a seed diet, it may be lacking in nutrition.
- Is the bird’s cage clean and comfortable? Birds are hygienic animals by nature, and a dirty, unkempt cage is detrimental to their mental as well as physical health. Check out your bird’s cage to see if better housekeeping is needed.
- Does the bird get enough attention and mental stimulation? Parrots are highly intelligent and social creatures. They crave interaction with their flock members, and will sometimes pluck if they feel neglected. Evaluate the quality time that you spend with your pet and make sure that you are providing your bird with enough socialization, interaction, and play.
- Does your bird get enough sleep? Birds need more sleep than humans and prefer a consistent sleep schedule. Your bird may need its own dark, quiet room to ensure it gets enough rest.
- Have there been recent changes in your household? If something has changed it can induce stress. This could include a move, a change in household members or pets, or a different schedule.
Feather-picking can occur for a variety of reasons, but these all fall into two primary categories: medical and behavioral. Medical causes of feather-picking can be related to the skin and feathers, or related to stress from other illness. Medical causes of featherpicking include poor diet, exposure to toxins, infection (which may bacterial, viral, or fungal in origin), parasites, or other diseases. Your avian veterinarian will want to perform a full physical examination and/or run laboratory tests to rule out medical causes of feather-picking. If a medical cause of feather-picking cannot be identified, the feather-picking is likely occurring due to behavioral reasons. Behavioral causes of feather-picking may include stress from various sources, including
lack of stimulation (‘boredom’), sleep deprivation, and sexual frustration. Boredom may result from lack of appropriate toys, not enough foraging opportunities, or not enoughinteraction with other individuals (human or avian). Stressors may include other pets in the house, unwanted attention from people, loud noises, changes in weather, new people in the house getting more attention, or other environmental factors. Don’t forget that stress from behavioral causes can bring about medical conditions!
How do I manage my feather-picking bird?
A balanced diet is one of the most important components of bird husbandry, and stress from malnutrition can be a cause of feather-picking. Several nutritionally complete pelleted diets are available; contact your veterinarian to determine which one is most appropriate one for your bird. Pelleted diets should be supplemented with a variety of fresh vegetables, whole grains and fruits. Seed diets are high in fat and do not provide adequate nutrition. Seeds and nuts should be used as treats and for training purposes. Your veterinarian can discuss different methods to wean your bird off of an all-seed diet and onto a pelleted diet
It is optimal that birds are allowed 10-12 hours of uninterrupted sleep each night.Covering the cage at night may not provide optimal rest, so a separate dark room may be required for the bird to obtain adequate rest. Birds prefer a constant sleep schedule,so timers may help ensure your bird is getting optimum sleep at the same time every night.
The majority of parrots are native to tropical rain forests where rain showers are a daily occurrence. Misting your bird with a spray bottle is an easy way to bathe your bird. Shower perches are also available, and showering with your bird can be a fun bonding activity. Please note that shampoos or soaps are not recommended when bathing your bird, as they can be harmful. It is also important never to bathe an ill bird, as they are less able to control their body temperature and may become too cold.
Try to identify things in your bird’s environment that may be causing your bird stress. Did the behavior start with a particular change in the household, such as new household member/pet, new diet, or different handling? Make sure your bird is getting enough attention during the day. Avoiding stressors can make a big difference in the anxiety level of your bird.
KEEP IT INTERESTING
Birds are highly intelligent and need mental stimulation during the day. Even if your bird has a seemingly adequate number of toys in its enclosure, rotating toys at least weekly will keep the toys more interesting. Keep in mind that if your bird has a particularly favored toy, removing it or moving it might also be stressful, so watch out for this source of stress. More complex toys that require closer interaction of your bird with the toy are highly recommended. Food-dispensing toys allow your bird to work at the toy for awhile in order to get the treats contained inside. Birds love to forage, so a gradual switch from
free-feeding in dishes to finding their food in novel spots is great enrichment. Consult with your veterinarian to discuss the best methods to switch feeding opportunities. A television or radio left on may provide some entertainment on days when no one is
home for long periods of time. If your bird is particularly attached to you or the people in the household, playing video or audio recordings of yourself or the family when you leave may be comforting to your bird. Placement by a window may also make daily life more interesting, but be careful that stressful factors (such as a hawk staring in the window) aren’t outside. Using these different strategies on different days will also help mix things up. In addition, try to spend more time interacting with your bird when you are home – interaction with people is one of the best forms of entertainment for birds
REDUCE SEXUAL FRUSTRATION
This is a less common cause of feather picking, but may occur when a bird’s natural inclination to mate is suppressed. Birds often see their human care-takers as part of their avian flock, and when they decide to choose a mate, it is frequently a human.
When we choose to spend time with other people, this can cause much frustration for our birds. Sometimes placing a bird in a breeding flock can resolve a feather picking problem (if sexual frustration is the underlying cause). However, since other factors
(including genetic predisposition) may be causing the behavior, breeding these birds isnot recommended, as they may pass on this undesirable behavior to their offspring.
Several prescription behavior-modifying drugs are available. These drugs are used at the discretion of your veterinarian. When using behavior-modifying drugs, it is essential that environmental and behavior modification are part of the treatment plan. Elizabethan and other collars can be used for short-term prevention of feather-picking, but are a last resort and will not address the underlying problem. These collars are usually indicated if the bird has extremely destructive behavior and is at risk for damaging its skin. Some birds with can live with e-collars, but collars inhibit the bird’s mobility and may hinder
access to food.
It depends on the length of time your bird has been doing this behavior, the ability to decrease the stress and anxiety, and the severity of the picking. A reduction in severity or frequency of the behavior is considered to be successful in the treatment of feather picking. Even if the behavior does resolve, damage to the feather follicles may be permanent. This may result in permanent feather loss or feather cyst formation (the avian equivalent to an ingrown hair). For more information on feather-picking and feather-destructive behavior, please see your veterinarian!
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