A change in a parakeet's plumage is usually fairly obvious, particularly if you have had a chance to observe your bird undergo a natural moult several times. You are dealing with an abnormal loss of feathers if your bird keeps shedding feathers, constantly and hastily preens itself, and pecks at feathers and skin. In time, bare spots appear in the sparse plumage, particularly on the head, abdomen, and the undersides of the wings. Possible causes: Feather mites, lice, red bird mites, nutritional deficiencies, metabolic disorders, hormonal imbalances.

Feather mites--parasites about one millimetre long, of flattened shape, and often taking on the color of their host's plumage--and lice can be seen especially under the wings when one strokes gently against the feathers. Red bird mites attack the birds only at night and suck their blood. Restlessness at night is a sign of infestation. Brooding females and nestlings are in constant danger because it is always dark inside the nesting box. Red bird mites can cause adult birds to become anaemic and quite often can fatally weaken nestlings. If you suspect red mites, drape a white cloth over the cage and nesting box at night. In the morning you can clearly see the red, dark red, or blackish-brown parasites on the underside of the cloth. During the day they hide in dark corners, cracks in wood, and other crannies.

Measures to take: Whether dealing with lice, depluming scabies mites, feather mites, or red bird mites, get an effective but not harmful disinfectant from your avian veterinarian or pet dealer. Take your parakeet or parakeets out of the cage or aviary and out of the nesting box as well and disinfect all objects the birds touch, the cage or aviary, and the entire surroundings. Discard all nesting materials and replace with new ones.

Important: Never apply the spray to the bird, even if it is supposedly harmless. Spray particles can get into the bird's nose, mouth, and eyes and be a serious threat. Treat birds only with a disinfecting powder recommended by an avian veterinarian or pet dealer and cover its nose and eyes carefully. Since disinfectants are often ineffective against the parasites' eggs, a second treatment is necessary after five days, and a third treatment, one week after that. This is not a pleasant task, but it is absolutely necessary. Abnormal loss of feathers is harder to combat if it is not caused by pests. In this case you will have to carefully review the bird's living conditions and especially its diet. The veterinarian can recommend medications to strengthen the bird, but should also examine the bird thoroughly to detect other causes.

Deformed Feathers:
New feathers growing in can be so different in shape and color as to gradually alter the entire appearance of the parakeet. Usually these abnormal feathers are dull, less colourful, and often ragged. The long wing and tail feathers as well as the smaller contour feathers remain stuck in their sheaths, with only a small brushlike tuft fanning out at the top. Or the feather tapers about halfway up and turns around its own axis in a corkscrew pattern. Or the feather fails to develop a tip, the branches on either side of the shaft forming two points on the outer edges of the vane. Or the feather gets frayed toward the top and loses its original color or turns dark.

Possible causes: A cage that is too small, or too many toys and perches inside it, inadequate exercise, nutritional deficiencies, hormonal imbalances, or inadequate circulation after injuries (fractures, sprains), feather cysts, or, in young birds, perhaps French moult.

Measures to take: The bird needs more freedom of movement, its diet has to be scrutinised, and the veterinarian should prescribe an appropriate tonic to strengthen the bird after having examined the bird for other possible causes. (Pet stores also have good tonics for birds.) Older female parakeets are particularly subject to cysts in the feather follicles, soft lumps form under the skin. When the veterinarian lances the cysts, a cloudy liquid drains out, and feathers, often misshapen, that could not break through the skin are revealed.

Feather Plucking:
This "bad habit" is well known in larger parrots and occurs more rarely in parakeets. The long-term consequences can be serious illness or even death. The birds keep plucking at their feathers and pull out a great many of them. Even though this hurts, in severe cases the pain is not enough to stop birds from plucking themselves completely bare.

Possible causes: There are different opinions about the nature of this disorder. Some think its causes are psychological (boredom, loneliness, fright); others ascribe it to nutritional deficiencies, and still others regard it as an allergic reaction. Sometimes an overweight bird begins to pluck feathers because its skin feels stretched uncomfortably tight--or the humidity may be too low, or the skin is itchy with dandruff.

Measures to take: Check the bird for parasites and skin disorders and provide treatment if indicated. Review diet and provide supplements, eliminate negative environmental factors, such as noise and distracting optical stimuli, and remedy neglect. Supply fresh branches for gnawing on, try introducing a second parakeet as a companion. Recent publications report success in reducing feather plucking through adding table salt or iron to the drinking water. The recommended dosage for a parakeet is 1/2 teaspoon of salt to 2 cups (1/2 liter) of water. An iron supplement or an 'Elizabethan' collar may be discussed with your vet.
You can also read What to do with a Feather Plucker including tips to help birds that pick their feathers.

Feather Picking:
Feather picking, which causes so much grief for Canary breeders, also occurs in Budgerigars. Picking is a misleading term. What happens is that feathers are chewed off at the "roots," and sometimes they are even swallowed. Old birds do it to the young ones or sometimes to one another. Especially the head feathers are targeted. The cause appears to lie in a vitamin deficiency, particularly vitamin F. However, it takes more than a vitamin supplement (including vitamin F) to solve the problem. It may be that breeders tend to give the supplement to the victims rather than the perpetrator of the deed, who after all indicates by his bad habit that he has a need for these vitamins. But then, it obviously takes more than vitamins to cure a bad habit. Basically, feather picking is a sign of boredom, especially so for psittacines. If you give birds something to gnaw on like a fresh willow or birch branch every day, feather picking quickly ceases. Also, you can give them something to climb on for diversion. And by providing rearing food, you can stimulate new feather growth in the birds that lost feathers. If parents pull the feathers of their young, there is an obvious solution: distribute the young among other nests. If that isn't possible, put the young in a separate nest box hung next to the original one. That will generally motivate the female, usually the culprit of the pair, to begin a new brood. Dad, who usually doesn't take part in the picking, will continue caring for the brood. For older birds, try a broth of groats as a substitute for the regular drinking water.

E-Mail: berniehansen@sympatico.ca


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Hamilton & District Budgerigar Society Inc. 1996