What To Do With A Feather Plucker

by Ray Dorge & Gail Sibley

These authors offer tips to help birds that pick their feathers.

It never fails! Just when you think you have everything under control, for no apparent rhyme or reason, your bird starts to feather pluck. This is an owner's nightmare and one of the most frustrating problems with which a bird lover may have to contend. Exactly why a bird goes into self-destruct mode is a question that bird lovers have wrestled with ever since the first person thought it would be a nifty idea to keep a bird in a cage.

Keep Cool:
If your bird has lost some of its feathers, don't react as though it has just contracted a social disease -- stay calm! Here are a few clues to help you solve the mystery of why your bird is acting abnormally. First, let's define feather plucking as the behavior of a bird that intentionally pulls out or mutilates its own feathers. Do not confuse feather plucking with a molt. Birds naturally renew their feathers at least once a year. In the wild, this enables the bird not only to shed its own feathers, but also to rid itself of nasty pests such as feather mites. Although birds are now kept in clean, relatively pest-free environments, they have not lost the need to renew their feathers. With some birds, the molting process is so gradual that you hardly notice it except for the odd feathers on the cage bottom. For others, it can be so drastic that your bird will seem to lose almost all of its body covering (a good time to place a heat lamp near your bird's cage).

Having said this, an excessive molt can lead to feather plucking by an overly ambitious preener of incoming feathers. A plucked bird does not necessarily mean its condition is self-inflicted; the culprit may be another bird. A sure indication of a bird being picked by another is a plucked head, since a bird cannot pluck its own head feathers. A bird may pluck another if it is sexually frustrated because one bird wants to mate and the other is not prepared to do so, or it may be due to an overly aggressive mating ritual. Birds plucking the feathers of other birds may mean you have too many birds in too small an enclosure; birds need their own space. Once you have determined that your bird is not molting, is not under attack by another bird and that it is indeed feather plucking itself, then you must consider the two main reasons -- medical and non-medical -- for feather plucking. To eliminate the medical possibilities, have your bird evaluated by an avian veterinarian.

Although we will not detail the medical reasons why a bird will feather pluck, we will say that this syndrome can be caused by any number of medical reasons, including an injury; an infection; an allergic reaction; internal (worms or Giardia) or external (mites) parasites; or viruses, such as psittacine beak and feather disease. If the cause of the feather picking is medical, you and your vet can work together to solve the problem. If the cause is non-medical, read on to learn how you can help your bird.

Make Your Bird Comfortable:
While awaiting the results of your bird's medical examination, you can do a few things to make it more comfortable. Shine a full-spectrum light into your bird's cage, and sprinkle a vitamin supplement that promotes feather growth on your bird's soft-food mix. If your bird is semi-nude, it is a good idea to supplement the full-spectrum light with a heat lamp or at least a light bulb placed close to the cage. Make sure that your bird can get as close or as far away from the heat source as it wants. Keep the heat source available until your pet has made a complete recovery. To distract your bird from plucking itself, provide a toy it can chew on. We find that a bird rope or rope dog bone with a hard fiber center works well. Our birds amuse themselves for hours tearing the rope apart and crunching the center. Choose a rope that is made of natural, undyed fiber such as 100-percent cotton.

It is also a good idea to offer a bird bath to your nudist friend. Providing the bath in the morning will allow your bird the rest of the day to dry off. The bath will help the bird if it has been suffering from itchy skin caused by a dry environment. At the very least, spray-mist the little guy daily, because dry, itchy skin can induce feather plucking. Dry skin itch may also occur if your bird has not been receiving enough oil in its diet. This is usually not a concern if you supply a balanced diet that includes some seed. It may be a problem, however, if your bird is on a pelleted diet. A small dish of seed offered daily shouldn't hurt your bird even if you are a pelleted diet purist.

It's Not a Medical Problem:
When your avian veterinarian tells you that he or she cannot find a medical reason for your bird to be plucking itself, you may be tempted to throw up your hands in disgust or defeat. Before you abandon all hope, though, you should investigate a number of other possible causes for your bird's behavior. If your bird is not being treated for a medical problem, then the feather plucking may be caused by a psychological problem, usually stress. At first glance, the cause of the bird's stress may not be obvious; you may have to do some sleuthing to determine it.

Just because we have learned to adjust readily to change, we believe that our feathered friends can do the same. Wrong! More often than not they react adversely to changes in their environment. A bird must feel secure in its environment before it can relax, chatter, sing, perch on one foot and tuck its head back to sleep. From the moment a bird hatches, it is adjusting to its environment. Baby birds rarely leave the security of the nest without first exploring the branches that they can reach with their beaks. Even after they have left the nest, they are in constant contact with their parents for security, feeding and training. Very slowly, they extend their knowledge of the world by moving further into their environment while establishing familiar landmarks. When those landmarks change, the bird reacts by fleeing to more familiar ground or to the safety of a parent. No doubt this instinctive reaction has helped preserve avian species, so it is little wonder that a captive bird becomes stressed when it cannot flee from an unfamiliar environment. To help a new bird adjust to its surroundings, cover the bird's cage before bringing it into your home, and leave the cage covered after you put it in place. Little by little, the cage is uncovered, allowing the bird to become slowly familiar with its new environment. Finally, when the bird appears to be well adjusted to its home, its owner relaxes. But if the owner becomes complacent, he or she may soon end up with a feather plucker.

If you should find yourself in this situation, consider the following:

Because a bird thrives on routine, stress occurs when its routine is disrupted. A bird likes to know what to expect, when to expect it and from whom to expect it. Change anything in its daily routine and your parrot may start feather plucking. For instance, a bird may be accustomed to a certain amount of regular time outside its cage either with you or on a stand or a play cage. If you change the regular length of its play- time once it has become a routine, your bird may begin to feather pluck from frustration. A reduction in the amount of attention you normally devote to your feathered friend can also lead to feather plucking. This is especially true of cockatoos that are used to a lot of attention.

Confinement to a cage without adequate mental stimuli (toys) or the interaction of another bird can lead to boredom, which is another major cause of stress in birds. The more intelligent the birds, the more susceptible they are to boredom. Providing these birds with a variety of interesting toys, companionship and plenty of attention will distract them from having to amuse themselves by plucking their feathers. If you must leave your small parrot (lovebird size) in its cage for long periods of time, we recommend attaching a small-animal plastic treadmill (a hamster running wheel) to an inside wall of its cage. In addition to relieving boredom, running in the wheel gives the bird exercise. Our lovebirds and parrotlets relish racing around in or balancing on top of their wheels. (We hope that some day someone will devise such a toy for medium and large parrots to enjoy.) Some birds react positively to music. Our birds sing and chatter along with the radio. We believe that silence can cause stress, especially for a single bird left alone all day, and that the company of a constant level of sound, such as a radio, can relieve this stress.

Variety is the spice of life. This holds true for your bird's diet, but a drastic change can be stressful to your bird. Changes in diet, such as converting a bird from a seed mix to a pelleted diet, are best made over a period of time so that your bird will learn to recognize and accept the new foods. If your pet is forced into accepting a new diet (including a change of pellet brands), it may begin to feather pluck.

Are You Stressing Your Bird?:
Birds are very empathetic creatures. They can pick up your vibes and mirror them. Your stress becomes their stress, which can lead to a vicious circle if you are becoming stressed out because your bird is stressed out and in self-destruct mode. So relax! Sometimes we inadvertently intimidate our birds with our body language and eye contact. A newly acquired bird can be intimidated if you stare at it. Another way you may be stressing your bird is if you are inconsistent in the way you reward and punish your bird's behavior. Always reward a positive behavior and always punish a negative one, but remember to never strike a bird. You must be clear in your mind as to how and for what behavior you will reward or punish your bird. Be sure never to deviate from this.

Old Habits Die Hard:
When all is said and done, feather picking is a difficult habit to break. Once a bird begins to feather pluck, whether from stress or a medical reason, this negative behavior can become a habit even though the cause of the problem has been diagnosed and treated. Nevertheless, your understanding of some of the many causes of bird stress will be beneficial to you and your bird. Once you know no medical cause exists for the feather plucking and you have made your best attempts to relieve your bird's stress, you should realize that your bird, although perhaps not picture perfect in its appearance, will retain its personality and continue to be a companion in the years to come. We hope these suggestions will help you and your bird live a stress-free life together. It may save you the trouble of having to pack up and relocate with your featherless friend to the canopies of the tropical rain forest.
You can also read about other feather problems here.


E-Mail: berniehansen@sympatico.ca



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Hamilton & District Budgerigar Society Inc.