Why Does My Parrot Pluck Their Feathers?
Feather plucking (also known as feather destructive or damaging behavior) is an all-too-common malady in pet parrots. This behavior occurs most frequently among the larger parrot species, especially African greys and some cockatoos. Owners often notice something wrong when the feathers around their bird’s chest, neck, and/or back begin looking sparse or ragged.
If your parrot is pulling out their feathers, it’s far more than a simple cosmetic concern. Parrots rely on their feathers for insulation, helping them regulate their body temperatures and protect their sensitive skin. Parrots who pick at their feathers can injure themselves, leading to abrasions and wounds that can become infected, and may try to pluck the feathers of their flockmates as well.
What Should I Do if My Parrot Is Plucking Their Feathers?
While the condition itself is often easy to recognize, effective remedies for feather plucking are harder to come by. This is because feather plucking isn’t a disease with a single known cause, but is rather a complex behavior motivated by a number of factors. If you notice your parrot damaging their feathers, the first and most important step is to contact an avian veterinarian. Only a trained professional can safely diagnose your parrot and recommend a treatment plan! If you need help finding a qualified veterinarian, the Association of Avian Veterinarians has a search tool to help you find an expert in your area.
When working with your vet, you’ll likely need to take a step back and evaluate what parts of your parrot’s environment and lifestyle could be contributing to feather damaging behavior. In this article, we’ll go over some important variables that could be contributing to your feathered friend’s condition.
Common Misconceptions About Feather Plucking
Have you heard that feather damaging behavior is normal and to be expected in parrots like African greys? This is a harmful misconception. While it is normal for old feathers to be shed with molting and preening, a parrot’s plumage should generally be smooth and shiny, not rough, patchy, and broken. Feather plucking can lead to life-threatening health conditions down the road, like infected sores and lesions.
You may also have heard that it only takes one big, stressful event to trigger feather damaging behavior. In reality, feather plucking is most often motivated by a number of stressful factors accumulating over time.
Lastly, it isn’t true that feather plucking is impossible to fix. With proper veterinary care and thorough analysis of your parrot’s lifestyle and environment, this behavior can absolutely be reduced and reversed. Additionally, according to experts like IAABC Certified parrot behavior consultant Pamela Clark, the sooner owners start working to correct feather damaging behavior, the easier it may be to resolve.
With this in mind, let’s go over some common factors that can contribute to feather plucking.
In some cases, feather plucking may be motivated by an underlying medical problem. Conditions like fungal infections, tumors, and certain endocrine and metabolic disorders can all motivate a bird to pick at and damage their plumage.
If such a medical condition is behind your parrot’s unwanted behavior, your avian veterinarian can discover and diagnose this through a combination of physical examination and diagnostic testing. However, it’s likely that the majority of feather damaging cases are not caused solely by an underlying medical condition, but are instead triggered by a variety of accumulating external factors. For example…
While stress is one of the best-known culprits behind feather damaging behavior, it is also one of the most misunderstood. When owners think about events that might stress their parrots, they may think of things like vacations, moves, and new pets. While it’s true that these big life changes can be acute, impactful stressors, there are more insidious sources of stress that can build up in a parrot’s life mostly undetected. It’s these small, accumulating factors that are more likely to push a parrot toward feather plucking.
Though we’ll discuss these “mundane” stressors in greater detail below, things like a lack of enrichment and a poor diet can all increase a parrot’s stress levels and encourage them to self-soothe with feather damaging behavior.
It’s no secret that parrots are highly intelligent animals. In the wild, parrots live in complex social structures and must use their brains to navigate the opportunities and challenges of daily life. In our homes, parrots require a great deal of enrichment to remain healthy.
The more time your parrot spends sitting around doing nothing, the more likely they are to pick at their feathers. It’s not always enough to simply make toys available, as some parrots may not understand how to use certain toys, or may even be frightened of them.
It’s a good idea to observe your bird, figuring out what types of enrichment tools they’re naturally drawn to. For example, if your parrot seems fascinated with certain textures (carboard, paper, soft wood) around the house, they may be partial to toys made out of the same or similar materials. Taking the time to learn your parrot’s interests can make enrichment more effective and fulfilling.
Hygiene is an easily overlooked contributor to feather damaging behavior. If your parrot feels that their feathers are unclean, they are more likely to preen excessively. Always make sure your hands are clean when handling your bird. Things like crumbs and oils from food are easily transferred from your hands to your parrot’s feathers, so wash thoroughly after your last snack and before you handle your parrot.
Additionally, toxic substances like cigarette and candle smoke can accumulate on your bird’s feathers in addition to causing serious harm to their respiratory system. With a parrot in the home, activities like smoking, burning candles, and spraying air fresheners are unsafe and must be avoided.
Finally, be sure your parrot has ample opportunities to bathe without getting soaked. Gently misting your bird with water in the morning, or providing them with wet vegetable leaves to rub against, can go a long way towards making sure your parrot feels clean and happy.
Without the proper information, well-meaning owners can accidentally simulate reproductive behaviors, or unknowingly encourage their parrots to display reproductive behaviors. This can lead to an increase in the production of reproductive hormones, which is associated with a variety of undesirable behaviors (including feather plucking).
How exactly does this happen? Believe it or not, something as simple as petting your parrot on the back or under their wings, or allowing them to perch on your shoulder for extended periods of time. This can encourage your bird to begin displaying reproductive behavior. Additionally, parrots who are allowed to access enclosed spaces like drawers and boxes may start thinking of these spaces as nesting cavities.
To prevent this from happening, it’s best to keep any petting confined to your parrot’s head, and limit the amount of time they are allowed to spend on your shoulder or in your lap. Additionally, encourage your parrot to make use of perches and playstands rather than dark spaces that may resemble nesting sites.
Lastly, diet plays an important role in preventing feather damaging behavior. Diets heavy in seeds and nuts contain excessive amounts of fats and carbohydrates. In addition to contributing to diseases like atherosclerosis and obesity, these high-energy diets can encourage improper reproductive hormone production, as described above. This hormonal imbalance can contribute to problematic behaviors like feather plucking.
In addition to being unhealthy, monotonous all-seed diets provide little mental stimulation. A well-balanced formulated diet, supplemented with fresh produce, can bolster your parrot’s mental and physical wellness and help prevent the development of unhealthy behaviors like feather plucking. For extra enrichment value, you can try offering food in feeders designed to encourage foraging behavior, or try presenting produce in interesting ways (e.g., hanging leafy greens by your parrot’s perch for them to investigate).
Feather Damaging Behavior: More Than Meets the Eye
Feather damaging behavior is a complex problem, often stemming from an accumulation of issues in a parrot’s lifestyle and environment. Accordingly, there isn’t usually a quick fix. But by working with an avian veterinarian and considering the factors discussed in this article, it’s possible to establish a starting point on your parrot’s path to wellbeing.
Baxter, K., & Lieberman, M. (n.d.). Feather-picking in parrots. UC Davis Veterinary Medicine. https://www.vetmed.ucdavis.edu/sites/g/files/dgvnsk491/files/inline-files/Feather-picking_in_Birds.pdf
Clark, P. (2011, November). Feather destructive behavior - finding solutions. World Parrot Trust. https://www.parrots.org/lp/feather-destructive-behavior-p1/
Clark, P. (2018, July 17). Success story: A case of feather damaging behavior. The Parrot Steward Blog. https://blogpamelaclarkonline.com/2018/07/17/success-story-a-case-of-feather-damaging-behavior/
Clark, P. (2018, October 10). My parrot won’t play with toys! The Parrot Steward Blog. https://blogpamelaclarkonline.com/2018/10/10/my-parrot-wont-play-with-toys/
Clark, P. (2019, October 30). Cavity seeking in companion parrots. The Parrot Steward Blog. https://blogpamelaclarkonline.com/2019/10/30/cavity-seeking-in-companion-parrots/
Earle, R. (2016, April 11). Feather-plucking parrots: What every veterinarian should know. Vet Times. https://www.vettimes.co.uk/app/uploads/wp-post-to-pdf-enhanced-cache/1/feather-plucking-parrots-what-every-veterinarian-should-know.pdfKalhagen, A. (2022, May 6). How to give your pet bird a bath. The Spruce Pets. https://www.thesprucepets.com/bathing-your-bird-390665
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