Feather Plucking

What is feather-plucking? Feather-plucking, also known as feather-picking, is when a bird damages or removes its feathers. It is usually seen in captive birds, most commonly in African Greys and Cockatoos. Most often the bird plucks at its chest, but can also pick at the inside of its wings and legs. These are the easiest places for it to reach. The plucking can be mild giving the feathers a ‘ruffled’, damaged appearance. The plucking can also be severe, going as far as damaging the skin and causing pain. Most birds fall between these two extremes, and will pluck themselves bald without picking at or damaging the skin.

Feather-plucking is not the same as molting. Molting is a normal lifelong bodily function, just like shedding is in dogs and cats. When the feathers get old, they fall out, just like our hair. Molting is the release of feathers, while feather-plucking is the removal of feathers by the bird. It is important not to mistake feather-plucking for molting because you want to correct feather-plucking as soon as possible. That way you can discover the cause of the plucking, and stop the behaviour before it becomes a habit.

There is no ‘one cause’ for feather-plucking. Feather-plucking behaviour itself is not a disease; it is a behaviour caused by a main problem. The challenge is figuring out what that main problem is. The cause is usually either medical or behavioural. The first thing to do with a bird that is feather-plucking is to rule out medical problems. There are many skin and metabolic problems that can cause a bird to pick at its feathers. For example, many of the same causes for skin problems in humans can cause irritation to a bird’s skin. In response to that irritation, they can begin to feather-pluck. These include allergies, humidity, and inappropriate nutrition. If there are no apparent medical causes for the feather-plucking, the next step is to look at behavioural causes. Generally, birds will feather-pluck in response to stress or boredom. Like all pets, birds like to have a stable and safe place to live. They will get stressed if something new happens, like a new child, new owner, or even remodeling!

One very important fact about the two specific breeds listed above (African Greys and Cockatoos) is that they are very intelligent. Not only are they intelligent, but they also form strong bonds with their human owner. This combination often leaves us a very bored bird that pouts at home when the owner is gone. It is generally thought that in this case, feather-plucking is an exaggerated preening behaviour used to distract the bird from boredom. Preening is a natural behaviour, like self-grooming in cats. A bird preens its feathers to spread oils and remove dead, old feathers. Preening behaviour is meant to keep the bird healthy. It’s thought that behavioural feather-plucking may be an exaggerated form of preening; it’s a natural behaviour taken to the extremes to occupy the bored bird.

Hopefully it doesn’t take too long to figure out why the bird is feather-plucking. Your next step is to get rid of the cause. If it is a medical issue, treatments like anti-inflammatories may help the problem. If it is a behavioural problem, the solution is much more complex. You can put an E-collar on the bird, and although that can stop the plucking, it will still not solve the underlying problem. One of the best ways to decrease stress and boredom is to give the bird something else to distract it (other than pulling feathers!). Foraging is an excellent way to decrease boredom. Unlike dogs, which have been domesticated for thousands of years, birds have not been domesticated for long. Many birds are only the 4th or 5th generation of domesticated birds; some are still caught in the wild as babies. To properly understand bird behaviour we must understand their wild behaviour. In the wild, these birds spend most of their time and mental energy foraging for food.

Therefore, one of the best ways to fight boredom is to make your bird hunt for its food by hiding it. This activity will take time for you to construct, because you will have to outsmart them every day by changing the challenges constantly. Do not underestimate the intelligence of these birds. Making them work for their food is a great way to decrease stress and boredom.

There are also anti-anxiety medications available for birds. These medications have been effective in certain situations. The real solution will probably take some time to figure out. Feather-plucking is not a simple problem, and will not have a quick solution. You will probably have to try by trial-and-error to find the right solution for your bird and sometimes, the bird will not give up the habit.

The good news is that except in severe cases of skin damage, feather-plucking is not a huge health concern. It is not terribly painful for the bird. It does change the appearance of the bird though. Feather-plucking is a big issue for bird owners to think about, especially for those with the extremely intelligent parrot species. If your bird has this problem and you can’t solve it yourself then a trip to a veterinarian that specializes in birds is a great idea.

By Ashley O’Driscoll – Pets.ca writer