Feather destructive behavior represents a range of actions from excessive preening to feather plucking or feather picking to self-mutilation. It’s a behavioral disorder commonly seen in captive birds. It happens in at least 10% of all captive birds.
To stop feather plucking, provide an enriched environment for your bird, check for medical problems, spend more quality time with your bird, and talk to your vet about trying an avian collar.
The cause of feather destructive behavior is not really understood but is often believed to be caused by multiple problems that may be psychological and/or medical. Picking may also begin as a medical problem and then persist as a habit.
We will discuss possible causes and tips to stop this behavior in the paragraphs below:
Solutions to feather plucking
Feather plucking is the type of behavior that must be treated right away before it becomes a true habit. The longer they do it the more reinforced it becomes and the longer it will take to recondition the bird. This will result in damage to the feathers and occasionally the skin.
It’s always advisable to take the bird to the vet as soon as possible. It may be as simple as an overgrowth of yeast or could be a sign of internal discomfort. The plucking might cause skin inflammation or infection. In some severe cases, if left untreated, even self-mutilation.
To prevent feather plucking, be sure to watch your bird for bald spots that look red, have scabs, or seem inflamed and watch its behavior. Sometimes plucking is accompanied by a little vocalization of discomfort with each feather being pulled. That’s the cue you need to start the contention measures.
If you have another bird in the same room, there are even more reasons to be careful. There is a change a bird might copy the behavior of the bird plucking its feathers.
Below we put together some solutions to stop feather plucking:
Keep their beaks busy!
A distracted bird won’t have time to spare to pluck its feathers. Offer enough distractions throughout the day. Buy them chewy toys and make sure to rotate them every week, so they look more interesting. Foraging, or hiding food in toys, is also an excellent strategy to keep their beaks busy.
In the wild, birds spend most of their time searching for food. Offering challenging foraging toys are an excellent way to simulate this behavior. Here are some tips below:
- Increase the spatial distribution of food
- Increase the extraction time of food and food processing time
- Increasing the time needed to search for food
Check the bird’s environment
Have a hydrometer to check the humidity levels in your bird room. If it’s too low, it might be interesting to have a humidifier in the room.
Make sure to provide your bird with exposure to sunlight. If not possible, use sunlight-simulating fluorescents lights or LEDs to provide a natural outdoor environment that has a calming effect for your bird.
You can also experiment with moving your bird from one location to another in your home, as well as, in different cages during the day and night.
Have you recently installed new carpeting or started using new scented candles or an air freshener? Double-check that your bird is not exposed to strong scents, or cigarette smoke, or dangerous fumes from non-stick pans.
Use a avian collar
Avian collars are used to prevent birds from overplucking their feathers and risking damaging their skin. They will not 100% solve the root of the problem, but they might bring some physical relief. The root cause will still need to be addressed.
As mentioned by Dr. C. Brown, “It is imperative that the proper type of collar (e.g., Elizabethan collar, cylindrical collar, etc.) is chosen based on purpose and species.“
Thus, make sure to visit a vet before choosing any kind of collar. Do not try to put your bird into a collar without the supervision of an Avian Vet. This can be a very tricky process until you have learned how to do it! You can kill or injure your bird if you don’t know what you’re doing!
Often the collar is left on the bird for 1-2 months, at a minimum! This is essential to try to break the habit that the bird has reinforced.
Iago, the swinging cockatoo, wears a fleece collar to protect him from extra damage to his follicles. His neck is often itchy from these damaged follicles which causes him to scratch his neck even though he no longer spends time in a cage. He even required surgery to remove a large lump from an ingrown feather.
Before being adopted by its current owner, Iago was kept in a small cage for many years, fed mostly sunflower seeds, and suffers PTSD. His owner keeps a post on his Facebook page to bring more awareness around this topic.
Spend some quality time together
How much time do you usually spend hanging out with your bird? As you may know, birds are inteligent creatures that need a lot of attention throughout the day.
Birds should spend some out-of-the-cage time every day. There is a study correlating an increase in “out-time” with the improvement of feather conditions. 4 hours out of the cage can even prevent feather plucking. If that is not possible, the common sense among bird owners usually points to at least one hour of “out time” with your bird.
Have your bird walk, maybe go up some stairs or flap its wings on a hoop. A good quality-time activity you can do with your bird is “flying tag”. Go around the room, call your bird and offer a little piece of food every time it lands on a perch or on your shoulder. They gotta stretch those wings!
Don’t reinforce bad behavior
In the same way, we don’t want to reinforce screaming by coming into the bird and immediately giving attention, we also don’t want to reward feather plucking. Don’t yell or scold your bird for this behavior, or you may be reinforcing this bad habit.
Double the hygiene care
The skin of a plucking bird could definitively benefit from some extra hygiene measures. A daily bath might minimize bacteria and molds as well as irritants to which the bird is allergic.
Make some changes on its diet
Aggressive feather plucking can be related to poor nutrition, which lets the birds agitated and stressed. You can check our “What should my parrot eat” article for some reference on the topic.
Keep in mind that food containing sugar, flour, dairy, and salt can inflame your bird’s skin. Don’t give to them!
You may also try eliminating different foods one by one to check if any of them is triggering skin inflammation. As suggested on the blog “Beauty of birds“, you might try not to offer the following:
- sweet potato
- sunflower seed
Only reintroduce one food at a time, otherwise, it will be harder to identify what is the trigger. Do the switch every 30 days.
Main reasons for feather plucking
There are many reasons for feather plucking, but it is difficult to point one single cause. There are some risk factors involved, such as the birds age, but overall, multiple factors, such as the ones below are involved:
- Nutritional deficiencies
- Systemic disease including liver disease
- Allergies may be suspected, but are difficult to confirm in avian patients
- Mites, lice, bacteria, and fungal (yeast) infections
- Hormonal Imbalance
- Although inflammation of the feather follicles (folliculitis) and skin (dermatitis) is a frequent finding, it is usually secondary to the feather destructive behavior
Only a thorough investigation by an avian veterinary can point out a medical cause, be sure to bring your bird to a vet.
When a cage size often restricts the bird’s movements, it causes a great deal of stress. This accumulated stress can lead to neurotic behaviors, such as repeating the same movements over and over and feather plucking.
When a bird suffers from a lack of stimulation, there is a chance it might get bored and pick its own feathers. Screaming, biting, and neurotic behavior, as mentioned above are also often related to boredom.
This happens if the bird:
- is caged all the time
- has separation anxiety
- is not getting enough attention
- not getting any exercise
- is not an estimulating environment to interact with
If a bird is stressed, there are more chances for it to exhibit neurotic behavior. Stress can affect birds in different ways. For instance, constant noises and activity, coming from a toddler, for instance, may affect some birds negatively. In the other hand, a constant quiet environment may also stress other birds.
Birds need a proper sleep routine, this might also be contributing to their stress levels. To ensure that they’re having a good sleep every night:
- Provide a somewhat strict bed time hour
- Dark and uninterrupted quiet area for sleep
The stress can also come from:
- Rearing experiences
- Disturbance in the bird’s circadian rhythm
- Social grouping or social isolation
Low humidity or lack of exposure to natural sunlight or fresh air are environmental factors that might also contribute to feather plucking.
If the parrot is used to a person and they go away for some time, there is a chance the bird might start plucking feathers out of frustration.
That could also go for a change in the position of the cage. Lack of privacy can be another issue, which is common on newly established birds.
If you touch your bird in certain areas, you might be causing sexual frustration. Because you can’t offer what a bird expects you to offer, you’re causing him/her a lot of stress.
Another cue for identifying this behavior is seeing your bird constantly trying to hide in dark spots and gather nesting material. Avoid cuddling and giving big boxes when your bird is behaving like this.
When will my parrot’s feathers grow back?
If the damage to the follicles through self-mutilation of skin or muscles is bad enough, maybe never. Sometimes the follicles are so damaged, they might grow in weird little stumps that fall out before they grow.
The area could be often itchy from these damaged follicles which cause them to scratch their skin. If the feather plucking occurs in areas close to the neck and chest, the parrot might benefit from wearing a cloth collar around its neck as mentioned above. Some birds have to wear collars for the rest of their lives.
Which species are affected by feather-plucking?
There is not really wide research on the topic, but research done by Dr. Ebisawa K pointed that cockatoos might be the species that are most frequently affected by feather-plucking.
Bald spot on the chest
If your bird is acting normally and appears to have a bald spot on the chest. Don’t worry.
Birds don’t grow feathers down the center of their chest. They come from the sides and cover so if they are ruffled or wet it often looks like they’re bald!
To summarize, feather loss is a complicated, multifactorial, and frustrating clinical presentation that should be considered a clinical disease presentation and not a diagnosis. Underlying causes include inappropriate husbandry and housing; parasitic, viral, and bacterial infections; metabolic and allergic diseases; and behavioral disorders.
Prior to a diagnosis of a behavioral disorder, medical causes of feather loss must be excluded through a complete medical work-up including history, physical examination, and diagnostic testing.
Rubinstein J, Lightfoot T. Feather loss and feather destructive behavior in pet birds. Vet Clin North Am Exot Anim Pract. 2014 Jan;17(1):77-101. doi: 10.1016/j.cvex.2013.10.002. PMID: 24274924.
Ebisawa K, Nakayama S, Pai C, Kinoshita R, Koie H (2021) Prevalence and risk factors for feather-damaging behavior in psittacine birds: Analysis of a Japanese nationwide survey. PLoS ONE 16(7): e0254610. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0254610