Feather plucking, also known as feather picking, is quite common in pet birds. Some birds excessively chew their feathers enough to damage them, while others resort to plucking their feathers out. Severe feather plucking in birds can result in permanent damage to the follicles, so the feathers don't grow back. In the most extreme cases, birds will self-mutilate, causing bleeding, open lesions, and infection.
The reasons for feather picking are often complex and not simple to resolve. Although these destructive behaviors can be caused by a physical health condition, in the majority of cases the bird plucks feathers for emotional or psychological reasons. Here's what you need to know about the potential causes and solutions to feather plucking in birds.
What causes feather plucking in birds?
Feather plucking can be caused by anything that leads to physical distress or discomfort in a bird, as well as negative emotional states like fear, anxiety, boredom, depression, loneliness, and a sense of loss. Because parrots are such highly intelligent and sensitive creatures who experience a wide range of emotions, they can be very prone to stress. The stress that causes them to begin to pluck their feathers can originate from many sources. But note that every bird is different, so what causes stress in one bird might not in another.
Simply being in captivity can be a major cause of stress for birds. To better understand the effects of captivity, consider how they live in the wild. (Also remember that parrots bred in captivity are still wild, undomesticated animals with many of their natural instincts intact.) In the wild, parrots are extremely active. They live in flocks; fly many miles each day; and spend hours foraging for a variety of foods, socializing and communicating with their flock, and nesting and raising their young.
Most parrots in captivity have a very different life. They don’t fly back and forth from a nest. Instead, a cage becomes their safe space. They don't exercise to the level of wild parrots, as companionship, security, and resources are provided for them. And often, they don't live in groups of the same species; instead, some might live with species native to regions on the opposite side of the world.
Moreover, most captive birds haven’t lived out in the wild. So even though they have the same natural instincts as their wild counterparts, they have no equivalent outlets to express those instincts. As a result, neurotic behaviors (e.g., pacing, twitching, excessive screaming, biting, feather destruction, and self-mutilation) can result.
Besides captivity in general, the following are some other factors that can cause feather plucking in birds.
Conditions in the home
- A home where someone doesn't like the bird, even if this person is not actively unkind
- A home where there is stress or discord
- A home environment that is noisy, frantic, or unpredictable (e.g., with many visitors, many children, many other animals, or a TV or loud music blaring)
- A home where there is cigarette smoke or other pollutants
- A home that is a public place, such as a veterinary office or other place of business
- From improper or severe wing clipping — wings that are cut too close to the feather shaft can result in discomfort when the cut tips rub against the bird’s body, causing the bird to chew and pull until they remove the stub
- From being removed from their parents and subjected to the rigors of transport at too young an age
- From being passed around from home to home
- From the stress of hand-feeding when done by inexperienced people
- From not enough hours of rest, not being able to bathe, or not being misted
- Feeling threatened by a pet, child, or person who reminds the bird of someone who was unkind in the past
- Being afraid of an object or an animal (e.g., a grandfather clock with a loud gong, loud or violent programming on TV, or a cat who jumps up toward the parrot’s cage)
- Objects located directly overhead or higher than the bird
- A nearby cage where there is a larger or more aggressive bird
- Placement of another bird’s cage so that the other bird is higher
- A cage placed too low near the floor
- An environment where there is too much or too little humidity, too little natural light, incorrect lighting, or lighting that is too bright at night (try a very dim night light)
- Traffic noise or too much activity taking place nearby
Loss and grief
- Loss of a mate or a friend (whether the friend is a bird, a human, a dog, etc.)
- Loss of something that has been familiar over a long time: a cage, a favorite toy (usually this is a factor along with other causes), or a view out the window
Any other significant change
- Relocation of the bird’s cage, being relegated to a back room, or being placed in a room with too much noise or activity
- Changes in the family situation (e.g., moving, divorce, or grown children going away or moving back home)
- Changes in the bird’s environment, such as erratic room temperature changes
Consulting an avian veterinarian
A bird who already has a pattern of feather plucking, or who begins to excessively chew or pluck their feathers, should be seen by an avian veterinarian right away to determine whether any health, dietary, or environmental factors are contributing to the problem. Although feather plucking is not necessarily a sign that a bird is ill, your first priority is to rule out illness or disease as a cause of the condition. Some birds will attempt to self-soothe bodily ailments by feather picking.
To help stop feather picking from becoming a lifelong habit, you must try to identify and correct the cause or causes as soon as possible. You’ll also need to monitor the condition over time to make sure it does not worsen. In many cases, it might be possible to reduce the feather plucking but not eliminate it entirely.
How to reduce or stop feather picking
Once a bird has begun feather plucking, it's like biting one's fingernails — it's not an easy habit to break. But with lots of love and care, feather plucking can decrease.
To start, birds are sensitive to people's emotions, and reacting to your bird's feather picking can inadvertently reinforce the behavior. To birds, any kind of attention — positive or negative — can be a very powerful reinforcer. If you see your bird feather picking and you immediately rush over and make a fuss, the bird might learn they can get their favorite human to come over and dote on them if they pick at their feathers. So try not to react to the feather plucking.
In general, you can help reduce or stop feather plucking by making sure your bird has:
- A calm, secure, quiet, gentle, positive environment
- A warm, draft-free place to live
- A great deal of consistent, loving attention
- A high-quality, varied diet
- Regular opportunities to bathe (the hydration moisturizes the skin and reduces itchiness)
- Plenty of playtime outside the cage in a safe area
- Lots of enjoyable toys and enrichment activities
- A happy life with lots of love
The cause or causes of feather plucking are often a series of events that occurred in the past, and clearly there's nothing you can do about those. To help determine whether present circumstances are also contributing, watch for times when your bird appears anxious and starts plucking. Also, at various times of day, stand still close to where your bird is located so that you can hear and see what the bird hears and sees. Try to become aware of any noises or lights that might be frightening your bird or making them anxious. In general, a steady sound of machinery is much less frightening than loud staccato sounds, such as hammering, arguing, or children bouncing a ball or running through the house.
A feather plucking situation is not a dire one if your parrot is simply bald (partially or nearly completely) but does not ever draw blood — and if you have determined with the help of your veterinarian that there is no physical cause. If the feather plucking is stable and not getting worse, then do not panic. Trying a different remedy or veterinarian every week, or a series of endless changes in diet or environment, might only make things worse.
Instead, try to systematically and conscientiously improve every aspect of your bird's life, and learn everything you can to help you accomplish this goal. You can do this by consulting an avian veterinarian, a parrot behaviorist, or a friend with many years of experience in caring for pet birds, as well as by reading and doing research on the subject.
You can help to relieve the boredom and stresses associated with captivity by providing your bird with a stimulating environment, enrichment activities, opportunity for free flight in a safe area, and companionship. Consider adopting another bird of the same species because many birds thrive in the company of their own kind. Pairing up birds of the same species can work better than relying on your ability to provide three or more hours of attention consistently every day for many years.
What to do if a pet bird is self-mutilating
Self-mutilation, a step beyond simple feather plucking, is a condition that requires immediate medical attention. Your veterinarian might recommend that your bird wears a collar or sweater to stop them from reaching the affected area.
If the feather picking is resulting in blood loss, infection, or another health risk, it might be necessary to consider medication — but only as a last resort. You can discuss this option with your avian vet.
Do not rehome your parrot
One thing we don't recommend is giving up your pet bird, thinking they'll have a better home with someone else that will cause them to stop plucking their feathers. There is no guarantee that your bird's behavior will change simply by relocating them to another home. In fact, rather than solving problems such as feather plucking, being passed from home to home can often trigger them. Improving or changing the bird’s current environment is far more likely to be successful in getting them to lessen (or even stop) the destructive behavior.
Occasionally, a veterinarian might recommend euthanizing a parrot with a severe feather-plucking problem. If this happens, seek another opinion. It is very, very rare for euthanasia to be the best option. If you have done everything you can and your bird still engages in feather plucking but is healthy and happy otherwise, simply try to accept your bird as they are and enjoy their companionship.
To read about a bird who's a feather plucker but also a healthy, happy guy, check out King O's story.