Feather plucking and other destructive behaviors are quite common in captive parrots. Some birds may excessively chew their feathers enough to damage them, while others resort to plucking their feathers out. Severe plucking can result in permanent damage to the follicles, so the feathers will not grow back. In the most extreme cases, birds will self-mutilate, causing bleeding, open lesions and infection.
The reasons for feather picking and other damaging behaviors are often complex and not simple to resolve. Though these destructive behaviors can be caused by a physical condition, in the great majority of cases, the bird plucks his or her feathers for emotional or psychological reasons.
Consulting an avian veterinarian
A bird who already has a pattern of feather-destroying behaviors, or begins to excessively chew or pluck her feathers, should be seen by an avian veterinarian right away to determine if any health, dietary or environmental factors are contributing to the problem. Though excessive feather chewing and plucking are not necessarily signs that a bird is ill, your first priority is to rule out illness or disease as a cause of the condition. Some parrots will attempt to self-soothe bodily ailments by plucking.
To prevent feather picking and destruction 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 that it does not worsen. In many cases, it may be possible to reduce the feather plucking, but not to eliminate it entirely.
Why birds pluck their own feathers
Feather plucking and destruction can be caused by anything that leads to physical distress or discomfort, and negative emotional states like fear, anxiety, boredom, depression, loneliness and a sense of loss.
Since 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 a great many sources. Some of the more common causes of stress are described below. Please note that not all of these cause stress in all birds; every bird is different.
Simply being in captivity is a major cause of stress in parrots. To better understand the effects of captivity on parrots, consider how they live in the wild. (By the way, 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, 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 do not need to exercise to the level of wild parrots, since companionship, security and resources are provided for them. Often, birds do not live in groups of the same species in captivity; instead, they may live with species native to regions on the opposite side of the world. Most captive parrots haven’t lived out in the wild, so even though they have the same natural instincts as wild parrots, 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) are common.
The following are some other factors that may contribute to feather picking and destruction.
Conditions in the home:
- A home where one or more family members do not 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, 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 cause discomfort when the cut tips rub against the bird’s body, causing the bird to chew and pull until she removes 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 family pet, a teasing child or a person who reminds the parrot of someone who was unkind (for example, some parrots have an aversion toward males or females, some are afraid of children)
- Being afraid of an object or an animal (e.g., a grandfather clock with a loud gong, loud or violent programming on TV, 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), a view out the window
Any other kind of significant change:
- Relocation of the bird’s cage, being relegated to a back room, being placed in a room with too much noise or activity
- Changes in the family situation: moving, divorce, grown children going away or moving back home
- Changes in the bird’s environment, such as erratic room temperature changes
Ways to reduce or stop feather picking
Once a parrot has begun to pluck her feathers, it’s like biting one’s fingernails — it’s not an easy habit to break. With lots of love, care, a calming environment and sufficient enrichment activities, feather plucking can decrease, although stopping it altogether may not be likely in many cases.
Birds are sensitive to people’s emotions and can pick up on your stress, anger and frustration. Reacting to your bird’s picking may inadvertently reinforce the behavior. To birds, any kind of attention, positive or negative, can be a very powerful reinforcer. If you see your bird picking at her feathers, and you immediately rush over and make a fuss, the bird may learn that she can get her favorite human to come over and dote on her if she picks at her feathers. So, try not to react to the plucking.
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 he hears and sees. Try to become aware of any noises or lights that may be frightening your bird or making him anxious. In general, a steady sound of machinery is much less frightening than loud staccato sounds, like hammering, arguing, or children bouncing a ball or running through the house.
The 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 is 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, will only make things worse.
Instead, try to systematically and conscientiously improve every aspect of your parrot’s life, and to 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 parrots, and by reading and doing research on the subject.
In brief, you can help reduce feather plucking by making sure your parrot has:
- A calm, secure, quiet, gentle, positive environment
- A warm, draft-free place to live
- A great deal of consistent, loving attention
- A very 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
Bird enrichment ideas
You can help to relieve the boredom and stresses associated with bird captivity by providing your bird with a stimulating environment, enrichment activities, companionship with humans and/or other birds of the same species, and opportunity for free flight in a safe area, such as a bird-safe room or outside flight aviary (depending on the climate).
You might also consider adopting another bird of the same species, since many birds thrive in the company of their own kind. Pairing up birds of the same species may work better than relying on your ability to provide three or more hours of attention consistently every day for the next 40-60 years.
Medications to control plucking behavior
If your bird is plucking to the point of drawing blood, consult an experienced, board-certified avian veterinarian immediately. If the feather picking is resulting in blood loss, infection or another health risk, it may be necessary to consider medication — but only as a last resort. You can discuss this option with your avian vet. Unfortunately, there’s no holistic avian medicine.
What to do if a pet bird is self-mutilating
Self-mutilation, a step beyond simple feather plucking, is a condition that also requires immediate medical attention. Your veterinarian may recommend that your parrot wears a collar or sweater to stop the bird from reaching the affected area.
Do not re-home your parrot
One thing we don’t recommend is giving up your parrot, thinking that he’ll have a better home with someone else. There is no guarantee that your parrot’s behavior will change simply by relocating him 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 him to lessen (or even stop) the destructive behavior.
Occasionally, a veterinarian may 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 he is and enjoy his companionship.
To read about a bird who’s a feather plucker but is also a healthy, happy guy, check out King O's story.
For more information on parrots and parrot care, visit the Avian Welfare Coalition website.