Feather Plucking and Chewing
Is Your Parrot Plucking or Chewing Feathers?
The two parrots pictured here are more advanced cases of feather plucking (pictured on the left) and feather chewing (pictured on the right). I bought the bird on the left as you see her now. Her previous owners had let the plucking continue far too long, and her feathers will never grow back because of follicle damage. She now has a home with me and a mate because her lack of feathers does not make her any less a good and loving mother.
Often the beginning stages of feather plucking is mistaken for a moult. Parrots will moult broken, cut, or damaged feathers twice a year and grow new feathers to replace the damaged ones. This will most commonly happen in the Spring and in the Fall. When a parrots moults feathers, there will never be exposed patches of skin, or large patches of down showing. The only exception to this might be a young parrot that is into its first moult. This is usually the heaviest moult when a baby will lose most of its baby feathers and down. Although, down feathers may show until the new feathers grow in, there still will never be bare patches of skin exposed. I have heard a number of cases that new parrot owners have bought a parrot with bare spots having been told that the bird was in a moult and found out later that their new pet was plucking.
Feather chewing may not always be as obvious as plucking. The wing, tail, and/or chest feathers may have jagged edges or look as though they have been nipped off. The macaw pictured on the right above is a more extreme case of feather chewing. Her feathers were chewed by her mate who was a little over zealous in grooming her. Sometimes the shafts of the feathers are not damaged, but the feather on either side of the shaft may be nipped or stripped off leaving only the shaft. At other times the shaft of the feather will be chewed and splintered leaving ragged, curled pieces of the shaft sticking out in all directions. Whether a parrot is plucking or chewing its feathers, the causes and cures are usually the same. The following describes some the possible causes of plucking, and what you can do about it. It is important to remember that each individual is different. For some species, such as African Greys, plucking may be caused by a new toy, a location change (even in the same home), or emotional upset in the family environment. The cause and/or remedy may differ depending on the individual.
Reasons for Plucking and Chewing Feathers
In the years that I have been breeding parrots and answering the emails of worried parrots owners, I couldn't even begin to count the number of individuals that that have asked for help with plucked parrots, some long-term pets and others newly acquired. Most often these people had been told the cause of the plucking was because the parrot wanted to breed, and that they should put the bird into a breeding situation. Another common belief is that the parrot had been abused or neglected. Some feel obligated to "rescue" these birds. Although, maturity, abuse, emotional upset, and neglect can cause plucking, there are may other possible causes.
MATURITY - In reaching maturity, parrots go through a period of hormone imbalance very similar to that of a maturing teenager. This period is very confusing to them because they don't understand what they are feeling. This does not necessarily mean that they are ready for breeding or parenthood any more than a teenager would be. In fact, a pet parrot would be even less prepared for a breeding situation. They don't have other parrots or peers to learn from. Breeding and raising young is not instinctive for parrots. If they live with a flock in the wild, they learn from other parrots. As a pet bird, their flock is a human family. They have not learned to relate to another parrot or to raise young. Very often a pet bird will be abused or even attacked by another parrot. Putting a maturing pet bird into a breeding situation would be even worse than forcing a teenager into a marriage. Not only would it be doomed to certain failure, but it would feel deserted at a time when it most needs support. If a pet bird is to be put into a breeding situation, it should first be allowed to get acquainted with the bird that you have chosen for a mate. Before they are allowed to live together, make sure that one does not bully or abuse the other. Most often, if parrots that do not get along when they meet, they will probably never really become bonded. The best you could hope for is that they will learn to tolerate each other. If you decide to breed your pet, and it becomes bonded to its intended mate, you will have to accept that it will probably no longer be a pet. Most parrots must give up their human bond to become bonded to another parrot. If you decide to help your pet through this difficult period, instead of giving him up for breeding, you will likely have a companion for life.
ABUSE AND NEGLECT - Although abuse and/or neglect are most often blamed as the reason for feather plucking, these reasons, in the true sense, are seldom the cause. Both assume intent to harm. I have heard of a few very remote cases that a parrot was the target of a person taking out their anger and frustration, but, in most cases, what seems to be neglect, is ignorance of the parrots needs or a life too busy to include the bird. It is also possible that the parrot has developed habits that can no longer be tolerated, and so was shut into an area that it is always alone. This is something the fate of cockatoos that have started screaming in demand of attention. Granted, these things can be viewed as a form of abuse or neglect, but it isn't generally intentional. There are cases of neglect and abuse in parrots, just as there are in children, but it is definitely not the most common reason for plucking. So, if you decide to "rescue" an abused, plucked parrot, keep in mind that the reasons for the plucking are likely to be one of the other reasons described here. You will probably have other problems, behavioral or nutritional, to overcome, and may have to accept the fact that the bird may never grow his feathers back - even if you change his diet and environment.
DIETARY DEFICIENCY OR IMBALANCE - An improper diet that is deficient in, or has an excess, of nutrients may also be a cause for plucking or chewing. For example, a diet that does not have enough protein may cause a parrot to start eating his own feathers to supplement his diet. Sometime a diet too low in fat will cause plucking in some greys. Each animal is an individual and will metabolize nutrients differently. So what works for one, may not work for another. If you parrot is plucking, it would be wise to have a complete physical done by an avian veterinarian to try to rule out a deficiency as the cause. The deficiency of some nutrients can be determined by blood tests.
BOREDOM OR LACK OF STIMULUS - Boredom and lack of stimulus is probably the most common cause of plucking. Parrots are very intelligent creatures. If left for long period with nothing to play with and nothing to watch, they will find something to occupy themselves. Pulling feathers, one by one, and watching them float to the bottom of the cage can be fun to do if there is nothing else available. Try to imagine how you might feel if you were left alone for long periods in a 6' x 6' room with no window and nothing but a chair in the middle. At the very least, you might start chewing your nails.
If you must leave your parrot alone for extended periods of time, make sure that he has a few different toys to play with. Even leaving on a radio or television for him will help to keep him entertained while you are gone.
CHANGES OR EMOTIONAL UPSET - Parrots, like people, often become very comfortable and secure with routine. When the routine is suddenly changed, they become very upset to the point of being physically destructive. African Greys are notorious for this behavior. Relocation to a new home, or even moving the cage to a different room, can set off a sudden desire to remove every feather within reach. By moving the cage to a more secure location, the plucking can stop as suddenly as it started.
Emotional upset is also a common cause for many parrot species. The loss of a loved one or even emotional upset and high tension in the family group can cause them to start plucking in frustration. They are upset and feel helpless to do anything, so they take out their frustrations on themselves. Children in similar situation will either rebel with negative behavior, become introverted and fearful, or develop psychological problems. As intelligent as parrots are, why should they react any differently?
OVERGROOMING BY A MATE - Sometimes you can put two beautifully feathered parrots together only to find in a short time that one or both has had all or most of their feathers removed. In some cases, this can be caused by an overzealous mate trying to do a really good job in grooming his beloved mate. Since some our breeders may have been pets at one time that were bonded to a person, I believe that some of them may be trying to make their mate look more like the person that they loved. That person probably didn't have feathers. I have seen less plucking in imported parrots that have never bonded to a human.
HABIT - When a parrot has been plucking for a long period of time, it very often becomes a habit, like nail biting. Even if the original cause of the plucking is remedied, they continue to pull feathers. If you are confident that every possible cause has been investigated and eliminated, and the plucking persists, the next step would be to help your pet to break the habit. You must keep in mind that persistent and long-term plucking can damage feather follicles so that new feathers may never grow in.
MEDICAL PROBLEM - Parrots that are kept in areas that have possible fungal or mold grows can develop problems with fungal infections. Most of these infections are passed with spores in the air. The spores can cause problems in the skin and/or the lungs and air sacs. The most commonly know of these infections is known as aspergillus. This mold can sometimes cause obvious problems with breathing, but sometimes it goes unnoticed. Infections of this kind can cause plucking and sometimes self-mutilation. This problem can be remedied with detection and treatment with an anti-fungal medication.
The most obvious remedy would be to correct the cause of the plucking once it is determined what the cause is. Depending on the cause, the cure might be a more balanced diet, new toys for stimulus, moving the cage to a more secure location, etc. Once the problem is corrected, a possible habit must be discouraged or broken. Sometimes it can be as simple as spraymisting the bird's remaining and new feathers with something that doesn't taste good. Since all parrots have different likes and dislikes, the mixture used must be something that your parrot doesn't like. Some of the mixtures that I have tried with some success are mustard and water, alum and water, and listerine and water. I wouldn't use the mustard mixture on a white parrot. You will also have to get used to a bird that smells like a hot dog for a while. The others are more colorless and odorless. None of these mixtures would be effective for a bird that plucked down to the skin, and they would be painful for one that has started to self-mutilate. Immediate attention by a qualified avian vet is necessary for any parrot that has started to create open sores.
Another common remedy for plucking is the "collar". This is a circular disc cut from a rigid material that has a slit cut to the middle with a circle in the middle a bit larger than the diameter of the parrot's neck. It is put around the parrot's neck and fastened, usually by tape, at the slit. When it is on the parrot, it looks something like a cone with his head in the middle. This cone prevents the bird from reaching any of his feathers to pull them. This may seem a perfect solution to some, but it also make climbing in a cage and holding food to eat very difficult. For a parrot that has started plucking because of emotional upset or a high strung bird, this may only worsen the problem once the collar is removed.
A much less frustrating and solution that I have found to be very successful is a homemade "vest". Pictured here is one of my pets, Quincy, modeling a vest that I had made for her. When she reached 6 years of age, she started into the homone changes of maturity and totally plucked her chest clean. She had never plucked before, and within a couple of weeks she didn't have a feather on her chest. I made a vest for her from an old baby diaper like the one pictured on the right. Although she was perfectly capable of tearing it to pieces, she left it on for 3 months. After this time, I took it off of her, and all of her feathers had grown back. She is now over 12 years old, and has not plucked since. I have since recommended this "vest" to a number of pet owners with plucking birds, and it has successfully helped many plucking, and even self-mutilating, parrots to break the habit.
If you decide to make a vest like this one for your parrot, it should be the length from just above the breastbone to his vent. The first set of ties(1) should be tried around his neck. The second set (2) should go under his wings and tie around his back. The third set (3) goes between his legs and ties over his tail. The "V" cut (4) should be cut out under the vent so he doesn't soil it. By the way, the vest pictured is the same one that I used for Quincy. As you can see, she didn't even put holes in it.