One of the most frustrating conditions of caged birds is feather picking. Feather disorders rate as some of the most difficult and challenging conditions to diagnose and treat in veterinary practice.
Most people purchase or acquire a pet bird because of their physical attraction to the bird and its general appearance, feather color(s), vocal abilities or its personality. When a bird begins to pick at, pull out or mutilate its feathers, its physical appearance and overall attractiveness are greatly diminished, causing great consternation on the part of its owner. Some of the bird owner’s frustration results from a lack of understanding of what motivates the bird to behave in this destructive manner and what can be done to stop this behavior.
Feathers have a variety of functions including flight, temperature regulation, protection against environmental and climatic extremes, and courtship displays. The process by which a bird grooms itself is called “preening”. It will use its beak to condition and water-proof its feathers and to remove the sheaths through which all new feathers emerge. Mutual preening is common among cage mates. Normal preening behavior must be distinguished from feather picking and mutilation.
Feather Picking (abnormal) vs. Molting (normal)
Feather picking is an obsessive, destructive behavior pattern of birds during which all or part of their feathers are methodically pulled out, amputated, frayed or in some other way damaged. This behavior often prevents normal feather growth and emergence.
There are both medical and non-medical causes for feather picking. The major medical causes include changes in hormone levels (most notably thyroid hormone), external and internal parasites, malnutrition, internal disease, and bacterial or fungal infections of the skin and/or feather follicles. Contrary to popular opinion, external parasites (mites in particular) are extremely rare among caged birds. The non-medical causes are psychological and/or stress related.
Feather picking is generally a problem of birds in captivity. Wild birds do not feather pick because they are too preoccupied with their own survival and with reproduction. Captive birds endure stresses not experienced by their wild counterparts, such as captivity, malnutrition, solitary living, absence of a mate with which to fulfill courtship rituals and mating needs. Additional stresses include the noise and confusion of their home environment and the presence of other pets (dogs, cats ferrets) whom the bird sees as potential predators. Birds are creatures of habit, and changes in their environment or in their established routine can often create stress for the individual which can result in feather picking.
Most caged birds seem prone to feather picking. The groups of birds most notorious for engaging in this vice include African gray and Timneh parrots, cockatoos, macaws, conures, gray-cheeked parakeets, and cockatiels. Feather picking is rarely seen in budgies (the common parakeet) or Amazon parrots.
Hypothyroidism is one common cause of feather picking in caged birds. To evaluate the circulating level of thyroid hormone we will sample a tiny amount of blood from the inside of your bird’s wing. If this level is low, a thyroid medication (supplement) will be prescribed to bring this level back up to normal.
There are no quick or easy solutions for treating non-medical feather picking. If medical causes are ruled out, and boredom (solitary confinement) is therefore regarded as the major cause of feather picking, then you as the bird owner must be prepared to make changes. Increasing the amount of time that you spend with your bird will reduce feather picking tendencies because the bird is kept otherwise engaged.
Sometimes changing the location of the bird’s cage and/or perch is helpful. The suitability of the new location will depend upon the temperament of the bird. For example, a feather-picking African gray (normally shy) might be better off in a more private and secluded area of the house rather than in a heavily trafficked and noisy locale. By contrast, an umbrella cockatoo (docile and affectionate) that lives in isolation might be better off in a very public area of the house. If a feather picker lives in a very small cage, it might be beneficial to provide a larger cage, or a more spacious living environment.
Some feather pickers may not receive adequate rest. Providing these birds with a more quiet and secluded locale and covering the cage at night may be helpful.
Bathing or misting a feather picker on a daily or otherwise regular basis may be beneficial because wetting the feathers encourages normal preening behavior. The hope is that the bird will spend more time conditioning the plumage and less time chewing on the feathers or pulling them out.
Boredom and resultant feather picking may be countered by providing a wide variety of foods. Emphasis should be placed on foods that require some time and effort to eat such as non-shelled walnuts and other nuts, string beans, snow peas, and macaroni and cheese in addition to those representing a variety of colors, shapes, sizes and textures. This will keep the bird stimulated and interested in food and decrease the amount of time spent obsessing about the feathers.
The same can be said when providing toys with which a caged bird can play. The widest variety and assortment possible should be offered. The toys (chains, bells, rawhide and hardwood pieces, mirrors, hard rubber toys) should be durable and appropriate for the size and type of bird being entertained. Toys should stimulate and hold the bird’s interest as much as possible. It is important to provide natural objects that a bird can investigate, chew up, and rip apart. Branches from non-toxic trees with leaves (eucalyptus) and large pine cones can be offered to satisfy these destructive tendencies. Please make sure that the objects are free from insecticide and herbicides. It is also important to provide objects that can fully involve the bird in actual physical exercise (large ropes to climb on, large paper bags, and cardboard boxes with holes). Appliances (radio, cds, television, etc.) that stimulate the bird’s other senses should be considered whenever possible.
Another suggestion that should be given consideration is not clipping the wings of birds that are mutilating their feathers, especially the flight feathers. The rationale for this is that feather-picking birds need no excuse to be destructive to their feathers, and clipping feathers provides one. However, be aware that by not clipping the wings, you must be willing to accept the liabilities of having a fully flighted bird in the home.
Feather picking in caged birds sometimes results from sexual isolation and frustration. When a bird reaches sexual maturity, sex hormone levels will begin to rise and this can change a bird’s behavior. In the wild, these behavioral changes would result in the selection of a mate and the pursuit of courtship and mating behaviors. In captivity providing an appropriate mate is sometimes the answer to feather picking, but not always practical. Reducing sexual stimulation (removing mirrors and masturbatory toys such as toy birds and placing birds of opposite sex that are caged separately out of sound range from each other) may be helpful.
Some cases of severe chronic feather picking may not respond to any kind of treatment. Damage to or destruction of the feather follicles from repeated trauma to the skin may result in permanent feather loss or growth of abnormal feathers. Placing these birds in breeding or avicultural situations may be the most practical alternatives.