Feather plucking is common, and often a difficult problem to diagnose and treat.
Feather picking in parrots is one of the most frustrating conditions that a bird owner can face. Typically, a feather plucking bird has normal head feathers with feather loss or damage only in areas that the bird can reach with its’ beak. Anything from small patches, to the whole body may be affected. It occurs commonly in Sulphur Crested Cockatoos, Galahs and Cockatiels, but any species can be affected.
It can be difficult to detect what the cause may be, but essentially it will always fall into one of two categories: medical and behavioural. Generally it is best to rule out a medical reason before diagnosing behavioural issues. Unfortunately, there is no single “magic cure-all” for feather plucking birds.
Medical causes of feather plucking
Recent work has shown that some birds are allergic to certain seeds (oats, sunflower and canary seed), and house dust mites. Some birds respond to ‘elimination diets’ i.e. the only seed permitted was millet seed, and the general diet was improved with the addition of fresh fruit and veg. Central heating has been associated with increased dust and allergies in people and birds, as well.
Mites and Lice
These are often blamed but rarely a problem. Generally easily diagnosed and treated.
Tobacco smoke and central heating have been blamed for drying out feathers and causing excessive preening. Regular, light water sprays can be beneficial.
Infectious dermatitis may cause feather plucking or may be the result of it. Beak and Feather Disease often causes feather loss and feather plucking.
Although pneumonia and gastroenteritis are the most common symptoms associated with psittacosis, many birds pick their feathers as well. Antibiotics are usually curative. For more information on Psittacosis, see our guide here.
Common in parrots on seed-only diets. These lead to vitamin, mineral and protein deficiencies which frequently cause feather plucking. Improving the diet will cure the problem.
Cancer is common, especially in Budgies, Galahs and Sulphur Crested Cockatoos. The birds will pick at skin cancers or areas of skin overlying tumours. Severe, self-inflicted wounds can result. Many tumours seen in birds can be successfully operated on.
Behavioural Causes of Feather Plucking
When all medical causes of feather plucking have been ruled out, psychological causes are considered.
Parrots are very intelligent and get bored easily. This is common causes of severe feather plucking. A change of scenery, people or other birds for company, interesting toys, chewable food (such as fruit and vegetables and non toxic wood) to chew, and TV or radio can all help to stimulate bored birds.
Over crowding leads to stress and aggression. This may cause birds to pluck themselves or other birds. Be very careful when placing a new bird into a cage with an existing bird, and ensure that each bird has enough personal space in the cage.
Although birds enjoy stimulation they also need routine. Sudden or constant changes can often lead to stress. Frequent cage movements or new toys may cause this.
Poor wing clipping
This may cause a bird to chew at the feathers and over preen. See our guide to correct wing clipping here.
Many single birds may pick their feathers in the breeding season. However, don’t introduce a ‘mate’ without sound advice as this may actually make the problem worse.
There are some things you can consider if your bird feather picks:
Note: It is always advisable to have a veterinarian assess your bird to rule out any medical causes.
Avoid nesting behaviours
Avoid doing anything that could stimulate nesting behaviour in your bird, such as cuddling or stroking the feathers.
Prevent your bird from bonding with a favourite toy or mirror.
Avoid dark hiding places in the enclosures that could simulate a nest.
Suggested diet change
Provide a balanced formulated diet, such as a quality pelleted diet. Ask us for tips about converting your bird from a seed to a pellet diet.
A good diet should also include fresh fruit and vegetables, native tree branches, and for some birds, grit.
Avoid feeding products with a high sodium content.
Avoid or reduce food items that are high in carbohydrates and sugars to reduce the bird’s nesting frustration.
Encourage pet birds to be more involved in all family activities.
Time out of the cage will provide more opportunities for your bird to bond with you and to give it mental stimulation.
Provide opportunities for your bird to exercise, such as flying in a protected location.
Provide a foraging tree/stand and foraging toys (where food is not so easily available) to reduce boredom.
Offer your bird opportunities for protected outdoor exposure to sunlight (not through glass) for a natural source of vitamin D.
Look at the birds environment
Ensure the bird is getting a natural photoperiod (normal day and night lengths). If necessary, cover the cage partly at dusk and/or put in a quiet room.
Provide a birdbath or spray with fine water mist frequently (although do not allow to get too cold when drying off).
Clean the cage daily, as feathers left in the cage may stimulate further feather picking and self-mutilation.
Protect your bird from threatening or harmful situations, such as other pets (such as dogs and cats), wild birds, small children or extremes of temperature.
If the bird is an ‘only’ bird, consider buying a companion bird. Parrots are flock animals, so are hard-wired to be part of a flock, whether this is you or another bird.
As a last resort, measures such as plastic E-collars or drug therapy may be required, which needs to be administered by a veterinarian.