African Grey Myths: Greys Are Feather Pluckers

So many myths surround this sensitive and intelligent companion bird. Some of these myths have assumed the status of fact by virtue of repetition, but repetition does not make them true. Some of the most common myths are “Greys are clumsy”, “Greys need more calcium”, “Greys pluck”, “Greys are one person birds” and “Greys are shy”. Nothing could be further from the truth.

MYTH II – GREYS ARE PLUCKERS

Plucking seems to occur more often in Greys because they must be managed more carefully than other species. Internal conflicts involving environment, cage, diet, activities, bathing, discipline, training, amusement produce internal disharmony and anxiety. The companion Grey may internalize these events and be unable to resolve them in a non-destructive manner. When something is amiss, they may express their discomfort or anxiety by feather plucking.

Greys need to be helped, more than other species, in developing their sense of self and self-confidence. They need to be encouraged to explore and to express their curiosity. They need to be exposed to change, movement, color and variety and to learn that these are not things to be feared. A good breeder will get a bird off to a good start. It is up to the new owner to continue to expose the bird to variety and change.

While much plucking is behavioral, a medical cause must first be ruled out. So a trip to an avian vet is the first step in the process. While board certification provides no guarantee, it may reassure the owner that the vet has experience and knowledge of birds. Collaring or drugs in the absence of skin mutilation should be the last option – not the first.

Physiological feather chewing or plucking may be caused by: kernel peanuts, seeds or nuts (in the shell) contaminated with mycotoxins, low blood calcium, some bacterial/viral/fungal infections, allergic-type reaction to preservatives or artificial colors, heavy metal poisoning, internal or external parasites and dry itchy skin associated with molting or infrequent baths.

Some psychological reasons may be: decreased interaction with the bird’s preferred person, decreased out-of-cage-time, lack of interesting/new/chewable toys, a too small cage, isolation, stress, lack of sleep and insecurity.

  • If the cause may be a psychological one, change the environment or location of the cage to a more protected spot, increase out-of-cage time and bird/human interaction, buy new toys (no rope or cloth toys), put the bird in a busier part of the house (the place where you spend the most time) but place the cage against a wall or in a corner for a feeling of security. Position the cage where the bird has a longer range view of those who enter his living area. Avoid a location where there is a lot of traffic back and forth past the cage. The sudden appearance of family members, guests or other companion animals can contribute to uneasiness and insecurity
  • Reduce stress from the presence of other companion animals, children, pressure to socialize with a disliked person, arguments/shouting/loud voices or household commotion.
  • Provide a widely varied soft food diet that is comprised of birdie bread, beans/grains/pasta/veggies, sprouts, fresh fruits and veggies. Choose fruits and veggies high in Vitamin A for their immune system benefits. A plucking bird is usually a stressed bird and may need the immune system boost that high Vitamin A foods provide.
  • Often seeds are implicated in plucking. Some birds can have an allergic-type reaction to some components of seeds or the seeds may be contaminated with mycotoxins.Peanuts are often a culprit. They may be contaminated with mycotoxins and other bacterial or fungal organisms. Remove all kernel peanuts from the diet. Remove all nuts in the shell from the diet. Mycotoxins again are of concern. Hard-shelled nuts appear to be impermeable but how often have you opened a nut to find fungal growth or spoilage? I don’t recommend that birds be fed kernel peanuts or dry seeds or nuts in the shell. Offering Planter’s type nuts from the supermarket may be safer if you choose not to remove nuts from your bird’s diet. Do not offer Brazil nuts – these and peanuts are “notorious sources of aflatoxins”. Ref. Avian Medicine pages 536 and 1043. For information on fungal organisms, a listing of URLs is included at the end of this section.If the plucking is of recent onset, the seeds may be contaminated. Discard the seeds you are presently feeding and buy fresh clean seeds. If there are peanuts in the mix, discard them.
  • Consider changing the bird’s diet from seeds to pellets. Chose pellets without chemical preservatives and without artificial coloring. If, however, the bird prefers or will only eat a pellet that contains chemical preservatives or coloring agents, this is a better, safer and more nutritious diet than a seed diet. Once a bird is switched to pellets, the introduction and acceptance of a non-color and preservative-free pellet is easily accomplished using the same methods as the original switch to a pellet diet. The diet of a plucking bird must undergo careful scrutiny, as Greys are often adversely affected by an unsuitable diet. My article Switching Your Bird To Pellets can be found at https://exoticbirds.life/blog/switch-bird-pellets/.
  • If you are presently feeding pellets to a plucking bird, switch to a pellet without chemical preservatives or artificial colors. It is possible that the bird may be reacting to the preservatives or the colors. Some birds, like some humans, may be sensitive to preservatives or dyes. Many bird food providers will send free pellet samples. The bird may like one brand better than another. Hagen’s Tropican at http://pubnix.net/~mhagen/docu/tropltad.html, Harrison’s Bird Diet at http://www.hbdintl.com/index.htm and Zeigler Feed at http://www.zeiglerfeed.com are some of the brands which don’t contain chemical preservatives or artificial colors.
  • Has the plucking bird been screened for zinc or lead poisoning? The zinc in quick links (and toy components) has been implicated in some plucking – so has paint from the cage and flecks from the base metal. Replace the quick links with stainless steel ones, check for peeling paint and other possible sources of zinc. Remove all access to any item containing lead. Marine supply stores, some bird toy manufacturers and hardware stores are a good source for stainless steel quick links. An article that addresses zinc poisoning is The A – Zinc of Zinc Poisoning at https://exoticbirds.life/blog/zinc-poisoning/.
  • Some success has been reported using aloe and water for spray bathing. Aloe vera gel or juice is safe and nontoxic. It has excellent anti-itch and anti-burn properties and may provide relief if itching is present. Use only the gel or the juice, as aloe vera cream is oily.From Carolyn Swicegood: “The sooner treatment is begun, the better the chances of cessation of this frustrating problem, as the long-term habitual plucker is more difficult to treat. Try filling a spray bottle with four parts pure water and one part Aloe Vera. (Do not use cold spray on the bare skin of a feather-plucked bird). It can be made stronger or weaker as needed.”
  • Drenching daily baths help hydrate the skin and feathers. It is especially important to bathe a bird daily during molting. The emergence of new feathers may cause itching and discomfort . If the bird starts to pluck during a molt, it may become a habit.
  • Added humidity may be helpful. Our homes are a desert environment for our tropical birds. Heating our homes in the winter dries out the air and air conditioning in the summer removes moisture from the air.Add a product such as Citricidal to the water in the humidifier to avoid exposing the bird to airborne mold or fungal spores. Citricidal is a safe and non-toxic additive to water for disinfecting and control of unwanted organisms. Some URLs of interest are http://www.beecool.com/store/nutri.html, http://www.sover.net/~samallen/more.htm, http://www.alternativemedicine.com/alternativemedicine/digest/issue07/i0 and Kitchen Physician VII – Citricidal: Cure & Disinfectant at https://exoticbirds.life/blog/kitchen-physician-7/.
  • Boredom or lack of attention may be another cause of feather plucking. Has time out of the cage or bird/human interaction decreased? If that is the case, it is important to increase interaction (minimum 45 minutes daily of direct and shared attention) and out-of-cage time (minimum 3 hours per day). Ref. Layne Dicker “Time Well Spent With Parrots.Provide some new and interesting complex toys and activities. Roll up a TV Guide and stuff it in the cage bars. Wrap up treats and hand toys in newspaper or brown wrapping paper and put them in a basket or small cardboard box on the floor of the cage. This can provide hours of entertainment.Placing chunks of food on skewers can be a time consuming and interesting way for the bird to forage. A bunch of carrots with the top attached or a head of celery can keep a bird occupied for a long time. The addition of safe branches in the cage for chewing and stripping may help.Shred milk cartons as toys for birds to preen. Filling the bottom of the cage with balls of newspaper to tear up may be a substitute for plucking or feather shredding. Knotted leather laces may also be offered but the laces must be very thick ones to avoid entanglement. Plucking birds need “jobs” and hours of busy time while confined in the cage.
  • Regressing a plucker to a happier time by feeding hot wet foods by hand may be comforting and reassuring to the anxious bird.
  • Some birds may pluck because they aren’t getting enough sleep. Providing a small sleep cage in a quiet part of the house for 10 or so hours of uninterrupted sleep may help.
  • An improper wing clip is often the cause of a bird starting to pluck.
  • It is best to watch everything that is done to your birds – no matter by whom. Improper handling by a vet/groomer/stranger or a traumatic experience with them can have an adverse effect on a bird. This source of anxiety, fear and stress may cause the bird to become a plucker. Don’t let anyone take your bird into another room without you for a procedure.
  • Some birds may be tormented by children or other companion animals in the absence of the primary caregiver. Eliminate unsupervised access.

Since the finite cause of plucking is very difficult to determine, these suggestions may or may not decrease or halt the plucking. The more quickly plucking is addressed, the better chance there is of stopping the behavior before it becomes a habit. A consultation with an experienced sympathetic avian behaviorist may address the behavioral aspect of plucking.