Feather Mutilation

Feather plucking or shredding is as frustrating for the bird owner as it is for the companion bird. There is nothing more dreadful than returning home to find the bottom of your bird’s cage filled with feathers. The guilt that pet bird owners feel is not unique. The unanswered question….”Why is my bird doing this?” ……. causes most bird owners of feather pickers, a considerable amount of stress. There are a number of different reasons why a bird feather mutilates. Finding the root of the cause is the answer to a possible cure.

Birds feather mutilate when they are under stress. What causes a bird to take it’s unhappiness out in such an extreme manner is cause for speculation. There is no doubt that abuse, neglect, and lack of attention cause behavior problems such as screaming, biting, and feather mutilating. I also believe that lack of early socialization, lack of exposure to change during weaning and infancy, and lack of consistency in setting firm guidelines can contribute to a birds inability to cope with stress and change in a positive manner.

A happy well adjusted bird will be taught to accept change, entertain him/herself, and will know what behaviors are acceptable and which ones are not. He/she will also know that unacceptable behaviors will not bring him the attention that he needs and desires. It is critical that hand-rearing and weaning be preformed by experienced aviculturists. Experienced breeders should mentor beginners under their direct supervision to ensure proper education and training. Prevention is the key.

There are different forms of feather mutilation which vary in magnitude from bird to bird. Feather plucking is when the birds completely remove the feather by pulling it out at the base of the shaft. Some birds will chew the feathers off a little bit at a time, never completely removing the feather. Repeated feather mutilation over a period of time can cause permanent follicle damage, thus preventing these feathers from ever returning. In severe cases the birds will self-mutilate soft tissue areas on their breasts, legs,and backs causing sores and bleeding. Tissue damage can be so extensive that the wounds never heal and these open sores become ideal breeding gound for bacterial infections. In the most tragic cases birds will self-mutilate until death occurs from bleeding.

Certain species of birds have higher incidences of feather picking episodes, although feather picking has been recorded in all species of parrots. African Grey parrots and members of the Cockatoo family have the highest rate of feather picking episodes. I am sure the intelligence of these two species contribute to the high rate. From my personal experience and observation, I believe the rate of feather picking is higher for females than males. This is not based on any scientific studies, although, I feel that a significant amount of research is needed in this area.

So, what do you do if your bird begins to destroy it’s feathers. The first thing you must do is to make an appointment with an Avian Certified Veterinarian for a complete check-up. Several medical conditions can cause a bird to feather mutilate. Giardia (an internal parasite), bacterial infections, improper wing clipping, and dry skin are a few medical conditions that can cause birds to feather pick. The check-up should include a CBC, vent & crop swabs, a Giardia test, Beak & Feather test. Often birds begin to feather pick because of medical conditions but, the behavior needs to be stopped before it becomes a habit.

One new method of treatment is a drug used to treat drug dependency in humans, such as Trexan. I tried Trexan therapy on one of my African Grey parrots. She responded well to the therapy and did not have any side effects. Then a year later she had another feather picking episode and once again, was put on Trexan. The second round of drug therapy did not yield the same results as the first round. There were no signs of improvement or behavior changes. Drug therapy will only treat the symptoms and should not be considered a cure because it does not address the orginial reason for the feather picking. The problem may still exist after the drug therapy. Based on my personal experience using Trexan, I would only advocate using drug therapy with birds who are self-mutilators. In these instances, Trexan will help keep the bird calm so that a collar can be used while the wounds are healing. Other homeopathic remedies are being researched and tested. I have not tried any of these alternative treatments.

Daily misting will help reduce the itchiness of dry skin. A totally wet bird will not feather pluck, so allowing access to a daily bath may prove beneficial.

During the vet exam it is important to discuss your birds diet with your vet. The constant replacing of feathers may cause nutritional deficiencies, which may require dietary changes or vitimin supplementation.

Sexual maturity and hormonal changes can contribute to feather picking. Some birds may become sexually frustrated during breeding season. Remember, birds are flock creatures, and with some birds the instinct to breed and reproduce is so strong that when their inability to find a mate occurs, they become stressed and pluck. These birds may possibly stop plucking if they are placed in a breeding situation with an acceptable mate. Not all adult birds feather pick because of breeding instinct. After all medical conditions have been ruled out you need to begin looking for psychological reasons. First look for any obvious reasons. Have there been any changes in your household that could be the cause of the stress? Remodeling, rearranging furniture, a new cage, a new toy, a change in work schedules, new additions to the family are all possible causes. If an obvious change has not occurred than more investigative work needs to be done.

The next step in finding the reason for the feather destruction begins with keeping a detailed log book. The log book should contain as much information as you can find. Include, the place, date, and time of each and every picking episode. In addition, record all environmental conditions such as weather, unusual sounds, visitors, changes in routine, or changes in the home, or cage. Also note the birds diet on the days of the feather mutilation. Certain foods may trigger feather chewing. Your feelings and the feelings of all members of the household should be noted too. Parrots are very responsive to our emotions and they can sense what we are feeling. The more information you include in the log book will increase your chance of finding the reason for your birds distress.

In the interim, there are several things that you can try to reduce and discourage the feather picking. The most important factor is to TOTALLY IGNORE (visually and vocally) when he/she is feather picking. You do not want to negatively reinforce the feather picking behavior. Unfortunately, this is the most difficult suggestion to follow. It is hard not to pay attention to your bird, when he/she is obviously unhappy and under stress. You will need to change your behavior and way of thinking too. Before entering the room where your bird is, mentally visualize your bird fully feathered each and every time you visit. Use the self-fulfilling prophecy to your advantage. And positively reinforce all desirable behaviors with praise, head scratches, and favorite treats. Teaching your bird that desired behaviors will get him/her the attention that they crave, is a step in the right direction.

Distracting your bird may help slow down the feather picking. Fill your bird’s cage with perches, and toys that can be preened and chewed. The goal is to *STUFF* the cage with so many toys that your bird can’t decide which toy to destroy next. Put several natural whisk brooms in the cage. They are inexpensive and provide a texture that birds find appealing. Natural perches with bark offer an amusing distraction. Tie leather and sisal strips to the cage bars. Making sure pieces are short enough not to cause a safety hazard. Birds can become entangled in long pieces of leather or sisal. I personally do not allow any rope toys or rope pieces in any of my bird cages. They pose too much of a risk of fraying and entangling a bird. Rope toys should only be given under direct supervision. Fraying pieces of a plastic milk jug are another inexpensive toy distraction. Attaching wireless clothespins to cage bars is another great way to stuff the cage.

After several weeks or months of recording data in the daily record book you need to chart your finding. Look for patterns in the chart. Are there any common denominators during the feather picking instances? Continue to record in the daily record book and look for causes. There may be several different causes to your birds feather picking. After you find the reasons, you can make any necessary changes to reduce your birds stress in hopes of eliminating the feather picking behavior. This may include a complete change of environment. You may need to find a new home for your bird. I know of several instances where feather picking birds have stopped plucking after being placed in a new home. This does NOT mean that everyone with a feather mutilator should give their bird away. But, in some instances it may be in the birds best interest to be place in a home where his/her needs can be better met.

So don’t purchase birds on impulse. Investigate breeders and pet shops before you purchase a bird from them. Educate yourself on the emotional, nutritional, and environmental requirements of a species of bird before you purchase him making sure you can meet those needs. Purchase your bird from aviculturists who believe in the concept of abundance weaning, (which is offering a wide variety of healthy nutritious foods, and making those available at all times to weaning babies, and allowing the babies to wean at his/her own pace.) Don’t buy unweaned babies unless you have the experience and knowledge to raise a happy, healthy, and well adjusted baby parrot. Don’t sell unweaned babies to inexperienced people.

This article is dedicated to the memory of LUCKY, a Goffin Cockatoo who was a self-mutilator. Only Lucky, God, and his past owners know what inhuman abuse, neglect, and suffering that he endured that was so horrendous that no amount of love and attention could erase.