For The Love Of Venus: A Plucking Too

venus goffins cockatooOn the seventh of December, 1997 Venus came into my life. I’d never received such a precious gift from anyone. I spent my whole day bubbling over with anticipation. I could hardly sit still due to the excitement. Today, we were adding a new member to our “family”!My little angel arrived after dinner that evening. As a vehicle came up the drive, I ran around the house announcing in a squeal of joy, “She’s here! She’s here!”. I was so looking forward to meeting Amy and her husband to be. But most of all, I was anxious to meet Venus. I had heard so much about her in E-Mail messages and many long phone conversations. Now I was about to meet her.

I first heard about Venus needing a new home after placing several ads Online suggesting I would like to become an adoptive “parent”. Soon after placing the ads, I received a reply from a woman named Amy. I grinned when I read the name because it was the same as mine. I tried not to get too excited when I checked my E-Mail, but I couldn’t keep this to myself. I jumped up from my computer and rushed to tell my husband about this wonderful message.

Amy was engaged to be married to a wonderful man. The reason she needed to find Venus and Jay new homes was because even though he was a wonderful man, her future husband didn’t share her extreme love for birds. This sweet woman’s main concern right now was the health and happiness of her birds. She wanted to be sure to find them the best home possible.

Two of the birds Amy was trying to find homes for were a Goffin’s and a Moluccan Cockatoo. There was only one thing that could stop me from getting these birds…. I was a smoker! Amy wanted to find homes of non-smokers for these special birds. They were both seriously plucked and extremely attached to people. I didn’t smoke around my birds but, I did smoke! Amy wanted to place Venus and Jay where there was a better chance for a long, healthy life. She didn’t feel they could get that if their main caretaker was a smoker. Harmful by-products from burning cigarettes can remain on the hands of smokers and cause birds to pluck their feathers. It can also cause sores on the feet of birds which perch on hands of smokers. I just wasn’t sure I could quit! I’d been smoking 3 packs a day for over 25 years and had smoked 31 years total!!!

I sent my phone number in a reply to Amy. I included information about my other birds, the name and phone number of my Avian Veterinarian, Vanessa Rolfe, DVM as well as other references. I also sent the address of my home page, “Heavenly Feathers” so she could see how my birds and I interact. We both ran up large phone bills before the decision was made that Amy would allow me to take Venus and possibly Jay if I quit smoking! That was it! The beginning of a whole new way of life. If I wanted these two wonderful birds, I would have to be more concerned about my own health and theirs so we could share a long life together.

November 8, 1997 I told my husband I was going to quit smoking the next morning so I could adopt Venus and Jay. We went out that night and picked up lots of cinnamon and mint candies (to replace the taste of menthol from the cigarettes), Tootsie Pops, a one week supply of NicoDerm CQ patches, a box of Nicorette 2mg gum, and lots of orange juice. I’d decided I would quit drinking Coke at the same time since I knew the caffeine wasn’t good for me either. That way, if I got too edgy and needed to fill the void left by quitting the cigarettes and Coke, I could just go back to drinking Coke.

I’d read Online the severe physical cravings for nicotine only last for around one minute at a time. It sounded similar to Natural Childbirth in that if you can get past that minute in a predetermined fashion, you’d get past the physical “pangs” of nicotine withdrawal one craving at a time. The sticks on the suckers took care of the psychological need to replace cigarettes by occupying my hands, and the wintergreen mints took care of the emotional craving to taste menthol.

My last night as a smoker, was spent sucking down all the nicotine I could inhale. I spent a large part of the evening outside smoking so I wouldn’t harm the birds delicate respiratory systems. I gave most of a carton of cigarettes to my husband and told him he could smoke them but only outside, in his vehicle or at work and not at all around me or the birds. He’d also have to wash his hands after smoking so it wouldn’t cause the birds harm. I kept enough cigarettes and exactly enough matches to get me through the night, plus 2 for the next morning. I then ran around the house picking up any other matches, lighters, cigarettes, and getting rid of them. At each location where I normally had smoked, I placed candy. I washed all the ashtrays and stored them away. I also emptied the trash in the house as well as the ashtray in the car and had my husband take these to the dump. I knew from past experience how bad the cravings could get and just didn’t want to be tempted to smoke cigarette butts. The last things I did before retreating to bed that night, were to place 2 cigarettes, and 2 matches out to satisfy the morning cravings I knew I’d have, and placed a nicotine patch on the bathroom sink.

When I woke on the morning of November 9, 1997 I wanted to get it over with but I wanted to really enjoy my last two cigarettes. I made an event out of it. I filled the tub with lots of hot water and turquoise colored Calgon beads, picked up a copy of Bird Talk with pictures of Cockatoos, sunk into the water, lit one of the cigarettes, and let Calgon take me away. After reading some of the articles on cockatoos and realizing my dream was about to come true, I got out of the tub, dressed, smoked my last cigarette and placed the nicotine patch on my skin. That was the end of my 31 year habit. I ended it for the love of Venus, a bird I’d not even seen.

Amy carried a wicker basket through the door and placed it gently on the kitchen table. The basket was covered with a “formerly” nice, old handmade quilt. Since it was December, the quilt was needed to protect Venus from the cold of winter. Little was I prepared for what awaited me under the “coat of many colors”. This littlest treasure would, in the beginning, keep me up worrying, crying and walking the floor at night, and be the light of my life during the day. She is also responsible for me getting an extension on my own life.

As Venus pushed the quilt aside and peaked through the folds of cloth, I got my first glimpse of her beautiful head. It was covered in soft white and coral colored feathers. She raised her pretty little crest in anticipation, not knowing quite what to expect. Being a Goffin’s, her eyes naturally stood out but you could see fear in them. I’d never seen a Goffin’s Cockatoo up close. Her face appeared to be so expressive. The next moment, she tossed the quilt totally aside and scampered up to the top of the basket, chewing away at it frantically. Then I got to see Venus in all her glory.

I had been told that this wonderful little bird I was adopting was a “plucker”. I had even been prepared for what I thought was the worst case of plucking. I have a Congo African Grey, Mojo who has been known to pluck from time to time, so I thought I’d seen it all. I couldn’t have been more wrong! I wanted to pick this poor little bird up so badly. The sight of her naked little body made my heart break for her. I could feel the tears welling up in my eyes. What in the world could have caused her to do this to herself? I was about to get a bit more insight on feather plucking and what I’ve since come to believe, is “anting behavior”.

To look at Venus then, you wouldn’t have known she was literally a pint sized “bundle of joy”. She was so scared. I wanted to hold her, kiss on her, give her tiny little neck scritches…… But, Venus would have no part of me. She didn’t bite, she just shied away from me. The feelings of rejection shot through me. But….I knew she’d warm up to me in time. She was just feeling the stress of a 4 hour trip and being in a new environment.

Amy picked Venus up and carried her into the living room. I’d spread newspapers on the floor and placed an unfinished wooden CD rack on it. I’ve used these as bird stands when more than one bird is out at a time. They offer a sturdy perch with several levels for the birds to climb and play on and for toys to be attached to. Venus just stood there afraid to move. Her tiny, nearly featherless body stood motionless other than the quivering. I didn’t know if the shaking was caused by fear or was due to being cold from the lack of feathers. Then, quicker than the blink of an eye, she reached back with her beak and yanked a new pin feather out of her wing. This horrified me! I’d never seen such a thing! Mojo never plucked blood feathers! This surely had to hurt her but…..she didn’t even flinch. I think I felt the pain more than she did.

We sat in the living room talking about birds and introducing Amy and her fiancé’ to some of the other members of our avian family. Then, it was time for them to leave. Amy cried as she left. We hugged and I tried to assure her that Venus was in good hands and would get all the love and attention she could want.

To the best of our knowledge, Venus is at least 12 years of age and was imported. Venus has a long history of plucking herself bald everywhere below her neck. Her neck and head feathers are nearly perfect. She’d been placed with a mate previously to see if maybe having a companion would stop this self-destructive behavior. They loved each other dearly but, she removed all of his feathers too!

Due to continuing problems with Venus plucking her feathers, Amy scheduled her for an appointment to be seen by a Certified Avian Veterinarian. The only record of any diagnostics my vet could get on her was a CBC in November of 1996 (which was somewhat high, and showed she was anemic), and a recent culture due to a bloody discharge from her nares. The only other medical documentation found was for a round of very mild antibiotics in 1997 for possible feather folliculitis, and several medications normally used for emotional problems in humans, for the plucking behavior. I told Amy I would gladly take Venus after the vet checked her and gave the all clear. I waited for the call from her vet….the culture was normal but….in my vet’s words, “her poor follicles sure looked traumatized”.

During the next 3 weeks Venus and I became inseparable. I’m pretty much a hermit (we lived in the middle of nowhere) so I had all the time in the world to dote on her and my other birds. She was so comical. It was like watching a tiny avian clown. Her personality blossomed like a rare flower. For me, this was one of the most beautiful birds I’d ever met while others could only see ugliness in the tiny bald body. We would call back and forth to each other all day. If I’d stand up to leave the room, she’d run to whatever side of her cage was nearest to me, and lower her head to be rubbed. Then she’d scream gleefully while running back and forth, leaping in the air and freezing in the oddest positions upon landing. She’d look up at me with what appeared to be a mischievous smile. After that display, it was time to spread her bare wings as far as possible above her head, flap them like she ruled the world, throw her crest up, bow her head, raise it real quickly, then run and leap in the air and once again do a freeze frame. Since she didn’t have any wing feathers, I allowed her to be out of her cage as much as she wanted other than at night or when I was gone. The door was just left open for her to enter and exit at will.

Soon, the joy of my newly adopted bird was replaced by my fear of losing Venus. I always cover her at bedtime and check in on her before retiring myself. When I checked Venus that night, she had blood pouring off her back and covering every corner of her cage. I panicked! I ran and woke my husband and asked him to help me stop the bleeding. I thought I was going to lose her due to what looked to be an extremely large amount of blood loss. I’d had to deal with night frights with my cockatiels before but they never caused this kind of bleeding. I was scared to even touch Venus for fear of hurting her. I didn’t want to cause anymore pain than I thought she surely must have been in….. But, Venus was oblivious to my concern or her circumstance. It was something that after all these years seemed totally normal to her I guess.

Now the guilt set in as the tears streamed down my face. I had taken Venus in with the hopes of making her happier so the plucking would cease. I hadn’t even had her a month and she was worse than I could have ever imagined possible. She’d been doing so well. She seemed happy and playful and oh, so affectionate. She was growing several new feathers and hadn’t been plucking as much. This setback devastated me. All I could think is she would have been better off with Amy. But….I know better. She’s happy here. She has company almost constantly. I don’t believe the plucking is a sign of an unhappy bird. This same type of thing had happened at Amy’s house too. She had trouble with the stress it caused also. In the beginning, Venus had to be watched almost constantly and it wasn’t as easy as I had expected it to be. If you responded to her plucking by telling her not to do it, she’d do it more. If you even just responded by giving her any sort of attention or affection, she’d pluck another feather or two. I felt so inept. I spent the time since I’d had her trying to read everything I could get on plucking, the causes and possible cures. I searched the web and bookmarked everything I found that might even help me understand the behavior in the tiniest ways. All to no avail.

Venus spent New Year’s Eve and the dawn of 1998 in intensive care. I had called Dr. Rolfe when I noticed the bleeding. She told me there wasn’t much she could do that I couldn’t do at home. Due to the time of night, how cold it was, and the 60 mile trip from my place to her office, she felt it would be less stressful for Venus to wait until morning if I could get the bleeding to stop. I was given instructions on making a collar from one of my large feeding syringes (I think it was 20cc’s) to keep Venus from picking at anymore of the feathers.

I cleaned Venus up, pulled the remainder of the feather shaft that had acted like a straw spilling over with blood, and scrubbed her cage. When she had calmed down from all of that, I tried to place the homemade collar on her. I got the collar on her after a very stressful few minutes but, Venus literally flipped out! She started going into what I thought was seizures of some sort. Her body was flipping in all sorts of weird contortions. It was a disaster! I felt so helpless and worthless. The tears wouldn’t stop. I couldn’t stand to see Venus panicking that way so I removed the collar and wrapped her in a warm towel with only her head peaking out. I held her close, scratching her head and rocked her for the next hour or so. After I was sure she’d calmed down, I returned her to the cage and covered it. I stayed up and checked on her every few minutes until I was sure she was asleep. Then I continued to monitor her through the remainder of the night. Even though I know I only put the collar on her to help, I felt so guilty for causing her to panic like that.

I cried the whole way to the vets office the next morning. I knew Vanessa loved birds and was extremely gentle with them. I knew this was best for her. I didn’t have the experience to get her through this. Anyway, she was only going to get a collar put on. I couldn’t watch while the collar was being placed on Venus so I turned her over to Vanessa and went to run some errands. When I returned, Venus looked scared but was fine. The vet suggested I let her stay the night since she’d gotten so stressed by the collar. That’s when the nightmare began.

The story of Venus will continue in another article – coming soon!