Feather Picking in Parrots

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Inner South Veterinary Centre
47 Jerrabomberra Ave
ACT 2604

1800 785 330

One of the most frustrating and disconcerting conditions of caged birds is feather picking. Feather picking is a common problem that we see at Inner South Veterinary Centre especially around the breeding season.  Feather picking is an obsessive, destructive behaviour pattern of birds during which all or part of their feathers are methodically pulled out, amputated, frayed, or in some other way damaged. This behaviour often prevents normal feather growth and can also lead to damage of the skin. Feather picking must be distinguished from 'preening', a process by which a bird normally grooms itself, and 'moulting' a physiological process by which old, worn feathers are lost and subsequently lost by new ones.

Feather picking can be easily distinguished from preening and moulting because regardless of the pattern of feather loss, damage and/or mutilation, and exposed bare skin below the neck, the head feathers are spared and always appear perfect and untouched. This is, of course, because the bird cannot reach its head feathers.

The one exception to this is the bird whose feathers are picked by a cage mate. Caged birds often engage in mutual preening. This behaviour can become obsessive and destructive, resulting in feather picking. In these cases, the head feathers of the "victim" are not spared.

There are both medical and non-medical causes for feather picking. 

Medical causes include:

  • Allergies - contact, inhalation, food. Recent work has shown some birds are allergic to certain seeds (sunflower and canary) and dust mites.
  • Mites and Lice - often blamed but rarely a problem in caged birds
  • Intestinal Parasites - worms and protozoal parasites frequently cause feather picking in cockatiels and budgies
  • Low Humidity - tobacco smoke and central heating can dry out feathers leading to excessive preening. Regular light water sprays can be beneficial,
  • Malnutrition - Common in parrots on all seed diets
  • Bacterial or fungal infections of the skin and/or feather follicles
  • Cancer -  is common, especially in budgies, galahs and sulphur crested cockatoos.   The birds will pick at skin cancers or areas of skin overlying tumours.  Sever, self inflicted wounds can result.  Many tumours seen in birds can be successfully operated on.

When all medical causes of feather plucking have been ruled out, psychological/stress causes are considered.

Non medical causes include:

  • Boredom – parrots are very intelligent and get bored easily.  This is a common cause of severe feather plucking.  A change of scenery, human or avian company, interesting toys, chewable food such as fruit and vegetables, non toxic wood to chew and the TV or radio could all help to simulate bored birds.
  • Overcrowding – 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.
  • Environmental change – 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 – may cause a bird to chew at the feathers and over preen.
  • Sexual frustration – many single birds may pick their feathers in the breeding season.  However, don’t introduce a “mate” without sound advice as this may actually worsen the problem.

In very severe cases of chronic psychological feather picking there may be no response 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. If your parrot is a feather picker, make an appointment to see Dr Sandy Hume. He works with you to provide solutions to this complex problem.


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