Feather Picking in parrots

Feather picking is one of the most frustrating conditions of caged birds. Feather picking is a common problem that occurs often around the breeding season.  Feather picking is an obsessive, destructive behaviour pattern of birds.  The parrot’s feathers are methodically pulled out, amputated, frayed, or in some other way damaged. This prevents normal feather growth and leads to damage of the skin.

Feather picking needs to be be distinguished from normal preening and moulting. Preening is a process by which a bird normally grooms itself, and moulting is a normal process by which old, worn feathers are lost and subsequently replaced by new ones. Feather picking can be easily distinguished from preening and moulting because 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 where the head feathers of the victim bird might not be spared.

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

Medical causes include:

  • Allergies – contact, inhalation, food. Some birds are allergic to certain seeds (sunflower and canary) and dust mites.
  • Mites and Lice – are often blamed but rarely a problem in caged birds.
  • Intestinal Parasites – worms and parasites frequently cause feather picking in cockatiels and budgies.
  • Low Humidity – tobacco smoke and central heating can dry out feathers leading to excessive preening.
  • Malnutrition – is 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 skin overlying internal tumours.  Self inflicted wounds can result.  Surgical removed is successful in many tumours in birds.

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

Non medical causes include:

  • Boredom – parrots are very intelligent and get bored easily. A change of scenery,  company (human or avian) or interesting toys may help. Chewable food such as fruit and vegetables, non toxic wood and the TV or radio could all stimulate 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 – birds 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 just introduce a mate without sound advice as this may actually worsen the problem.

In severe cases of chronic psychological feather picking there may be no response to any kind of treatment. Damage to the feather follicles from repeated trauma may result in permanent feather loss or growth of abnormal feathers. If your parrot is a feather picker, make an appointment to see one of our avian veterinarians. They will work with you to provide some solutions to this complex problem.