My parrot is feather plucking! What can I do? (A comprehensive guide)
What is feather plucking?
Feather plucking in birds is a common behavioural disorder commonly seen in captive parrots which chew, bite or pluck their own feathers with their beaks, resulting in damage to the feathers and occasionally the skin. It is estimated that 10% of captive parrots exhibit this disorder. Feather plucking may occur in any species, but African greys, macaws, cockatoos, conures, eclectuses seem to be more susceptible to this disorder.
Feather plucking is a very complex disorder to diagnose and manage because of the many possible health, nutrition, environmental and mental causes that could trigger plucking and its tendency to become a habit.
Therefore, it is important to prevent your birds from starting to pluck, because once a parrot discovers the pastime of destroying its own feathers, it quickly becomes a obsessive compulsive behavior that is extremely difficult to break, much like nail biting in humans. If you already have a bird who plucks its own feathers, it can be very distressing to see your feathered friend destroy its beautiful plumage and be at a loss as to what you can do to help.
This article will cover:
✓ How to tell if your bird is feather plucking or just molting
✓ Causes that trigger feather plucking behaviour
✓ Practical tips that you can do to prevent your bird from developing the feather plucking disorder
✓ Practical tips that you can do to support your bird that is already feather plucking
How can I tell if my bird is feather plucking or just moulting?
While feather plucking is a behavioural disorder, moulting is a normal cycle where birds shed their old feathers and regrow new ones. Birds who are feather plucking and molting tend to have similar personality and behavioral changes such as:
- Suddenly quiet and depressed
- Aggressive and irritable
- Loss of appetite
- Screaming more than usual
- Increased preening
- Looking lethargic
The table below will help you identify the symptoms of feather plucking and help you tell if your birds are plucking and molting.
|Constantly happens together with the other symptoms below||
Usually happens once or twice a year
Note: different species molt at different times of the year and the length of time it takes to complete a molt is different species to species too
|Chewed up or splintered feathers||
Intact feathers (large and small down feather) containing the entire shaft lying on the bottom of the cage
|Noticeable bald patches||No bald patches|
Areas of the body that are mainly pecked or plucked are the more accessible regions where the bird can easily reach with its beak such as the neck, chest, flank, inner thigh, ventral wing and tail
|Feathers from all parts of the body are shed during molting|
|No feathers missing from the top of the head as parrots cannot reach to pluck||'Spiky' pin feathers seen growing out around the top of the head|
|Pin feathers are chewed before they can grow out to replace the lost feathers||New pin feathers growing out to replace the worn feathers|
Damaged skin from self-nipping
Possible to have a skin infection and dry and flaky skin from plucking
|No damaged skin|
Why is my bird plucking his feathers?
There are many reasons as to why birds pluck their feathers and there usually is a combination of factors that triggers plucking. To hopefully help you identify the reasons that could have caused your bird to feather pluck, this section categorizes the causes of feather plucking into medical, environment, dietary and mental factors.
Feather plucking is one of the symptoms of many medical issues such as:
Psittacine Beak and Feather Disease (PBFD)
PBFD is a highly contagious and incurable viral disease caused by a circovirus which infects and kills the cells of the feather and beak. PBFD can affect all parrot species and is similar to AIDS in humans. Although PBFD does not technically cause the plucking behaviour, many symptoms are very similar to the tell-tale signs of feather plucking.
PBFD symptoms: gradual feather loss, shedding of developing pin feathers, abnormal and tattered looking feathers
Feather plucking can be caused by improper activity of the sexual organs (ovaries/testicles) or thyroid glands (hypothyroidism)
Feather cysts are a common condition among pet birds that occurs with a growing feather is unable to protrude through its natural opening in the skin and curls up in the follicle, somewhat similar to ingrown hair in humans. Feather cysts can cause feather plucking due to the irritation and discomfort and can also be caused by feather plucking too.
Bacterial infection of the skin and feather follicles
Usually caused by improper sanitation and cleanliness, a bacteria infection might cause the feather follicles and skin to become red, inflamed, itchy and painful which causes birds to pick at it and pluck their feathers.
Skin infections or inflammation
The discomfort and itch from irritated and inflamed skin may trigger feather plucking behavior. Causes for skin irritation include:
- Parasites (such as feather mites, ringworm) and lice
- Skin abrasion and injury
- Pin feathers growing out*
- Exposure to toxic substances
- Low humidity levels
- Dry skin etc.
*Feather plucking can easily become a vicious cycle as pin feathers grow out to replace the plucked feathers, the pin feathers feel uncomfortable which triggers more plucking.
Liver and kidney disease
Feather plucking is one of the symptoms of liver and kidney diseases. Also, the diseases may cause itchy and inflamed skin that leads to feather plucking.
Heavy metal poisoning
Feather plucking is one of the symptoms of zinc toxicity.
The behavior of birds is very much regulated by their biological clock, which is affected by external environmental factors. Below are some environmental factors that upsets their circadian rhythm, causing anxiety which can trigger feather plucking behavior.
- Insufficient quality sleep (Quality sleep means 10-12 hours in complete darkness)
- Disturbance in the normal light and dark cycles of the bird (suddenly having more or less light/darkness)
- Lack of natural sunlight and fresh air
Other environmental causes
- Low humidity causing skin dryness
- Not showering often enough
Most feather plucking birds (especially seed eaters) are deficient in vitamin A, protein, essential fatty acids and minerals such as sulfur, zinc, magnesium, and silicon.
Protein is necessary for healthy feather growth as feathers are mainly composed of keratin (insoluble protein made of amino acids). Birds who do not receive enough protein in their diet tend to suffer from unnatural feather loss and poor feather quality with very similar symptoms of feather plucking.
Insufficient vitamin A may lead to dry and itchy skin that results in discomfort which may contribute to feather plucking.
Chelated calcium deficiency
The most common cause of feather plucking in birds is chelated calcium deficiency. As calcium is an essential mineral for both nerve and muscle function, birds who do not receive enough calcium in their diet often show nervous behaviour such as fear, aggression and feather plucking.
Did you know that 98% of pet birds were getting less than the recommended levels of calcium in their diet? Despite popular belief, cuttlebone as it is not a bio-available source of calcium. Most of the cuttlebone that is eaten goes straight out in the poop and the calcium is not absorbed into the bloodstream.
Trauma and stress
Many parrots that were previously mistreated, neglected or traumatized tend to pluck their feathers as a stress-coping mechanism. Depressed birds plucking their own feathers is comparable to people cutting their wrists, because endorphins are released despite the pain. Even after these birds finally get proper care, plucking may still continue as the birds are addicted to this “feel-good” hormone.
Examples of traumatic and stressful experiences for parrots include:
- Change in its habitual environment (e.g. when a bird is rehomed or relocated, a significant change within the family)
- Long term neglect (e.g. kept in a cage with little to no social interaction)
- Kept in a cage that is too small to move around comfortably or chained to a stand
- In close proximity to predator pets (e.g. dogs and cats)
- All sorts of punishment and any negative reinforcement training methods (e.g. being hit, sprayed with water, cage covered as punishment)
- Deprivation and starvation
- Upsetting events (e.g. death of a flock mate)
- Witness to frightening scenes (e.g. domestic violence, violent crime)
- Victim of animal abuse
Loneliness, anxiety, frustration and fear
Parrots are instinctively very sociable animals and rely on their flock in the wild to be alerted of danger. As captive parrots (especially solo birds) do not have as much social opportunities, they have a tendency to be more lonely, fearful, develop separation anxiety and get sexually frustrated. These factors may all contribute to feather plucking.
In the wild, parrots spend the whole day moving around, socialising and searching for food. There is no time for wild parrots to get bored! On the other hand, our pet parrots stay in the cage for most of the day and have food in the cage. They can easily become bored when they have nothing much to do and can start feather plucking.
What can I do to help my feather plucking bird or prevent feather plucking?
To support a bird that is currently plucking and prevent feather plucking behaviour from developing, there are many practical steps to improve your bird's overall feather and skin health, reduce your bird's need to pluck and physically prevent the plucking behaviour.
Disclaimer: It will be more challenging if a bird has already developed the habit of feather plucking, however the solutions can help to break the habit of plucking over time.
If your bird is exhibiting the tell-tale signs of feather plucking, the first step is to bring your bird to the vet as feather plucking is one of the symptoms of many health conditions that is impossible to pinpoint without tests.
Note: It is important to do this step first because the rest of the solutions will not solve the problem if there is an underlying health issue that is causing your bird to pluck.
The solutions below help to regulate your bird's hormones and make them less anxious, reducing the need to pluck.
Have a regular sleep/wake cycle for your bird: Ensure that your bird gets 10-12 hours of uninterrupted sleep at night and set regular bedtimes.
Provide your bird a distraction-free, dark and quiet sleeping environment: Move your bird's cage to a dark and quiet room to sleep or completely cover your bird's cage with a black-out sleeping cover. It is important to make sure that the material of the sleeping cover is opaque AND completely covers every part of the cage where light can be seen by your bird.
To test the opacity of the material, hold the fabric up against the light. If you can see light shining through the fabric, it will not be effective as a sleeping cover. Bed linens and clothes fabric are not opaque.
Our made to measure blackout cage covers are highly effective in providing the complete darkness to help birds sleep well throughout the night.
Do not make loud noises in your bird's sleeping area: This applies even if the cage is covered. If you'd like to watch TV or have gatherings in the evening, it is recommended to move your bird to a separate room to sleep.
Provide your bird with natural light and fresh air in its living area: Do not keep your bird in a windowless room or a dark spot
Make the air more humid: If your bird sleeps in an air conditioned room or lives in a dry climate, humidify the air with a air humifidier to prevent skin dryness and irritation.
Provide your bird with more opportunities to bath: Frequent baths are very important to prevent skin dryness and encourage preening which is important for feather health. Here are some ways that parrots can bath:
- Dish of water
- Shallow water fountain
- Spray or mist
- Showering with humans (especially macaws and larger rainforest species)
Tip: If your parrot dislikes or doesn't feel comfortable enough to bath, you can let your bird join you in the bathroom by perching him on the shower rod or the sink while you shower. This provides the humidity needed to reduce skin irritation as well as social interaction without forcing your parrot to do something it doesn’t enjoy
Ensure that your bird has a healthy, varied and nutritious diet: That includes:
- A reputable parrot pellet brand (not artificially coloured and flavoured)
- Fruits (bird-safe list here)
- Vegetables (bird-safe list here)
- Flowers (bird-safe list here)
- Herbs and spices (bird-safe list here)
- Nuts (occasionally) (bird-safe list here)
- Seeds (sparingly)
If your parrot is currently on a full or high percentage seed diet, it can be quite difficult to transition to a varied diet. If you find it difficult to get your picky bird to accept new varieties of food, we highly recommend the Lafeber range of NutriBerries / PelletBerries / AviCakes. The Lafeber range is nutritionally balanced and is suitable for all species of parrots.
A Parrot’s Fine Cuisine Cookbook and Nutritional Guide is a very useful and practical book if you'd like to improve your birds' diet but do not know how to start. In the book, you will learn about:
- the importance of raw, whole foods
- 7 tricks to get your birds to eat fresh fruits and vegetables
- a safe and toxic food list curated by an avian vet
- blending teas for your birds
- the pros and cons of pellets
- nutrients and benefits of many bird-safe vegetables, fruits, herbs and oils
- soaking and sprouting for your birds + sprouting schedule
- parrot safe cookware
- 60 healthy and nutritious recipes that you can prepare for your birds
Supplement your bird's existing nutrition deficiencies: EasyBird Complete Pet Supplement in our Feather plucking rescue pack provides the key vitamins, minerals, amino acids and proteins which encourage healthy feather growth and prevent irritation when the new feathers grow.
Calcivet in our Feather plucking rescue pack is a highly concentrated liquid calcium supplement with added vitamin D3 that will improve overall feather health and reduce nervous symptoms from calcium deficiency.
Provide your bird safe fruits, vegetables and herbs that are high in calcium: Below are some examples:
- Acai Berry
- Butternut Squash
- Ceylon Cinnamon Bark (not Chinese cinnamon! That is very toxic to birds)
- Dandelion Leaves
- Dragon Fruit
- Green Beans
- Rocket (Arugula)
- Swiss Chard
- Turnip Greens
Note: Avoid spinach because of high level of oxalate acid!
The solutions below help your bird feel more secure and feel more enriched. When anxiety and boredom is reduced, it will reduce your bird's need to pluck.
Provide your bird a spacious and appropriate cage: The bigger the better. The cage must large enough for them to move around, flap their wings and play comfortably. Opt for wider cages instead of taller cages as birds naturally move from side to side, not up and down. Choose a rectangular cage with 4 corners, not a round cage.
Give your bird out of cage time at least once daily: Out of cage time is extremely important for the mental health of a bird. All birds should be given daily opportunities to stretch their wings and exercise outside of the cage.
Interact with your bird at least once daily: Daily positive human interaction such as spending time together, playing and/or training fulfills a parrot's high social need and helps your bird build confidence and trust. This would reduce boredom and anxiety, and therefore reduce the need to pluck.
Place your bird's cage where he can feel part of the human/bird flock while still feeling secure: Parrots are highly social animals and need to feel part of the family. Move your bird to an area of the house where he can see and hear other birds and your family. Do not leave the cage fully exposed on all sides as it can cause anxiety and stress. Ensure that at least 1 side of the cage should be against the wall and monitor your bird for insecure and anxious behavior.
Provide a variety of toys: Parrots are extremely intelligent and needy animals and require a lot of stimulation and enrichment to be happy.
Did you know that Harvard University researchers have found that parrots can be as intelligent as a five-year-old child? Just as how parents would not think of depriving their 5 year old toddler of toys, our parrots NEED toys to stay happy, mentally healthy and prevent many behavioural problems such as screaming and feather plucking.
As having 1-2 toys is not enough to keep a parrot occupied, our bird toy packs contain a variety of toys of different textures, materials and shapes that are specially curated to meet the enrichment needs of small to medium sized parrots (shredding, chewing, foraging, preening and climbing).
Provide more foraging opportunities: Make food more difficult to access by hiding them in foraging toys or in various areas around the cage.
Research has found that increasing foraging opportunities can significantly reduce feather plucking. When 18 feather-plucking African grey parrots were provided with food in pipe feeders rather than bowls, their foraging time significantly increased by 73 minutes each day and their plumage improved noticeably within one month.
Check out our range of foraging toy packs specially curated to encourage foraging behavior:
Rearrange toys and perches: Parrots are more likely to get bored in a familiar environment. You can prevent boredom by changing the positions and types of toys, dishes and perches in your bird's cage every week.
Reduce stress through probiotics and herbal teas: Potent Brew in our Feather plucking rescue pack is a live liquid probiotic which helps to reduce stress levels which can be associated with feather plucking.
Also, letting your birds drink and shower in Polly's Natural Eternal Feathers Organic Avian Herbal Tea can help to relax their nerves. The blend contains ingredients with calming properties such as chamomile and lavender and is especially helpful for nervous and anxious feather plucking birds.
Do not do the following as they cause anxiety, fear and stress which can trigger feather plucking:
- Avoid rehoming as much as possible
- Avoid/reduce contact with predator pets (e.g. cats and dogs) that may scare them
- Never punish or use negative reinforcement training methods
- Never deprive or starve for any reason (e.g. weight management for training)
Solutions that physically prevent plucking behavior
The solutions below work by making it very difficult for your bird to pluck the areas that would be otherwise easy to reach with the beak. Birds may lose the habit of plucking after a prolonged period of using.
- The solutions in this section may just be a temporary solution that is only effective as long as it is used
- The solutions do not address the cause of feather plucking and can be uncomfortable and stressful for parrots
- They should be used as a last resort and together with the other solutions above
- These solutions also prevent normal preening behaviour that is needed to keep feathers in the best condition. It is important to offer your bird frequent showers and normal preening opportunities
Anti-plucking collars: They are attached on the neck of a parrot and come in many materials and designs with varying levels of comfort, but all of them will hinder the natural movements of parrots (preening, eating, flying, turning) to some extent.
If your bird is plucking because of existing skin wounds, or if the wounds were caused by plucking, neck collars can be helpful in preventing birds from picking at them wounds, allowing them to heal properly so new feathers can grow.
Examples of anti-plucking collars are:
- Elizabethan-style collar
- Soft fleece collar
- Plastic collar
- Tube collar
- Polycarbonate plastic spherical collar
Bird hoodies/vests: They are usually worn over the chest and back and under the wings. The material acts as a physical barrier between the beak and feathers. Hoodies and vests are a bit more tricky to put on, but seem to be more comfortable for parrots as they do not hinder many of their natural movements (except preening). Birds can fly while wearing the hoodie/vest.
Some non-plucking parrots even enjoy wearing them during colder days or just to feel secure.