Understanding Feather Picking in Parrots

One of the most common and challenging problems parrot owners face is feather-picking.  Not only is it heart-breaking to watch your parrot chew off or pull out its own feathers, it is sad to see such a stunningly beautiful creature turn into an unsightly mess.  But more than that, it is scary to see the adverse health effects of feather picking.  Birds rely on their feathers for self-esteem, insulation, mating rituals, communication and skin protection. Ongoing plucking causes a bird to become chilled, the skin to become dry and can even lead to skin infections, stifled feather follicles or other serious problems.  The purpose of this article is to offer education about potential causes of feather picking and to offer suggestions to manage the problem.  It is always recommended to get a full exam by a qualified avian veterinarian.

What is feather picking?

 Amazon that Feather Picks

Photo by America Gordon, 2014

Feather picking is when a bird pulls out its own feathers or chews off them rather than safely preen them.  We see a variety of intensities of this behavior from mild or periodic pulling to completely causing balding on one particular body location to a completely bald body and the most extreme, skin damage or self-mutilation.  Sadly, the problem seems to turn into a hard to break habit if not managed early on. The most common places to pick are around the neck or breast area but some birds pull feathers from under their wings, their backs and even their legs. 

Feather picking can be thought of as being on a continuum of intensity of intensity and frequency. 

1                                              3                                              5                                              8                                             10

Mild, occasional                                Bald spots           Bald Body; Follicle damage                           Skin mutilation

What causes feather picking?

Birds resort to feather picking for a myriad of reasons, but generally, feather picking behavior falls into two categories: medical and behavior.  There are a number of medical conditions that result in feather picking behavior from malnutrition, bacterial, viral or fungal infections, endocrine disorders, liver disease, food allergies, exposure to toxins in the environment, parasites, uropygial glad impaction and other diseases.  A qualified veterinarian will want to perform thorough physical examination and run a battery of tests to determine if your bird’s feather picking is medical in nature.  Medical problems can be treated, but some birds develop a “plucking habit” that needs to be treated with behavioral techniques. 

According to Dr. Tara Sager, DVM two major medical causes of feather picking include hypothyroidism and mineral deficiency.

 Timneh African Grey with Feather Picking Problem

If your avian vet is unable to find a medical cause for the plucking, then the plucking may be determined to be behavioral in nature.  There are a number of causes of behavioral feather picking, too.  Imagine being an exotic pet from subtropical areas of the world with lots of stimulation and up to 100’s of flock members.  Wild birds have a routine based life that keeps them busy, healthy and safe. Being prey animals, safety is extremely important on their hierarchy of needs. And imagine a flock of hundreds of friends. That’s a lot of stimulation and social activity.  A wild bird is never bored.  Your caged parrot needs considerable human contact to minimally simulate the benefits of life in a flock.

Take a caged parrots life, in comparison.  Caged birds need plenty of stimulation from toys, a set amount of sleep, predictable socialization and a sense of safety.  They need fun, positive companionship daily, lots of fun, safe activities to stimulate their minds and keep them busy and a predictable routine.  I often think that raising a parrot is like living with a really smart two year old.  A parrot has the intelligence of a 5-6 year old child but the emotional regulation of a two year old.  Add that with an innate fear factor since they are prey to many animals; imagine how sensitive a parrot is. Parrots may be easily stressed by strangers, being expected to behave or do things when they don’t feel like doing or don’t understand loud noises, weather, and lack of sleep, other household pets, rapid exposure to new experiences or even unfamiliar experiences.  They can become even more stressed during hormonal periods or just outright boredom.  Moreover, a hormonal parrot can be an anxious mess. Learn more about hormonal parrots here. http://www.birdsupplies.com/curbing-hormonal-behavior-in-parrots/

We often accidently induce hormonal behavior in our parrots resulting in a myriad of parrot problems.

Managing a feather picking parrot

Diet

Imagine the huge variety of nutritional plants, seeds, bugs and mineral availability in a rainforest environment.  Fruits, nuts, flowers, vegetation, bugs and even mineral rich clay licks that parrots frequent daily.  It’s hard to find such abundant fresh food resources for captive parrots. And even if you could find these food stuffs, do you feel skilled enough to offer a balanced parrot diet?

Insuring that your parrot receives proper nutrition is one of the most important factors of parrot health, disposition and feather health.  Improper nutrition may be the leading cause of most parrot problems.  We strongly urge you to feed your parrot a research based, nutritionally complete pelleted diet from a leading manufacturer such as Harrison’s or Roudybush.  There are a handful of companies that have developed parrot specialty research based diets that avian vets endorse.  It is intense and expensive research. Opt for organic diets whenever possible.  After consultation with a number of avian vets, the #1 recommended diet is Harrison’s closely followed by Roudybush. Avian veterinarians have been recommending that even pelleted diets need to be supplemented with fresh sprouts, vegetables, fruits and organic grains.

While seed diets have long been considered the staple of a parrots diet, they are very high in fat and simply don’t provide adequate nutrition.  Parrots love them, though, just like children love candy and cookies. Even vitamin fortified seeds are not recommended.  After all, the parrot cracks open the seed and the vitamin coated hull fall to the bottom of the cage.  And, what’s more, parrots are known to pick out their favorite seeds resulting in imbalanced nutritional intake.  If your bird is a seed junkie, click here for ideas on improving its nutritional intake. The effort to improve your parrot’s diet is quit worthwhile because feather picking is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the medical problems that can result from malnutrition.

Recent research suggests that an imbalance of calcium has a profound impact on feather picking. Calcium is the most abundant mineral in the body and it not only supports bone and feather growth but it also plays a huge role in mood management, namely anxiety and depression related behaviors.   It is a critical element in the release of neurotransmitters that are responsible for mood management.  Of course, calcium should be paired with Vitamin D3 and magnesium.  You can offer this by safely placing the cage outside or by using a full spectrum bird light. Some bird safe calcium-rich foods include leafy greens such as fresh kale, carrots, un-hulled sesame seeds, broccoli, yogurt and almonds. You may also wish to provide your pet with an avian specific calcium supplement. Over consumption of calcium and vitamin D3 can have ill effects on overall health and mood, too, so always follow package directions and consult with your avian vet who can determine your bird’s calcium levels and advise you appropriately each year.

Sleep

When you think about how much sleep a parrot needs, reflect on the region of the world your parrot is from.  Most parrots are from regions close to the equator where there is between 10-12 hours of darkness year-round.  Your parrot requires a good 10-12 hours of sleep a night for optimal health.  Provide your bird with a complete darkness away from noise so that it can get adequate rest.  Even the lights from a television set or LED lights can affect sleep.  Bird Snugglies or sleep tents may be helpful. You might want to consider getting a sleep cage your bird to insure adequate sleep.  We’ve found that the Large Wingabago, perched on a Snap and Go Stroller available very cheaply at Once Upon a Child or similar used children’s store, makes an excellent sleep and hospital cage.

Bathing

Most wild parrots bathe daily.  They are from subtropical locations with high humidity keeping the skin supple.  Imagine how wild parrots bathe in natural streams, ponds and puddles. These water cavities are somewhat muddied with mineral rich soils that soak into the feathers and provide nutrients when preened.

Surely, you can’t bathe your parrot in dirty puddles. But, daily bathing and misting moisturizes the feathers and skin while promoting healthy preening.  It also washes away any common household toxins that may have settled on the feathers so that your bird doesn’t ingest them while preening.  African Grey parrots, Cockatoo’s and other “dusty” parrots require daily bathing.  Dust that settles on the skin can result in dry or itchy skin resulting in a lot of scratching and picking.

The easiest way to bathe a parrot is with a shower perch.  A good daily rinse is advised with a thorough soaking at least weekly.  Insure that your bird doesn’t get chilled after the bath.  If your bird is plucked it will not have the insulation that feathers provide.  Use a blow dryer or a heated panel or perch to offer warmth until your bird dries.

Lighting

Availability of UV lighting is critical to your bird’s health.  Parrots rely on UV light for proper metabolism and for Vitamin D3 synthesis, a critical component of calcium absorption.  Simply placing your bird’s cage near a window is not good enough because modern windows have UV protective film on them. While natural sunlight is best, weather or other animal safety considerations permitting, supplemental UV lighting is useful especially in Northern climates.

Fear

Since parrots are prey animals, they have a significant fear response to the unknown.  Wild parrots rely on their flock to warn them of impending danger.  Not only is there safety in numbers but parrots take turns alerting their flock to danger.  Your caged parrot does not have a flock to enhance its sense of security.  Therefore, many parrots experience considerable loneliness and anxiety.  New experiences or items in the environment may cause your parrot considerable stress.  You are the mentor of your “parrot flock.”  If you wish to expose your parrot to something new, model that the item is safe and introduce it slowly.  And, don’t forget that your parrot needs attention from you, its flock, to feel safe and confident.

Boredom

We’ve already discussed how parrots are intelligent yet suffer emotional dysregulation much like a two year old child.  Your intelligent pet needs constant mental stimulation for its mental health.  A bored bird literally feels “caged in” or cabin fever and anxious.  You’ll need to provide your exotic pet with significant mental stimulation plus chewing and foraging opportunities throughout the day, whether you are home with the pet or not.  Furthermore, your pet needs a predictable routine of family socialization and out of cage time each day.

We strongly urge you to offer your parrot 5-6 assorted toys at all times.  While each parrot has its preferred toy styles, consider toys that promote wood chewing, natural fiber preening and foraging or food hiding activities.  Switch the toys out frequently.  Recycle safe toy parts in foraging buckets with hidden treats to encourage your pet to work for its food. 

In the wild, a bird has to navigate to the food site with several flock members.  Then it has to figure out how to retrieve the food item. Next, it will fly off to the next food site.  Your bird has an innate need to work for its food.  Some bird toy manufacturers have recently developed complex, refillable foraging puzzles that make a bird think and work to retrieve small bits of food.  Look into getting several food dispensing toys that you can rotate and require your bird work for its food intake.  Make your own foraging toys with organic pine cones, bird safe baskets, and recycled food boxes, food bits wrapped in paper or whatever else you can think of. 

A lonely, bored bird that doesn’t know how to entertain itself with toys is trouble and has a high potential of developing parrot problem such as feather picking, screaming or biting.  Your bird needs to know that you are available and that you are coming back.  It also needs plenty of toys for mental stimulation and to satisfy chewing, exploring and preening needs.  Even if your bird knows how to play, consider making a video or a recording of you talking to and interacting with your bird to play when you are not home.  Come up with your own unique strategies to ward off loneliness and share them with us at http://www.birdsupplies.com/contact/

Sexual Frustration

It is highly likely that your pet bird will bond deeply with you or another family member and come to perceive you as its mate. Birds that have formed a “pair bond” with one person in the family often regurgitate on the chosen one, while lunging and snapping at perceived intruders in an effort to drive them off.  Once a parrot perceives that a family member is its “mate” the bird develops mating related behaviors that are not fun to be around.  Hormonal parrots lunge, bite, scream and if unsatisfied, may resort to self-destructive behaviors. Warding off sexual frustration by not having an opportunity to mate and feeling that other family members are creating a “love triangle” causes an incredible amount of stress for a pet bird that comes out behaviorally.

In the wild, most parrot species mate for life.  Most parrot species only become hormonal once a year yet the pair has a special bond year-round. When all of the conditions are right, from light, to food availability to a proper nest location, parrots will engage in some rituals especially regarding where and how they touch each other and actually breed and raise their young.  The rest of the year, the pair is essentially asexual or non-hormonal. 

The take away here is that many parrot keepers inadvertently induce a constant state of hormonal behavior in our pets by not permitting them to get adequate sleep, allowing them to create nesting cavities, feeding them protein and fat rich diets and petting them improperly.  Not only is the parrot body not adapted to sustaining a constant hormonal state, but their mental health suffers too.  All of that sexual angst comes out in problem behaviors such as biting, screaming and sometimes even feather picking.  Prevent inducing a hormonal state by insuring that your parrot gets adequate sleep, is fed a proper diet and is not allowed to “nest” under furniture or in other darkened, small areas.  Furthermore, learn how to pet a parrot to avoid inducing a hormonal state. (http://www.birdsupplies.com/how-to-pet-a-bird/) Cockatoo’s in particular are often victims of inappropriate petting because they are such a cuddly bird.

Behavioral training to pick

It is very painful to watch your pet pick at itself.  We often want to run over and “tell” the bird to stop offer it attention when it is engaging in a behavior that is upsetting or worrisome.  Sadly, our good intentions are interpreted by the bird as a reward for the very behavior that we are trying to stop.  So, when a bird picks, we run over and talk to it.  The bird then picks even more fervently to gain attention and we get more worried and give it more attention.  As the birds injuries cause nerve and tissue damage, the bird picks even more.  This is how a simple picking problem (or any other parrot problem, for that matter) can quickly turn into obsessive compulsive behavior.  

Treatment for feather picking

The first rule of thumb to managing feather picking is to get a full physical workup from a qualified avian veterinarian.  Your vet will want to do a number of tests to determine if there is a medical cause for the picking.  If your vet is unable to find a physical cause, that the feather picking may be attributed to be caused by behavioral concerns.

There are four effective strategies for managing feather picking and self-mutilation in parrots.  Keep in mind that you may need to implement 2 or more of these strategies and don’t feel like a failure if you need to implement them all. The key is patience.

ENVIRONMENTAL CHANGES

While there is no consistent cure for behavioral feather picking, according to Chris Davis, Avian Behaviorist and Gary A. Gallerstein, DVM, 1994,  a common thread in possible solutions is “change.”  After all, the status quo hasn’t remedied the problem.  What we do know is that parrots need predictable, safe attention each day, they need to be occupied, they need a lot of sleep, they need frequent baths and an excellent diet.  And, another common thread is that the parrot owner must also change.  That is, a parrot owner needs to learn research based behavior modification techniques, easy to use strategies that literally change behavior, step by step. According to Bonnie Munro Doane and Thomas Qualkinbush, 1994, Parrot Responsive Phases of Training (PRPT) have proven quite helpful in reducing a number of parrot problem behaviors.

 

Check cage position for drafts, location, visibility of scary animals outside of window

 

Implement a correct sleep routine of 10-12 hrs. a night

 

Develop a daily routine of time out of cage

 

Develop social time with your bird in both morning and evening hours

 

Provide a range of foraging toys whereby your bird has to work for its food

 

Provide an array of toys that your bird enjoys and rotate them out weekly

 

Consider adding UV light on a timer

 

Frequently bath your bird

 

Change your bird to a pellet diet and nutrient rich fruits, vegetables and grains

 

COLLARS AND BARRIERS:

A bird collar or other style barrier may be required to keep your bird from destroying its feathers or engaging in self-mutilation behavior. There are a variety of barriers available on the market.  Some are made with soft fabrics, others have stiff inserts and other are made from plastic materials or have Kevlar inserts.  We strongly suggest that you accustom your bird to wearing apparel following the techniques in this article.  Firstly, it is much less stressful for the bird and secondly, a bird that hasn’t been conditioned to wear apparel will chew a collar or barrier up quickly.  Even so, expect that your bird will chew on a barrier (as opposed to itself) until it gets used to it.

Some birds may require a barrier for life while others that haven’t habituated a picking habit may be taught that they get attention for safe behaviors like playing, talking, exploring etc.

Choosing a Bird Collar Feather Picking

 

Mild pickers may benefit from an Avian Fashions Feather Protector or a Safe and Soft Protector for mild pickers

http://www.birdsupplies.com/safe-n-soft-fleece-bird-collars-mild-pickers/

 

Moderate pickers may benefit from a Safe n Soft for Moderate pickers with several layers to preen and a stiffener installed

http://www.birdsupplies.com/safe-n-soft-fleece-bird-collars-moderate-pickers/

 

Aggressive pickers may need thick layers of preening material coupled with extremely tough inserts.  Please see Safe n Soft Bird Collars for Aggressive Pickers

 

A habituated self-mutilator may benefit from Saf-T Shield style collars made from stiff Lexan.  These collars are restrictive.

http://www.birdsupplies.com/saf-t-shield-bird-e-collar/

 

FEATHER GROWTH SUPPLEMENTS: 

Feather growth supplements used in conjunction with an avian specific multi-vitamin has been reported to be very helpful by a number of our customers.  Products like Featheriffic!, Nekton Bio and Morning Bird Feather Fast contain important skin soothing, feather growth formulations that support your birds health as it regrows feathers or under goes a molt. 

If your bird has been picking for a while, constant feather regeneration takes its toll on your bird’s nutritional status.  As feather follicles are damaged due to constant irritation, your bird’s skin becomes sensitive.  A vicious cycle of obsessively attending to selected areas may have developed.  Soothe your birds skin and affected areas with products like Aloe Vera Spray, Soother Spray, Soother Plus Cream, Rain Spray, or MediHoney. (http://www.birdsupplies.com/topical-creams-sprays/)

CALMING SUPPLEMENTS AND DRUG TREATMENT: 

Birds that are prone to anxious and obsessive behaviors are more disposed to becoming feather pickers.  Depending on the intensity of the feather picking, you may wish to implement prescription drug treatment to modify the behavior.  Two common drugs that avian veterinarians prescribe for pickers and mutilators are Clomipramine and Haloperidol. Naturopathic treatments such as Avicalm, Herbal and Relaxation Formula and Chamomile have been reported to be quite effective for mild to moderate pickers.

Keep in mind that using prescription drugs or calming treatments to modify picking does not address the underlying behavioral patterns that your bird has established.  We strongly suggest that you also implement proven behavioral modification techniques to train your parrot what behavior will get rewards and attention. Drugs nor barriers and e-collars alone will not completely eliminate a picking habit but will buy you time to establish new feather growth and train your bird while it is in a calmer, more compliant mood.

 

BEHAVIOR MODIFICATION:

A final and highly recommended use proven behavior modification techniques to modify your birds behavior.  Behavior modification requires you to do the following:

Analyze the “antecedent” issue (or the original issue) that triggers a picking or mutilating response.  Be as specific as possible.

Behavior:  What specifically was the birds immediate response.  For instance, did the bird immediately go to picking or mutilating or did it engage in a preliminary behavior to “warn” you of its anxiety or angst.

Consequence: What exactly did you do in response to the birds behavior and how did your bird react to it. 

Take data about the A-B-C behavioral pattern over the course of a week.  Try to identify patterns such as times, situations, your birds emotion that triggered picking, etc.   Imagine that you are a sensitive, emotional, yet very social animal

Strategy

Develop an FBA – Functional Behavior Analysis to determine what is causing your bird to pick.  It may be several reasons.

Functional Analysis for Bird Feather Picking

Date

Time

A – (Antecedent)

What specific activity or event occurred right before the behavior AND what specifically was your birds body language

B – (Behavior)

How, specifically, did your bird react

C – (Consequence)

What did you do immediately after the behavior; what was your reaction; what was the “reward” for the bird

D – Develop a plan

 

anytime

My bird picks

I run over and try to get it to stop

My bird thinks it will get attention if it picks so it does it more

I need to focus on rewarding the behavior I want to see which is playing, foraging, etc.

 

7:30am

I leave the house

My bird is scared when I’m away, i.e. separation anxiety

 

Separation anxiety is causing my bird to pick

I can do a couple of things –

Like help my bird feel less alone with voice or video recordings, keep it busy with foraging toys, offer calming medications, provide a protective barrier

 

7:00pm

A loved one pays attention to me

My bird picks and acts mean

My bird is hormonal

Learn what I may be doing to encourage Mating behavior,

Offer behavior modification techniques like Clicker Training for Birds to encourage my bird to self-entertain, cage my bird when friends are over, teach my bird that it will get attention and rewards when it is safely entertaining itself on its bird stand

 

8:00pm

My bird picks

I run over and cuddle it

My bird picks when it wants to go to sleep

Put my bird to bed in a dark, quiet area so it can get the 10-12 hrs. of sleep it needs

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ESCAPE/AVOID

Attention            Object/Person/Activity                 Sensory Stimulation

OBJECT/GAIN ACCESS TO

Attention            Object/Person/Activity                 Sensory Stimulation

             

 

Now, get really reflective:

  1. What patterns are you seeing in “A”? i.e. is picking precipitated by separation anxiety, another person entering the room,
  2. What are the precursor behaviors that indicate your bird is getting ready to pick, scream, bite?
  3. What is your reaction when your bird acts as though it is going to pick, scream, bite? How might your bird find your reaction to be rewarding?
  4. Reflect upon what the function of the behavior may be, i.e. escape/avoid or Gaining Access To Object or Person.
  5. What behaviors would you prefer to reward your bird for?

As you get more reflective about how you and your bird are interacting, what your bird motives and needs are, you’ll be able to knowledgably implement strategies that may work.  

References:

Athan, Mattie Sue. Guide to Companion Parrot Behavior, 2nd Edition. Baron’s Educational Series, 2010.

Baxter, Kelly and Lieberman, Mia.  Feather Picking in Parrots. UCDavis Veterinary Medicine. No Date.

Connectability.ca ABC Functional Assessment Card

Gallerstein, Gary A. The Complete Bird Owner’s Handbook. Macmillan Genera Reference, 1994.

Heidenreich, Barbara. Good Bird.  A Guide to Solving Behavioral Problems in Companion Parrots! Avian Publications, 2004.

Munro Doane, Bonnie and Qualkinbush, Thomas.  My Parrot, My Friend. Macmillan General Reference, 1994.

Sager, Tara DVM. Feather Picking and Self-Mutilation in Companion Birds.  Parrot Resource Centre, 2012.