In Fine Feather...  

If your parrot is a paranoid feather plucker and resembles a feather duster with an identity crisis then you will want to know what causes feather plucking and what can you do about it. Recent advances in the treatment of this complicated condition are included below.

What Causes Feather Plucking?

Feather plucking can be caused by diseases or by psychological factors.
Diseases implicated include any type of dermatitis. External parasites such as lice and mites can also be relevant. An inadequate diet is often a factor as are diseases of the internal organs, and intestinal parasites particularly Giardia can be the problem.

Recent studies in Australia have determined that skin allergies may have cause feather plucking. Bird vets are doing intradermal skin tests (as doctors do with humans suffering allergies) to determine what environmental and food allergens birds react to.  

 Recent studies in Australia have determined that skin allergies may have cause feather plucking.

Early results show that the fungus, Aspergillus (which often contaminates seeds) could be an important component of the problem. This is supported by the fact that many birds improve when placed onto pelleted diets which not only provide good nutrition, but also eliminate the any contamination with the Aspergillus fungus. In Australia, the Eclectus parrot seems to be particularly sensitive to this fungus. This species is often allergic to sunflower seeds as well.

Psychological problems are a common cause. Peck-order-politics occur when birds are incompatible with their cage mates with the resulting stress causes self-mutilation. Sexual frustration is a common cause too, especially if a bird is living with another that does not consider 'Pretty Polly' to be adequate foreplay!

Boredom is a very common cause. This is especially so if the bird is in a small cage with nothing to entertain it. Feather plucking can also be caused by changes in the bird's environment, if the bird regards the changes as stressful, and by anything that induces fear and some birds also have a Separation Anxiety which occurs when it wants to be with its owners continually.

Feather plucking is a form of self mutilation and many bird experts think it is equivalent to an obsessive-compulsive psychological disorder.

What Can be Done to Reduce Feather Plucking?

If a disease is causing the underlying problem this must be correctly diagnosed and treated if the feather plucking is to be reduced.

Regretfully, while disease can be eliminated, the habit may persist. Your veterinarian should examine your bird to decide if any of the above diseases could be a cause.

If the bird is with others in an aviary, look for incompatibility between it and other birds.
Is your bird's diet adequate? While its ration may be balanced, containing a variety of seeds, you may have a picky parrot that will only eat one type of seed in the mix. Thus, it may not be eating a balanced diet. Look for pelleted diets such as Nutriberries or Avicakes at your local veterinary surgery or pet shop. They are a uniform blend of essential seeds with added vitamins, minerals and carbohydrates, and with minimal levels of the Aspergillus fungus. Birds love them and they provide a balanced diet.

Change the bird's environment too to alleviate boredom. Change the location of the cage and ensure the cage is big enough. If in doubt, make it bigger. Put the cage is a 'busy' location in your home so that household activity stimulates your bird regularly.

Providing toys for the bird is important. Branches of safe native trees placed in the cage are a natural and easy way to provide toys. Your bird will play with these and will rip them to pieces, making a glorious mess in its cage that you will have to clean up - but at least that gives you more interaction time! Corn cobs, fresh peanuts in their shell and even bones are often effective as they give your bird something else to pick. A stainless steel mirror is useful. Provide a hollow log to nest in too.

Some folk have found that leaving a radio or television on is effective in alleviating boredom.

What about trying to discipline your bird when you see it plucking? This is a dangerous territory. The behaviour is very likely to be stress-induced. Adding more stress is likely to worsen the problem.

If you can distract your bird so that it does not realise you are the source of the distraction then you may have effect. Distraction should occur as soon as your bird starts to pluck its feathers. Once distracted, you can enter the scene and praise your bird for not plucking its feathers.

A very useful method of distraction is to use a remote activated door bell available from all hardware stores and supermarkets. Place the door bell next to your bird's cage. Conceal the door bell button in your hand. As soon as your bird plucks, ring the door bell to distract it.

If it stops, wait for a few seconds, then go to the cage and reward this non-plucking behaviour. If you are successful, gradually increase the time between the door chime and your reward for the cessation of the non-plucking behaviour.

If necessary, medication may help. There are a variety of new medications Veterinarians are starting to use for domestic pet behaviours. Some are particularly useful for obsessive compulsive disorders in pets and show promise for feather plucking parrots. For more information, consult your veterinarian.