FEATHER PLUCKING

Causes And Cures

by Jane Hallander

This article is reprinted from Grey Play Round Table, with permission from the author.


There's little to rival the helplessness and anxiety that parrot owners feel when they see their beloved companion bird pulling feathers out as if it were a terrible compulsion. Many times it's a bird that has been given the best of care that all of the sudden starts removing its feathers.

Feather mutilation comes in several different patterns. Some birds bite their feathers off at skin level, leaving nothing but broken feather shafts and down feathers. Others actually pull feathers out intact until they're down to bare skin. My own experience indicates the type of feather mutilation often correlates to the initial problem. For instance, a bird that needs more moisture is likely to bite feathers off in an effort to relieve itchy skin, rather than pull feathers.

There are numerous reasons parrots pluck or bite their feathers. The first consideration should always be physiological. While many parrots pluck due to environmental or behavioral problems, a trip to a good avian veterinarian to rule out health problems is a must, before contacting myself or another behaviorist. If a veterinarian has seen the bird and determined it is healthy, the next step is to look toward environmental or behavioral causes for the feather plucking or biting.

What I do is slightly different than most behaviorists, in that I first ask the bird telepathically why it plucks. After the parrot tells me the root of its plucking behavior, I then suggest environmental or behavioral modification - based on the cause or causes of the problem. I have had very good results with this method, since I know the cause of the problem literally from the parrot's mouth.

Environmental Causes of Feather Mutilation

Moving a bird to another location in the house can cause feather plucking. An outgoing, interactive bird resides in an area where it receives a lot of attention from people walking past its cage and is then moves to a quieter place, where it seldom interacts with its people may start plucking to get more attention. The reverse is also possible. A timid, shy parrot, who suddenly finds itself moved to a high traffic area of the house might start plucking out of nervousness. While we have to situations where moving the bird causes feather mutilation, the reasons for plucking are not the same. The outgoing, gregarious bird plucks for increased attention, while the timid parrot plucks because it is nervous about the increased activity around it. However, the cure is the same - move the parrot back to the area it was happy residing in.

Construction or home renovation work may also be a root cause of feather mutilation. Renown parrot behaviorist, Sally Blanchard, first brought to my attention the fact that construction vibrations disturb some parrots enough to make them start plucking or biting feathers. Sure enough, when I asked several Greys that started feather mutilating at the same time their owners' had home renovation work done, they sent visual pictures and emotions of disruption in their lives from the vibrations and sharp pounding noises. In these cases, I usually recommend the bird be housed away from the noise and vibrations of construction work.

Sometimes fear brought about due to an environmental change may cause feather mutilation and even phobia. One such Grey was housed in a room where workers were installing overhead track lighting. Not realizing that parrots are not yet domesticated animals and often fall back on their genetic and instinctive wild heritage, the owner left the bird in the room during the construction period. Thinking the men working over its head with long snake-like track lighting fixtures were the equivalent of urban raptors, this parrot not only started plucking, but also became phobic whenever in a room with track lighting. Again, removing the bird from the construction area until the work is finished is the way to avoid these problems.

Lack of sufficient moisture is another environmental cause of feather mutilation. Life in Africa is not a dry life. I've seen reports of rainfall up to 100 inches per year in areas inhabited by African Greys. When our birds are subjected to inadequate moisture, especially during winter months when heaters dry the air, they often develop itch, dry skin and start picking at it. Before long feathers are being pulled out and a habit forms. My Timneh, Jing, demands a spray shower at least twice a week and is brought into the bathroom on a mirror perch during my own daily shower to make sure she gets enough moisture. She loves her spay baths and fluffs her feathers and preens in the stream from my showers.

My final environmental feather plucking example is lack of sleep, especially in young birds. Parrots need at least eight to 10 hours of undisturbed sleep every night, with immature birds at least 10 hours of sleep time. Trying to sleep in a covered cage at eleven o'clock at night in a family room with the television on isn't undisturbed sleep. Parrots in the wild roost as soon as it gets dark and remain asleep until daybreak - often 10 to 12 hours. I've worked with several Greys who plucked simply because they were not getting enough sleep time. If you cannot put your bird to bed at a reasonable hour for adequate sleep time in its regular cage, get a smaller sleeping cage and put the bird in the sleeping cage in a quiet room at an early hour.

Behavioral Causes of Feather Mutilation

Although boredom is often listed as a prime cause of feather picking, a far more likely reason is that they are not getting enough focused attention. By focused attention I mean one-on-one person to parrot interaction - not you sit at the computer, while your parrot sits by itself on a perch next to you. While no one can spend all of their time entertaining their African Grey, they can certainly spare 10 minutes several times a day of focused interaction. Most parrots are extremely interactive animals and require stimulation from their owners for a stable mental life. If an intelligent animal, such as a Grey, is ignored, that same bird might start looking for focused attention any where it can find it. Unfortunately, feather mutilation is a sure fire way to get an owner's attention. Parrots are very much like neglected children, in that they'll take attention any way they can get it - by positive or negative means.

Parrots should have plenty of toys for mental stimulation in their cages while their owners are away. Keep those toys that you know your Grey likes in abundance in its cages. Good toys that keep a bird's mind off plucking are anything made out of wood, especially hand toys like Parrot's Treasures Fun Pops; small cardboard chewable toys, such as Fowl Play's Shortcuts; or mirrors, like Bell Plastics' Cube Mirror. I have found that a special dish for hand toys that hangs from one side of a cage is an excellent diversion for an inquisitive Grey.

I have known African Greys who literally hold their owners hostage by threatening feather plucking behavior. One comes to mind that wanted the new powder coated cage that had been purchased for the second bird in the household. The Grey owner had an even larger powder coated cage on order for the African Grey, but of course he didn't know that. So the Grey moved into the smaller bird's cage and refused to leave. When the owner approached to take him out, he calmly pulled out a tail feather and waved it in front of her. After three tail feathers were pulled and waved at her, she gave up, letting him keep the cage until his arrived.

Also looking for attention, some African Greys will start feather plucking if they feel insecure about other birds in their household. If the Grey perceives its bonded person paying too much attention to another bird, it may start plucking to bring the owner's attention back to it. Greys can be very competitive animals and will do anything to keep their owners' attention on them.

This leads us into secondary reasons for feather mutilation. Most people don't realize that there can be more than one reason their bird plucks or bites its feathers. What may have started from one reason can easily turn into a far more difficult problem when the bird realizes it can always get its owner's attention by plucking. I have seen many birds who continue plucking after the original reason to pluck has been resolved, simply because they know they'll get an attention reward. At that point their owners are completely in the dark about what might be causing their bird to pluck, since they can't relate the plucking behavior to any particular event.

The attention reward varies. Some people yell at their birds when they see them pluck feathers. Others walk up to the cage and tell the bird how pretty it is, hoping to praise it into stopping its plucking behavior. Some admonish the bird with a stern voice, while others become upset and concerned, allowing the bird to see their concern. Whether it's yelling or just thinking about the bird plucking, all are success stories to the bird who craves attention by pulling out its feathers.

My advice is simple. If the bird indicates to me that it's plucking feathers to gain attention, I tell the owner to turn around and walk out of the room when he or she sees the parrot pull or bite feathers. Not only must the owner leave the room, but he or she must think about something else. Remember, your mind is an open book to your parrot. Therefore, thinking about the bird plucking is still a reward to it. Many birds will only pluck when they see their owners watching them or when the person walks into the room, knowing the humans start worrying when they see the bird pull its feathers.

If your bird plucks to receive attention, you should increase the amount of attention paid to it in a focused attention manner. The parrot needs to learn that it will get attention for certain behaviors, however, not the plucking behavior. I tell my clients to transfer their praise and attention to something their bird does that isn't destructive, teaching the bird to use that positive behavior to ask for attention, rather than pulling its feathers. Simply removing attention from plucking by walking away or ignoring the feather mutilation is not enough. The bird still wants attention and will do whatever it needs to get that attention. Many Greys have cute tricks they do or phrases they say that please their owners. Deliberately rewarding these cute actions with praise and attention often teaches the bird to perform the cute act, rather than pick its feathers, for attention.

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