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Feather Abuse in Parrots: Causes and Approaches to Resolution

by Pamela Clark

This article originally appeared in the Holistic Bird Newsletter

Articles written about the problem of feather abuse in parrots always seem to begin with a description of the problem, using adjectives such as "frustrating,” “disconcerting,” “difficult,” and “challenging,” among others. Feather abuse or “feather picking” as it is often called, is a tough problem to solve, and resolution is frequently elusive.  Further, there is no avian problem as capable of causing distress to the owner.  It is a painful experience to watch a beloved parrot companion destroy his own feathers.  Resolution of any feather picking case requires that a methodical and thorough approach be taken to the identification and correction of all contributing causes.


Owners often look for the cause for the feather abuse.  In reality, there are usually a few factors or problems that contribute to the behavior in any given case.  The instances of feather abuse in which there is only one cause are in the minority.  They include those in which one disease-related cause, such as Giardia, is present and treatment effects a complete resolution of the problem.  At the other end of the spectrum are those cases in which the young bird has had a poor early start to life and now lives in a home wherein enough stress exists to finally push him into abusing his own feathers.


In the vast majority of cases, however, a combination of causes is at work.  Poor nutrition is frequently implicated.  Chronic bacterial or fungal infection, such as Aspergillosis or Candida, is often present and has gone undetected.  Metal toxicity may be present.  Other contributing factors include environmental toxins, infrequent bathing, stress and anxiety, hormonal fluctuations, bacterial or fungal infections of the skin and/or feathers, reactions to specific foods, and more.  This is one of the reasons why many cases of feather abuse are never corrected.  If we look for just one cause, we run the risk of leaving undiscovered the other partial causes that are also contributing to the problem.


Historically, the avian veterinary community has believed that most feather picking is “behavioral.”  This term is used to imply that the bird is pre-disposed to picking by virtue of his “neurotic” or “nervous” personality.  Obviously, such a conviction on the part of a veterinarian will lead to a minimal level of testing in order to identify possible physical causes before the “diagnosis” is made that the problem is a behavioral one.  Only within the past several years have some of the most progressive avian vets in the country begun to take a closer look at the possible physical causes for feather picking and to give these more credibility.  Tammy Jenkins, DVM estimates that approximately 80% of feather picking cases have at least one underlying physical cause.  Thus, as she and her colleagues look more closely at such physical causes, our knowledge of them is growing more rapidly.


Accordingly, resolution of any feather picking case must begin with a thorough veterinary examination.  Just as necessary, is that the owner take an active interest in learning which tests are performed and what possible causes they are designed to rule out.  One of the first things I do, as a behavior consultant, when taking a feather picking case is to request that the veterinary records be faxed to me so that I can review them.  Every single client who has had a veterinary work-up prior to calling me has reported the same thing to me, almost to a word:  “The vet has done all the tests, and the bird is healthy.  It must be ‘behavioral’.”  However, what I have learned from reviewing many sets of records is that (1) never have all the tests been done, and further (2) veterinarians differ widely in terms of the amount of testing and types of testing they do before pronouncing a problem to be “behavioral.”


The veterinary records from five different cases on which I have worked within the last year will illustrate my point.  Below are listed the species of parrot and the testing completed.

¨      Green-winged Macaw - avian blood chemistry panel, complete blood count (CBC), fecal smear for parasites, culture and sensitivity, thyroid function test. 

¨      African Grey - avian blood chemistry panel, blood tests for Psittacine Beak and Feather Disease (PBFD), Polyoma Virus and Chlamydia. 

¨      Eclectus - avian blood chemistry panel, CBC, blood test for PBFD, culture and sensitivity, skin and feather biopsies. 

¨      African Grey - avian blood chemistry panel and CBC. 

¨      Cockatoo - blood test for Chlamydia, culture and sensitivity.


As you can see, the number and type of tests completed vary greatly among the five cases above.  Yet, at the completion of the testing listed above, each of these veterinarians indicated to the owners the opinion that the feather picking was “behavioral.” 


Thus, the well-informed owner, when hearing this “diagnosis,” will look further by getting either a second veterinary opinion or contacting a competent avian behavior consultant who is knowledgeable about the physical causes of feather picking and can provide some guidance as to what further testing might be indicated, if any.


Unfortunately, it is often at this juncture…when the problem is deemed to be “behavioral”…that medication is prescribed to the parrot.  These medications fall into two categories, those that target hormonal production and those that target the parrot’s mental state.  Medications that are routinely given to feather picking parrots for the regulation of hormone production include human chorionic gonadotropin (HCG), Lupron, Depo-provera, and progesterone, among others.  Medications given to help a bird that appears to be suffering anxiety and stress include Prozac, Haldol, and Elavil, among others. 


Frequently, a thorough history taken from the client will indicate the appropriateness of further veterinary testing.  Another reason that so many cases of feather abuse are never resolved is because a thorough history from the client is never compared against the veterinary testing already completed.  In some cases, the information provided about husbandry methods does point to the need for further testing.  For example, if corncob bedding has been used for an extended period and has not been changed daily and the feather picking bird is an African Grey, testing for Aspergillosis may well be advisable.  Corncob bedding is a fertile growing medium for the Aspergillus fungus.


In some cases, a bird’s behavior when picking and the areas of the body upon which he feather picks will suggest further testing.  For example, a bird that acts “itchy” and “agitated,” who interrupts eating and playing with toys to pull out feathers, or who vocalizes when removing feathers, should have a Giardia test.  Giardia is an intestinal parasite that appears to be more common among parrots than has been thought in the past. 


Joe and Debbie Arbogast have, in cooperation with their veterinarian and a reputable laboratory, been offering a Giardia screening clinic at their website, www.birdsafe.com, now for over a year. Their motivation for doing so has come from their own experiences with feather picking birds that suffered from giardiasis.  Mr. Arbogast, having recently compiled the figures from the last year, has found that approximately 18% of feather picking birds tested through this clinic had positive test results.  This figure is even higher for conures.  Further, since false negative results are common, it would appear that the incidence might be even higher than these figures reflect. 


It has long been believed within the veterinary community that larger parrots rarely have Giardia, although it has been acknowledged for some time now that approximately 75% of cockatiels carry this parasite. It is also quite common in budgerigars, lovebirds and Grey-cheeked Parakeets.  Because of Mr. Arbogast’s work, I have become convinced that any feather picking bird should have a fecal trichrome test, wherein the owner collects the samples over the course of three consecutive days. 


Once it has been determined that no further veterinary testing is immediately warranted, or any indicated testing has been completed, all other aspects of the parrot’s care must be examined.  If I had to name the second most frequently contributing cause to feather picking, aside from disease-related reasons, I would have to say it is diet.  Several aspects of the diet can be implicated in feather picking cases. 


Some birds do react to certain foods by abusing their feathers.  The species in which I have personally found this to be a cause for feather abuse include Green-winged, Blue and Gold, and Scarlet Macaws, Eclectus, parrotlets and African Greys.  Whether these birds are truly experiencing an allergic reaction, or simply have a hypersensitivity to a particular food, is unknown.  However, when the offending food is removed from the diet, the problem improves or resolves completely.  Reactions occur to synthetic food dyes, preservatives, individual foods themselves, and/or to the “pesticide load” some foods carry.


In other cases in which diet is implicated, feather picking may occur due to a shortage or deficiency of certain nutrients.  A deficiency of enzymes and/or essential fatty acids in the diet will contribute to feather abuse.  This most often occurs when more than 50% of the diet is comprised of cooked or manufactured foods in which these nutrients have been destroyed.  Improvement can be seen when the amount and variety of fresh, live foods are increased.  In some cases, supplementation with essential fatty acids is beneficial.  Calcium deficiency can play a role in feather picking in African Greys.


A thorough discussion of the many ways in which diet can contribute to feather picking is not within the scope of this article.  For more information, please refer to The Not-So-Hidden-Link between Diet and Behavior. 


I do believe that “stress” also plays a role in most feather picking cases, given the fact that our parrots are asked to live a life-style that is vastly different from the one they would enjoy in the wild.  In this context, the word “stress” must carry a broad definition.  Both social and environmental factors can contribute to stress and anxiety in captive parrots, as can a stifled reproductive drive or a heavy molt in some birds. 


Certain social factors can either cause or contribute to a feather picking problem.  Parrots are creatures to whom the health, both physical and emotional, of the flock carries great importance. 
In captivity, many rather subtle aspects of the "social climate" can create stress for parrots,
and either contribute to or be the sole cause for feather picking.


The manner in which a parrot chick is reared can be a predisposing factor to feather picking in some species. African Greys, for instance, tend to internalize anxiety.  They do not recover emotionally from difficult experiences the way that Amazons and some of the other New World birds do.  The practices of deprivation weaning wherein a parrot chick is weaned as early as possible in order to be sold, and clipping the chick's wings before it has had a chance to fledge and learn to fly, both contribute to creating a "personality profile" that is often more likely to feather pick in less than optimal circumstances later on. Such babies enter life in captivity at a
disadvantage, with residual anxiety from being hungry, and/or physical uncertainly from not having attained their true measure of physical development.

Another social situation, if it occurs early in a parrot's life, can also be the precipitating event to a feather picking problem. This happens most often with African Greys, and has become widely recognized among behavioral consultants as a cause of plucking. This occurs when the owner goes on vacation during the first year of a baby Grey's life. I don't think anyone really knows for sure why this happens so often with Greys and not other species, or why in the first year and not afterward.  However, there have been many owners who went on vacation during their baby Grey's first 12 to 18 months, and came home to a bird with fewer feathers.  Greys seem to need a longer period of time in their new homes to form a very secure bond before they can psychologically withstand the stress of their owner's departure.


The manner in which the owner socialized a young Grey will often determine the likelihood that the bird will feather pick later due to stress.  Many owners have a tendency to shield their Greys from anything new or uncomfortable, since these birds have developed a reputation for being “nervous.”  The impact of this tendency is to prevent the parrot from developing the skills necessary to deal with new things or experiences.  The bird’s experience is narrowed to the point where anything out of the ordinary is capable of causing anxiety that results in the pulling of feathers.

Another factor that frequently contributes to feather picking has to do with waiting.  This tends to impact parrots that are anxious in general, or who do not have good eating skills, and occurs most frequently in the morning. We often hear the advice that parrots need 10 to 12 hours of uninterrupted sleep each night. What is not usually mentioned is that they also have a need to get up early. Most parrots, even if covered, will still wake up as soon as some light creeps under their cage covers.  If the owner needs to sleep in, the parrot is often faced with hours of solitude and hunger as it awaits the opportunity to be uncovered and fed. Parrots that feather pick often choose these early morning hours to work on their feathers. In such cases, every effort must be made to get the parrot up and out of the cage earlier in the morning and to give him something to eat right away.


The latter is very important with any feather picking parrot that was weaned too early. Anxieties certainly exacerbate picking problems and any parrot weaned too early or who was deprivation weaned will become more anxious when hungry. It can help in such cases to make sure that there is a supply of food available in the cage for that early morning period before breakfast is served.

Bird rooms can cause problems for some parrots. These have become quite popular because they allow a family to have several parrots, and yet confine the mess to one room. Many parrots do well in bird rooms...but many do not.  First, African Greys are rarely as happy in a bird room as they will be if located in the family's living area. Greys maintain a close psychic connection to their human flock and do not like to be isolated away from the family's goings on.

Second, birds that are subject to stress can have problems in a bird room if there are too many parrots in the room. Having the cages closer together than five or six feet can result in additional stress for an already anxious parrot.  Some parrots will psychologically harass others out of a sense of territoriality.  I realize that this sounds unlikely, but it occurs quite often. Parrots can take a dislike to one another the same way that humans can.  Being forced to live in one room with more than a comfortable number of other parrots may result or contribute to feather picking.

Another factor in some feather picking cases is the emotional "make-up" of the owner, or the social climate of the home. Some feather picking parrots are merely the "symptom bearers" of an unhappy household or a neurotic individual. Excessive animosity, ongoing tension or frequent arguing will all create stress for a parrot who intuitively senses that something is wrong.
We must remember that parrots are extremely social, flock oriented creatures. In the wild, separation from the flock, or problems with flock members, can spell death for a parrot. Instinctively they know this, whether they are still in the wild or living in our homes. Thus, tension in the household, if it goes on too long, will put a parrot psychologically on "red alert."

Similarly, a single owner that is chronically stressed, unhappy, or tense conveys a message to a parrot that is similarly interpreted as, "Something is wrong here and it might mean that I'm in danger!" I once had a client with a feather picking Grey who confided to me that she has never felt safe in the world. Having come from abusive circumstances, she had good reason to feel this way. However, this fear had taken over to the point where she felt constantly in danger and reacted to the slightest change in routine with increased anxiety. Her constant state of anxiety was creating problems for her African Grey.

Some parrots suffer from separation anxiety and will do most of their feather picking during the first 30 minutes after the owner leaves for work. In such cases, it can sometimes help to give the bird a shower just prior to the owner's departure.  This helps to take the bird’s mind off of the emptiness of the house and onto fixing his feathers.

Once feather picking starts, the owner's reaction to the onset can be deleterious. It is understandable that the owner would become upset, but this must be dealt with in a productive way. Some people give their parrots attention when they observe them picking, in a misguided attempt to stop the behavior.  If the parrot interprets this attention as a reward, the picking behavior can actually be strengthened and reinforced, particularly if the bird is hungry for attention.  

Other owners almost completely change their behavior toward the parrot that starts to pick. A vicious cycle develops in these cases. The bird starts to feather pick a little, and the owner gets upset enough that she changes her behavior toward the bird. This frightens and stresses the bird even more and he picks more. This causes further behavioral changes in the owner, which causes more plucking.


In still other cases, the owner is not only upset about the problem, but focuses so much attention on the parrot and this problem behavior that the bird's feather picking is actually made worse.  Many owners will count the number of feathers pulled each day, or store them in a jar.  They constantly watch the bird in order to try to prevent the behavior.  In the wild, parrots do not place such an intense focus upon each other.  It is only predators that focus this intently upon their prey, waiting for the perfect moment to strike.  Since parrots are still largely instinctive creatures, this type of intensity on the owner’s part can increase the parrot’s anxiety.  Owners are always well advised to take a more relaxed approach to the problem. It is normal to feel stress over the problem, but try to banish this when interacting with the parrot and do not count feathers.


Environmental factors often play a role in the creation or the resolution of a feather picking problem. These include cage placement and location, frequency of bathing, substances that get on the feathers themselves, inhaled toxins, ingested metals, and full spectrum lighting. 


The location of the cage can have a huge impact upon a parrot’s sense of security.  If the cage is in front of a window, this can afford the bird a profound sense of vulnerability.  Parrots, if alone in the wild, do not normally perch in a location where they are highly visible.  In order to feel secure, parrots need the conviction, the absolute knowledge, of physical and psychological safety. Often a parrot will live quite happily in front of a window until the day that a juvenile hawk perches outside staring at him, or a wild bird slams into the window, and from that day forward the window itself is perceived as a threatening aspect of the environment. In such cases, it can help to shift the cage slightly to the side, so that only half of the cage is in front of the window, and a wall shields the other half.  That way, the bird has a choice and can move from a place of exposure to a place of "hiding." 


New additions or changes to the physical environment can create enough stress for a parrot that feather picking begins or increases. The installation of overhead track lighting, large screen televisions, large aquariums, and large pictures or fabrics hung on walls hear their cage have all been implicated in cases of feather abuse. 


Foreign substances that get on a parrot’s feathers can instigate plucking.  Feathers are critical to a parrot's survival - they are sensitive about the health of their feathers.  Behavior consultant Sally Blanchard often describes a case that involved a feather plucking cockatoo. This bird and his owner sat together every day watching television.  The owner usually ate potato chips as he did so. He would have a chip, and pet his bird...have a chip, and pet his bird...have a chip, and pet his bird. The resulting load of grease on the bird's feathers caused him to remove them in a frantic attempt to "clean" himself.


In yet another case, an African Grey was brought into the shower each day and placed on the floor of the cubicle while the owner shampooed and soaped herself. After she rinsed herself off, she would also spray him lightly.  Just enough of the soap products were staying on his feathers to cause him to begin to pick on his back. Anything that gets on the feathers, including nicotine from the hands of a smoker, can be an instigating factor in feather abusive behavior.  Frequent hand washing is a good practice to get into if you are frequently handling your parrots. 

Brian Speer, DVM, agrees that lotions and other substances on an owner's hands can be the cause of feather picking.   (He has suggested that owners dip their hands in cornstarch before petting any "powder" birds they might have, such as cockatoos, Greys, and cockatiels.) One of his ongoing concerns is that such substances will actually cause fungal growth on the feathers - not just on the skin - and that this can cause a real inducement to feather picking. He often prescribes a medicated shampoo, Pyoben, which contains 3% benzoyl peroxide and has antimicrobial, keratolytic and follicular-flushing properties.


Inhaled toxins or other substances can contribute to feather abuse.  Parrots have very sensitive, delicate respiratory systems that cannot deal with many of the airborne substances routine to life in captivity. Smoke, either cigarette or marijuana smoke, will contribute to and/or be the sole cause of feather picking. The presence of smoke can either cause a problem directly, or can so damage the air sacs that the parrot succumbs to a chronic infection of the air sacs such as aspergillosis.  A few parrots have even been reported to react with plucking to the smell of smoke on a human’s clothing.


It is believed that some of the powdered products sold for freshening carpeting, air fresheners, scented candles and similar products with a strong odor can also be contributory to feather picking.  To date, I remain unaware of any instances in which the correlation between such substances and a feather picking problem has been proven, although anecdotal information is quite persuasive. It makes good sense to eliminate the use of these if you have a parrot that plucks or chews his feathers.


Carbon monoxide in the environment has caused feather picking. Behavior consultant Liz Wilson once discussed while lecturing a case in which a pair of macaws housed indoors feather plucked themselves to the point of nakedness. The cause remained a mystery until it was discovered that they were housed in a room located over the garage. Just enough carbon monoxide was making its way upward into the house that the macaws were adversely affected.


Airborne dust from other species of birds can be a problem for some macaws, which are housed in the same enclosed space as cockatoos.  The presence of other “powder” birds, such as Greys and cockatiels, could also be a problem, but it appears that most problems occur when cockatoos and macaws are roommates.


Lack of sleep can contribute to a feather picking problem. I live with a diverse population of parrots, and species do differ in terms of the number of hours of sleep needed.  Generally speaking, Central and South American parrots are happiest when getting a full 10 to 12 hours of darkness and uninterrupted rest.  African Greys, once mature, frequently need fewer hours of sleep than this.  This is substantiated by the fact that they have been observed in the wild flying well after darkness has settled.  Some cockatoo species, among them the Goffin’s, do better if allowed to stay awake longer in the evenings.


High zinc or lead levels in the bloodstream have been recognized as causing feather abusive behavior.  These metals enter the parrot’s digestive tract when the bird mouths certain items.  Most of the cases of metal toxicity of which I hear concern cockatoos, who are exceptionally “beaky” birds by nature and are often fascinated by metal objects. 


Zinc is present in many forms in the parrot’s environment. Many of the fasteners used to hold toys to the cage are galvanized metal, which is coated with zinc.  Bells on toys can contain zinc.  The powder coating on some of the less expensive cages has been shown to contain zinc. One feather picking Umbrella Cockatoo who exhibited very high levels of zinc in his blood had a habit of drinking from the bathroom faucet.  While doing so, he would scrape the inside of the fixture with his beak.


The most frequently cited sources for lead toxicity include the leading on stained glass windows and other items.  This is quite soft and readily yields to the pressure of a curious beak.  The small seed beads used to make jewelry often contain lead.  Some parrots have increased levels of lead from ingesting the weights that are placed in the bottom hem of draperies.


Some feather picking problems appear to have been improved by the provision of full spectrum lighting or an outdoor aviary.  It is unclear at this point as to why such improvement occurs.  Possibilities include better absorption of calcium due to higher levels of vitamin D3, or simply the stimulation provided by better lighting.

Although I do not see this as frequently as I do other causes, there are times with certain individuals when feather picking will be associated with either a heavy molt or hormonal fluctuations. I've seen this especially with Goffin's Cockatoos, but it also occurs with other species as well. It should not be too difficult to determine whether the feather picking your bird is doing is associated with a molt or hormonal surges.

For one thing, timing is important. Most parrots will molt prior to breeding. If your bird is feather picking due to a molt, you should see the picking decrease once the molt is completed and all new feathers have lost their sheaths. In addition, it most likely will not occur again with the next molt. When feather picking does occur due to a molt, this often is an isolated instance. It may be the parrot's first molt, or an especially hard molt, which leaves him more uncomfortable than usual. Rarely, however, will the same parrot engage in feather picking every time he molts.


Some parrots engage in feather abuse during especially hormonal periods.  With some species, these are signaled by increased aggression and noise as well. In order to determine whether hormonal fluctuations are a factor in a parrot’s plucking, it can help to keep a diary of feather picking behavior. Unlike picking that may occur due to a heavy molt, hormonally related feather picking will usually occur in a cyclic fashion every year when breeding season arrives.  The parrot often then returns to a completely feathered state once breeding season has ended. 


As was mentioned above, veterinarians will frequently suggest medication for a feather picking parrot, especially when hormonal reasons are suspected as the cause.  In some cases, it has been suggested to the owner that they should either place their parrot in a breeding situation, or resort to such medication, neither of which is advisable in my opinion.  Avian Medicine: Principles and Application by Ritchie, Harrison and Harrison reports:  "Occasionally, a bird will self-mutilate as a result of sexual frustration. Some of these birds will stop mutilating when placed in a breeding situation; however, others will continue self-mutilation activities and may also over-preen a mate. Assuming that idiopathic self-mutilation is a result of some undetectable neurosis, it would be considered unwise for these birds to be added to a breeding collection where they may pass on genes that will predispose their progeny to the same problem." (The authors are referring to feather-picking when using the term "self-mutilation" and are not specifically referring to episodes wherein the bird bloodies himself.)


Regarding medications for this problem, the authors go on to say, "...Mood-altering drugs that have been suggested for use in feather-picking birds include tricyclic antidepressants and antihistamines.... These therapeutic agents are frequently discussed but are rarely effective. Hormonal therapies including thyroxine, testosterone and medroxyprogesterone have also been
suggested for some cases of feather-picking; however, all of these agents have undesirable side-effects and should be used only to treat specifically identified problems."


In his discussion of the subject in Holistic Care for Birds, author David McCluggage, DVM writes:  "Western medicine may treat these seasonal pluckers with hormonal therapies and tranquilizers. Some hormonal therapies are relatively safe, like chorionic gonadotropin (HCG), while others are very dangerous, and the progesterone, testosterone, and estrogen therapies fall into this category. Drugging a bird for an essentially normal behavior is somewhat troublesome.
Only rarely the use of what we call psychoactive drugs (such as Prozac) are used for the same reason. Other therapies employed include a variety of tranquilizers, which have proven ineffective in my experience."


Working through a thorough examination of all the possible causes for feather picking in a given case, and correcting any problems found, can take months.  However, in the majority of cases with which I deal, patience and persistence pays off and the parrot becomes feathered again. 


This is not the case, however, in a certain percentage.  However, even then, there are measures that can be taken.  Mr. Arbogast relates his positive personal experience of treating a feather picking parrot for Giardia, even in the absence of a positive test result.  This is not an infrequent outcome.  In a certain percentage of cases, treatment through a veterinarian with metronidazole (brand name Flagyl) causes resolution of the problem even when serial Giardia tests have yielded a negative result.  It is never known whether the parrot did in fact have Giardia, or whether another parasite such as Cryptosporidium was implicated, or any one of several strains of anaerobic bacteria, all of which are killed by this medication. 


In still other cases, a strict elimination diet, which identifies any foods to which the parrot reacts, can prove to be the final action that brings resolution of the problem. 


The cases that often do not resolve completely are those in which anxiety and/or stress play a heavy role.  Unfortunately, it is not that easy for humans to change lifelong behavior patterns, even if they are causing problems for a companion parrot.  However, even in such cases, improvement is often seen when behavior modification techniques are employed, the bird is provided with an outdoor aviary in which to relax and play away from human influence, and techniques to reduce the bird’s stress are implemented.


 Agnes E. Rupley, DVM. Manual of Avian Practice

Branson Ritchie, DVM, Greg Harrison, DVM and Linda R. Harrison.  Avian Medicine: Principles and Application

David McCluggage, DVM.  Holistic Care for Birds

Personal communications, Brian Speer, DVM, 2000

Personal communications, Joe Arbogast, 2001

Personal communications, Tammy Jenkins, DVM, 1999

Copyright Pamela Clark May 2002. All rights reserved. Parts or whole may not be reprinted without express written permission of the author.

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