A healthy bird spends several hours a day preening and grooming its feathers. This is normal and is an essential activity that maintains the health and durability of those feathers. Lack of preening indicates a problem with your bird that should be addressed.
Pterotillomania, more commonly referred to as feather plucking, is not a normal avian activity. It is evidence of a physical or behavioral issue with the animal that needs to be investigated to ensure the long-term health of your bird.
If you detect your bird starting to engage in this self-destructive habit, you need to take action quickly. Once begun, this practice can be hard to break and lead to progressively worse plucking and possibly self-mutilation.
Why Do Birds Pluck Their Feathers?
According to Dr. Colin Walker, birds engage in feather plucking for a number of reasons and is a symptom that there is something wrong with your bird. Physical and psychological factors can lead to your bird developing this habit.
Physical factors include:
- Irritated feather follicles which will cause the bird discomfort. The bird then chews or pulls at the feathers to alleviate the irritation. The cause of the problem can be mites or cysts.
- Allergies to household irritants that result in itchy skin. Exposure to smoke, aerosol sprays, and other airborne contaminants can be harmful and lead to feather plucking. Rainforest parrots, such as macaws, can develop itchy skin due to conditions of low humidity.
- Hormonal problems such as hypothyroidism. This can lead to itchy skin and therefore to feather plucking.
- Internal disorders that cause pain or discomfort. Often the bird will chew at the painful area in the way we would rub ourselves with our hands to soothe discomfort. Tumors, cancers, and infections can lead to this type of problem.
- Heavy metal poisoning. Lead and zinc can enter the bird’s system through chewing on cage or toy wires and lead to obsessive feather plucking.
- Poor diet. As with many of the ailments that can negatively affect your bird, a substandard diet is often to blame. This can cause dry skin that can lead to plucking.
Psychological issues include:
- Stress and anxiety. We will look more closely at factors contributing to stress below, as this is one of the most prevalent causes of feather plucking in parrots.
- Boredom. In its natural environment, your parrot would be living in a world with abundant mental and physical stimulation. This may be absent from its captive home and lead to plucking due to boredom.
- Sexual frustration. This malady can cause feather plucking and can be exacerbated by the parrot’s over-bonding with its chosen human. You do not want your bird to see you as its mate.
- Neglect. Parrots are social creatures and need companionship. If left alone for long periods of time they will become depressed and may start plucking their feathers.
- Loneliness. Parrots are social animals and are not meant to live alone.
Here is a video of a macaw that is plucking:
Causes Of Stress In Your Parrot
As stated by the Drs Foster and Smith website, there are many potential agents of stress that can impact your parrot.
Your bird can become very stressed by being in close proximity to loud noises whether they are caused by humans or machines. Inconsistent feeding schedules and unpredictable levels of attention can cause anxiety.
Housing your bird in the wrong size cage, having unsteady perches or insufficient lighting can also be stressful. Sometimes rearranging the furniture in the bird’s room or moving it to a different room can be detrimental to its stress levels. Lack of mental stimulation or a new cage mate can also be problematic.
Unfortunately, not all sources of stress can be readily averted. Loss of a mate or owner and the addition of new family members or pets can be stressful to your captive parrot. These are often unavoidable consequences of life and offer no easy solution to your bird’s distress.
Another sign of stress to look out for are feather stress bars, which we have an entire guide dedicated to here.
How to Stop Feather Plucking
The fact that there are multiple causes of feather plucking often makes it challenging to determine why your bird is exhibiting this behavior. You should act when you first witness the behavior, as it can become an ingrained habit and be hard to break even if the underlying conditions are resolved.
The first course of action involves having your bird examined by your avian vet to see if there are any underlying physical conditions that are causing your bird to pluck. Hopefully, if a physical ailment or deficiency is found, it can be dealt with by medication, a change in diet or the use of vitamins and supplements. Sprays are available that can help with itchy skin.
Bird Mite and Lice Sprays
Environmental factors that are causing stress are usually able to be suitably addressed. When you first notice the problem, be aware of recent changes you have made to the bird’s living area. It may be a simple matter of returning its cage to the previously occupied area where the bird felt comfortable. Moving the bird to a quieter, well-lit area may also help.
You may need to purchase a new cage or some interesting toys for your bird. You should ensure that your parrot has access to a bird bath. Try to maintain consistency in the amount of time you spend with your parrot and with its feeding schedule. Keep other pets away from your bird if you suspect that this may be the source of its stress.
Parrot breeder Judy Leach offers some solutions for birds that will not stop plucking and are at the point of mutilating themselves. Using a collar to restrict the ability of the parrot to reach its feathers or a vest to protect its body are two possibilities if your parrot is damaging itself severely. Some of the collars and flightsuits we recommend to stop plucking include:
Bird Collars, Flightsuits and Vests
Though in some cases there is no solution, the good news is that in many instances, proper medical attention and environmental changes can result in the cessation of feather plucking. Here is a before and after video of a parrotlet that recovered after having its lonely life changed by getting a roommate: