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.
Feather plucking is NOT a normal avian activity. This is when a bird will remove entire feathers from its body so much so that you’ll be able to see parts of its skin. This is very different from the molting that occurs naturally in birds. 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. Sometimes feather plucking gets called pterotillomania.
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?
Birds engage in feather plucking for many different reasons and but in general, these reasons can be split into either physical or psychological factors:
Physical Reasons for Feather Plucking
If a bird’s skin or feather follicles become infected then it will cause the bird a lot of irritation. The bird will scratch, pull out feathers and chew at the skin to soothe the issue. These can sometimes develop into feather cysts.
A lot of everyday household items can cause allergies in birds. Things such as air fresheners, deodorant sprays, smoke and certain types of cooking may cause an allergy in the bird.
These can host a range of different potential problems and so you need to ensure you have proper cleaning routines as listed here.
A number of different bugs and microscopic insects can latch onto your bird’s skin causing irritation. Some of these include:
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.
Lack of space to exercise
Just like in humans, a lack of exercise opportunities can lead to depression in birds and so they need to be provided with ample space to move around.
Hypothyroidism in birds can lead to itchy skin and therefore to feather plucking.
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
If your bird has a powerful beak then it may chew the wires of its cage. If these are made from lead or zinc then these metals may enter the bird’s bloodstream and cause feather plucking.
If your parrot originally comes from the rainforest (such as a macaw), then it may develop itchy skin due to conditions of low humidity.
Other environmental conditions
Check that your bird has access to full spectrum/natural lighting with cycles and a well-ventilated room with good airflow.
Psychological Reasons for Feather Plucking
Stress and anxiety
This is the number one cause of psychological reasons for feather plucking. Look at the bird and it’s environment to consider what might be causing it stress. Did your bird lose a mate or family member recently? Are there loud noises happening near the bird all day long? Does the bird get enough attention?
Most parrots are social species of animal that live in flocks. Keeping a bird on its own all day long can be very damaging to its psychology and so they will feather pluck in frustration.
If you keep your bird in an empty cage with no toys, ladders or swings then they will simply be bored and so start plucking their feathers as something to do. Things such as foraging toys will provide stimulation for your bird.
Not allowing your bird out of its cage to have a short amount of flight and to stretch its wings.
If you wake up your bird at random hours of the day and night then this can stress them out and so they begin to pluck as a form of self-soothing.
This malady can cause feather plucking and can be exacerbated by the parrot’s overbonding with its chosen human. You do not want your bird to see you as its mate.
This video explains some further information about feather plucking:
How to Stop Feather Plucking in 7 Steps
There are many reasons for feather plucking and so coming up with a solution can be quite difficult. However, it is key to act fast if you see this behavior developing. If not, then feather plucking may turn into a habit which will be difficult to unlearn. Below is a checklist of steps we recommend going through:
1. Take the bird to an avian vet
This is done so you can rule out the physical issues that might be causing a problem. They may examine the blood or skin of the bird and recommend changing the diet or providing vitamins and minerals. A medication or spray might even be recommended. However, an avian vet won’t be able to alleviate the stress of the bird – for this you’ll need to identify why your bird is stressed and then implement some changes.
2. Provide a bird bath and bathing opportunities
Birds like to clean and wash themselves just as humans do. Make it a weekly habit to provide your bird with a warm shower. Also buy a small bird bath to place in the cage so your bird can clean themselves. Find out more about how to do this in our dedicated guide here.
3. Give a lot of attention or another bird companion
Plenty of “out of the cage” time and interaction with you and your family members should be provided. However, if you’re too busy then as an alternative you should ensure that your bird has a companion or friend that they are housed with which will promote the well-being of both birds.
4. Get a larger cage
Simply housing your bird in too small of a cage can stress the bird out. Upgrading the size of your cage and allowing a short amount of flight for the bird may simply fix the issue. See our full guide to recommended cages here.
5. Create a more fun environment
You don’t want the inside of the cage to be barren and boring. Provide toys, perches, foraging opportunities, swings and shreddable toys. Your bird will love all of these and become happier.
6. Use feather plucking prevention items
You should first address the underlying cause which may be causing the feather plucking. But in the meantime, to prevent habit forming you may consider some of these temporary solutions.
Using a collar will restrict the ability of the parrot to reach its feathers, however this can also make it difficult for your bird to feed itself and use it’s beak and can make the animal more clumsy.
Avian flight suits
These bird flight suits don’t provide as much protection against plucking as a bird collar does because the bird will still be able to access parts of its wings and leg feathers. However, they do still allow the bird to eat and do not reduce their mobility. Some avian flight suits we recommend include:
These sprays are used for parrots that have skin irritation and underlying physical reasons that are causing the plucking.
Bird mite and lice sprays
7. Change environmental conditions
Check all of the following environment conditions which could be affecting feather plucking:
- Provide access to natural sunlight with full spectrum avian lighting.
- Make sure the room is well ventilated with an air purifier for birds.
- Check the humidity levels in the room of the bird.
- Reduce any noises that might cause stress the bird with sound proofing.
- Ensure other pets such as cats and dogs are not kept near the bird when you’re not around see here.
Parrot Species that Pluck
The following is a list of parrot species that are known to be frequent pluckers and so if you own one of these keep an extra eye out for this behavior:
- African Greys
Do Feathers Grow Back After Plucking?
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:
Dr. Colin Walker
Drs Foster and Smith website
Post Updated: 2019-05-27