Parrot Care - Feather Picking

Feather picking is one of the most dangerous conditions for a caged bird. Fortunately owners manage to discover this disease quite early, as it is very obvious. Other clinical conditions of caged birds are much less easy to detect, so that feather picking is very frequently discovered. In avian veterinary practice feather diseases are some of the most challenging conditions to diagnose and treat.

Many of us buy a bird because of its appearance, feather colors and vocal abilities or personality and most of the owners are perfectionists. But when a bird gets sick, it begins to pullout or mutilate its feathers, so that its appearance is not as attractive as it was when the owner purchased it. This is a great disappointment for a bird lover. Not everyone understands the real cause of feather picking on a bird and fewer people know what is to be done to help the bird behave normally.

Feathers and Preening

Feathers are for birds about the same as air for humans.They could not survive without them. Temperature regulation, protection against environmental and climatic extremes, not to forget flight, are only few of the functions which feathers have. They are even an important part of courtship, especially colorful feathers and selective erection of certain feathers.

This is the reason why caring for the feathers and paying attention to their health is crucial for a bird.

A bird grooms itself by what is called „preening”, using the beak to waterproof the feathers and remove sheaths through which all flight feathers emerge. They contour feathers located on the head using both their feet and their claws. Cage mates often preen each other or sometimes rub against objects to do this. Nevertheless preening must always be distinguished from any kind of feather picking or mutilation behavior.

What is Feather Picking?

Feather picking is defined by obsessive and destructive behavior of birds, as a result of which all or part of their feathers are damaged. This means that feathers are either pulled out, amputated or frayed. This kind of behavior may cause serious feather growth problems.

The physiologic process of feather loss is molting. This is because old, worn feathers must be replaced by other new ones. Molting occurs more often at some species of bird, varying as well along with other climatic and geographic factors. In warmer areas of the globe, caged birds drops a smaller number of feathers several times during the year and molt heavily 11 times a year. Remember that molting must always be considered as a total different thing from feather picking.

Feather picking is easily being diagnosed, as all sick birds have pretty much the same appearance. Birds never pick the head feathers, although they damage and mutilate other areas , such as skin below the neck. Head feathers look perfect because the bird cannot pick them itself, except for the times when a cage mate is also present, and it can do this job. Birds sharing the same cage sometimes preen each other, but when this behavior takes a different turn, it becomes feather picking. Thus, no part of the bird’s body is spared, as it can get help from the cage mate to pick its head feathers as well.

Causes of Feather Picking

The condition of feather picking has numerous causes, medical as well as non medical ones. Changes in hormone levels, external and internal parasites, malnutrition, internal disease, and bacterial or fungal infections of the skin and feather follicles are only few of the medical causes. Stress is the major non medical cause of this disease.

Wild birds don’t have this problem, as it generally is a condition of caged birds. Birds which live in the wild are too busy to survive and reproduct, so they don’t have any time to lose on feather picking. A special case is the one of the birds in zoos, which experience large amounts of stress because of captivity, malnutrition, solitary living, absence of a mate with which to fulfill courtship rituals and mating needs. Pet bird experience stress because of the noise in the home, confusion, the presence of other pets, such as dogs or cats, which represent potential predators to caged birds.

There is almost no difference between preening a feather by drawing it through the beak and doing this and then clamping down on the feather midway. This means that the bird actually cuts the feather in half or pulls it out, a process generally known as feather picking.

It is important to understand that birds are very much like people. They have habits, changes of habit or of their routines that can be sometimes stressful for a caged bird. This stress can usually cause the feather picking, which is an introverted and obsessive behavior. People must agree that this represents a condition, an extreme form of normal preening. A bird must care for its feathers and maintain them in good shape, but it must not exceed in the process of preening, as it can cause great damage to the feathers. The first category of birds include baby birds which don’t do a good job in learning the preening technique and frequency.
In conclusion, you should keep in mind the fact that captive birds that are continuously exposed to stress may easily develop the habit of feather picking. One must always pay attention to discover if normal preening has turned into this damaging condition.