Feather Plucking: Why Does my Parrot Pluck its Feathers?

Feather plucking in macaw parrot

Does your parrot pull out its feathers? Are you concerned about self mutilation in your pet parrot? Feather plucking is a common behavioral problem amongst captive birds, and can be caused by a number of different factors. Lets look at few of the most common causes.

Types of Self Mutilation in Parrots

Feather plucking is fairly common in pet parrots, and particularly so in African Grey parrots, Cockatoos, and Macaws. This should not be confused with molting, which is the normal healthy shedding of old feathers to make way for new. There are various degrees of self mutilation in parrots, including feather picking, feather plucking, and biting at the skin.

Feather picking african grey

    • Feather picking is when the bird picks at its feathers, breaking the feathers off, resulting in a tatty looking bird as seen in the image above.
    • Feather plucking is when the bird pulls the feathers out of the follicle, exposing bare patches of skin as seen in the image below.
    • In extreme cases of self mutilation, the bird actually bites at its own skin, causing skin lesions that can lead to bacterial infection or severe bleeding; both of which can be life threatening.

Cacatua moluccensis -feather plucked pet in Canada-8a

Common Causes of Feather Plucking in Parrots

Self mutilation can be caused by a number of factors, which may be either physiological or psychological. Physiological factors usually stem from health issues with the bird, and can be associated with poor diet or malnutrition, lice or skin mites, toxins or allergies. Psychological factors such as boredom, loneliness, stress and anxiety may also trigger behavioral problems in African Greys, such as feather plucking.

Because feather plucking can stem from a number of causes, it is advisable to get a self mutilating pet bird examined by an avian veterinarian to assess the cause, so that the correct treatment can be given to prevent the behavior from progressing further. This will usually entail the bird having a complete physical examination to look for signs of parasites or skin infection, and a blood sample taken for a complete blood test to be conducted in a laboratory. A parrot that begins feather plucking due to an underlying health issue may continue to self mutilate even after the health issue has been attended to, as it can become an extremely difficult habit to break. In a case such as this, while the bird may have started off feather plucking for physiological reasons, this has later developed into a psychological condition, which is much harder to resolve.

Malnutrition & Diet

According to avian veterinarian Dr Ron Hines, malnutrition stemming from a seed-only diet is responsible for the highest number of feather plucking cases. A diet rich in sunflower seeds is high in fat and does not contain sufficient vitamin A or protein; essential for maintaining healthy skin and feather condition. These deficiencies lead to problems molting, resulting in birds grooming extensively, eventually destroying their plumage or pulling their feathers out. The only remedy is to switch from a predominantly seed diet to a balanced, high quality commercial pelleted food, supplemented with fresh fruit and vegetables. However, this needs to be done gradually to allow the bird to become accustomed to the new diet in order to prevent other complications.

External Parasites

While external parasites are not very common in parrots, if present, they may cause an irritation that could result in excessive preening or feather pulling. If the vet finds external parasites such as mites or lice on the bird, treatment may include a prescription of ivomectin, administered orally to kill the parasites from within, and/or an avian-safe insecticide powder or spray to combat the infestation externally.

Environmental Factors

You need to take a good look at the environment your parrot is being housed in. Is there too much noise and disturbance? Does he get enough sleep or do you keep him up till late at night socializing? Is he kept awake with lights on all around his cage and disturbed by the noise of a TV? This kind of disturbance and lack of sleep can lead to stress and anxiety.

Environmental toxins such as tobacco smoke, aerosol fumes, and furniture polish, to name a few, may cause allergies or discomfort that lead to a parrot pulling out its feathers due to the stress imposed by these factors.

An African grey parrot’s natural habitat is the humid tropical rain forests of Central Africa. Parrot behaviorist, Hildergard Niemann, believes that low humidity levels can cause dry skin and feather follicles leading to physical discomfort in African grey parrots and suggests that humidity should be maintained at around 60%. This can be achieved by using humidifiers or adding a water feature to the room your parrot is housed in.

Boredom & Loneliness

Boredom and loneliness are common causes of feather pulling in African grey parrots. Parrots in the wild spend most of their day busily foraging for food. When kept in captivity this is provided daily in a food bowl and no effort is required from the pet bird. Boredom can easily set in if toys are not supplied to provide entertainment and mental stimulation. Similarly, African grey parrots are naturally gregarious in the wild, foraging and roosting in large flocks. If left for long periods of time alone in a living room without a human or avian companion, loneliness can be a debilitating factor that causes an immense amount of stress to a parrot.

According to Hildergard Niemann, a parrot behavior consultant, parrots begin to play with their feathers, and as they pull out the first feather the hormone epinephrine is released to dull the pain. This hormone stimulates a good feeling in the parrot for a moment, and so the parrot pulls out another feather and the sensation of well-being is increased. The parrot eventually gets addicted to the stimulation generated by the hormone released when it pulls at its feathers and so, like any addiction, it soon becomes a habit that is very hard to break.

If you work all day, and have to leave your pet parrot alone for long periods of time, you may need to consider getting him or her a mate; not necessarily of the opposite sex, or even the same species. Besides keeping each other company while you are not there, parrots spend much time grooming — especially feathers on the head of their mates that they cannot reach themselves. This will occupy much of his time, alleviating both boredom and loneliness. If this is not an option, provide lots of stimulating toys, and consider leaving a radio on, and positioning your bird’s cage near a window so that he can look out on the world for more mental stimulation, taking care to avoid direct sunlight and drafts.

How to Prevent Feather Plucking in Parrots

Feather plucking is a common problem, particularly in African Greys, Cockatoos and Macaws. As they are highly intelligent and need constant stimulation, boredom is often the cause. Other factors such as poor diet, environmental conditions, and parasites can also cause a bird to begin pulling out its feathers. It is recommended that a parrot exhibiting this behavior is taken to an avian veterinarian for a thorough examination to determine the cause as soon as possible in order to take the correct measures to remedy the problem.

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Featured Image By Tim Notari, via Wikimedia Commons
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