Dealing with Feather Plucking

At one time or another, I’m sure you have all heard of the dreaded feather plucking behavior. Akin to self mutilation in humans, feather plucking is when a bird literally plucks its own feathers. Feather plucking behaviors can exhibit itself in many ways – in the form of overpreening; feather shredding; breaking parts of the feather off so that feathers appeared ragged and broken; actual removal/plucking of feathers; and mutilation of new feathers as they come in. Some birds will even go so far as to pluck out blood feathers. Like cutting behaviors in humans, there is a release of endorphines during this process, causing a temporary, euphoric ‘high’. As a result, plucking behaviors can become addictive.

No one wants to see their pretty parrot become a bald birdie, reminiscent of a rotisserie chicken at the supermarket. Right now, I am dealing with extreme plucking behaviors from my newly acquired Moluccan cockatoo, Tooie. I talked about Tooie in my post Broken Bloodfeather Freakout. If you haven’t read that post yet, let me give you the condensed version on Tooie’s background. Tooie is a 15 year old male moluccan cockatoo, a former breeder who was greatly abused in his past life, including almost being starved to death. Being the emotional creature he is, he started plucking feathers. I don’t know the exact cause behind his plucking, but I want to outline the steps I have been taking to help reduce the amount of plucking behaviors he is currently exhibiting.

1. There is a full spectrum light on his cage, giving him about 10 hours of light per day. I currently use bulbs made by Featherbrite.

2. I encourage foraging activity. Tooie will do anything for a peanut, so hiding peanuts around the cage in various foraging toys provides an activity that he can engage in multiple times during the day to distract him from preening and plucking.

3. Observation of his behavior leads me to believe that Tooie may be experiencing itchy skin – I will catch him taking slivers of wood he has chewed from a toy, placing a silver into his beak, and then using that same sliver to poke at his chest in what appears to be an attempt to scratch the bare skin on his chest. All natural Aloe Vera juice helps sooths irritated and itchy skin, so mixing 2 parts warm water and one part aloe juice to give a gentle misting bath a couple times per week may help.

Because Tooie has been plucking for a number of years now, it will be harder to attempt to wean him off of plucking behavior then with a bird that has only recently started plucking. There are a number of common allergens that can cause skin irritation and lead to plucking behavior, which is why it is important to also examine a birds diet. Using an all natural organic pellet, as well as a seed mix that does not have preservatives, additives, and ingredients such as oat groats, corn, and wheat may also help with plucking behaviors.

As optimistic as I am about someday wanting a fully feathered Tooie, I am realistic in the fact that Tooie may never look like a normal cockatoo. After years of feather damage, parrots can actually damage the follicles, resulting in feathers not being able to grow back. Attempting to reduce or completely eliminate feather plucking behaviors can be a long, frustrating road for both human and bird. I am taking regular photos of Tooie, which will help me visually document the state of his feather condition, and analyze whether or not my tactics are working.  I will be posting photos shortly, and keeping interested readers update on his progress.

Have you dealt with feather plucking behavior before? Leave a comment and let me know how you handled it, what worked, and what didn’t.

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Emily March 22, 2011 Blog, Cockatoo, The Birds