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How to Stop Unhealthy Feather Plucking in Birds (Plus Treatments)

Sarah Psaradelis

Feather plucking is typically a behavior seen in birds who are increasingly stressed or bored. It is an unhealthy habit that birds pick up to relieve their symptoms. In some cases, feather plucking is normal, and sometimes it is a concerning behavior. Feather plucking can frustrate bird keepers because it can indicate that there is an underlying problem. It also takes a long time for the feathers to heal, and the bird may not look the same after. The new feathers are more vulnerable and can appear whiter than the bird’s overall color.

Feather plucking or chewing is abnormal and should be stopped before it gets worse. It can become a life-long problem unless the root cause is fixed.

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What is Feather Plucking?

This is scientifically referred to as pterotillomania and it is a damaging mental behavior caused by various stressors. It is a maladaptive behavioral disorder that captive birds display by pulling out their feathers or chewing them to the point that they fall out. This is done by their beak and commonly occurs near the tailor on the chest. In some cases, the bird may try to pull out all their feathers except in places that they cannot reach like the head.

The skin and feathers take damage and the habit of feather plucking becomes constant. This behavior is most common in Psittaciformes and about 10% of captive-bred parrots will show this behavior during any point in their life stage. It is the most common inaccessible area of their body like on the neck, chest, back, or ventral wing area. The main feathers at risk of being plucked are contours or down feathers. This behavior is closely related to feather pecking which also causes feather loss and skin damage but is less severe.

This behavior can mimic impulse control disorder (ICD) in humans which is known as trichotillomania. Feather plucking is used by the bird to provide mental stimulation or a form of relaxation. All captive parrots are prone to developing this behavioral problem and some birds are even born with the mental capacity to feather pluck from their parents. The sensation is relished, and plucking can quickly become habitual.

parrot plucking itself
Image Credit: Bekker24, Shutterstock

Symptoms of Feather Plucking

  • Large and abnormal bald spots
  • Bleeding
  • Rashes
  • Skin discoloration
  • Pulling and tearing at connected feathers
  • Screeching
  • Abnormal aggression
  • Large amounts of feathers piled at the bottom of the cage
  • Dry, flaky skin in damaged areas
  • Rocking
  • Uninterested in being handled
  • Unfriendliness

Causes of Feather Plucking

1. Habitat

If the habitat or cage that your bird lives in is inadequate, they may seek this behavior to relieve symptoms of boredom and stress. They also gain stimulation by plucking out their feathers because they feel that they have nothing else to do. This is a common problem if the habitat is too small or lacks enrichment like toys.

2. Pain

Birds cannot deal with pain well and they will take to plucking out their feathers in the area that the pain is radiating from. This is partially part of a behavioral problem as they try to cause intentional pain to the affected site in an attempt to further injure themselves and focus on a different type of pain.

Feather Loss in Parrots
Image Credit: Charlotte Bleijenberg, Shutterstock

3. Behavioral

This is typically the result of boredom, loneliness, or attention-seeking behavior. If a social bird that needs to live in groups of their species is kept alone, then they can develop a feather plucking behavioral problem. Lonely and bored parrots who do not get enough human interaction or toys can also show this problem.

4. Disease

A viral disease, discomfort, endocrine diseases, vitamin deficiencies, and cancer can cause feather plucking. The bird feels unwell and helpless in these cases even if they are getting professional help and medications to treat the different diseases.

5. Toxins

Households contain a lot of toxic substances that can harm a bird. This includes cigarette smoke, lead from rusting metal cages, aerosols, and smoke fumes from a stove or outdoor burner.

African Grey Parrot plucking
Image Credit: Ian Fox, Shutterstock

6. Allergies

Birds can be allegoric to many different things. The allergic reaction can cause itchiness over the skin and cause the bird to scratch or pluck at its feather until it falls out and produces a dry bald patch on its body. Birds are commonly allergic to corn, wheat, rice, maize, or certain foreign household substances.

7. Diet

If birds are fed a low-quality diet, they are prone to developing a range of different health and vitamin deficiency issues. Their skin will be itchy and unhealthy, and their feathers may become brittle and fall out more easily.

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Treating and Preventing Feather Plucking

Diet and allergies

Try and encourage your bird to eat a varied diet of seeds, nuts, pellets, and fresh fruit or vegetables. They should be fed a high-quality diet tailored to meet the dietary requirements of the specific bird that you keep. Avoid foods that cause allergies to your bird and try recommended foods provided by your avian veterinarian.

Blue-and-Gold Macaw
Image Credit: khairicherus, Pixabay

Habitat and Enrichment

Ensure that the habitat is large enough to comfortably house the size and number of birds in the tank. You should provide enough toys for your bird to chew on and provide toys that provide mental stimulation like mirrors. Always keep social birds in pairs or groups and try to provide daily interaction to prevent boredom.

Keep the cage away from droughts but ensure there is enough airflow. Clean the cage regularly and wipe up any water spillage from their bowl to prevent mold growth.

Toxins and Disease

A damp environment is a breeding ground for different bacterial and fungal diseases. The cage should always be kept clean. The substrate should be changed regularly and fresh fruit and veg should be removed after several hours to prevent them from fouling in the cage. Do not smoke near the cage and ensure it is kept away from the kitchen. Avoid spraying aerosols like deodorant or room spray near the cage.

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Conclusion

Severe feather plucking should be treated by a professional avian veterinarian. They can also help determine the cause of the feather plucking and help treat it further using medication. If feather plucking becomes an extreme behavior problem in your bird, then you may need to consult with an avian behaviorist who can give you tips and methods to effectively stop your bird from feather plucking.


Featured Image Credit: Brian Upton, Shutterstock

Sarah Psaradelis

Sarah Psaradelis is an avid young writer with dual passions for literature and animals. She enjoys sharing knowledge of animal care and helping others. Sarah has over 8 years of writing experience and is currently studying veterinary science. She resides in South Africa with her supportive partner who shares the same love for animals. She takes care of 25 fish, aquarium snails, dogs, and rodents. When she is not writing, she is researching animalsl or instructing a sports pole dance class. Sarah is a passionate vegan activist and animal rescuer pursuing her path to make the world a better place.