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Preventing Unhealthy Feather Plucking in Birds

Just as there's a great deal of enjoyment to be found in admiring your colorful, well-groomed bird, there can be just as much concern when you discover that she is pulling out her own feathers. While some feathers may come out naturally during normal preening, continually pulling feathers out will eventually damage the feather follicles and stop the growth of healthy, new feathers.

Feather picking (also known as feather plucking) is a self-destructive behavior that is unique to pet birds. When a bird plucks her own feathers—sometimes severely—it can cause physical harm, such as self-mutilation or infection from open sores. This behavior must be addressed immediately, as it could signal a variety of serious problems.

Some types of birds—such as cockatiels, cockatoos, African Grey Parrots, macaws and conures—seem particularly prone to feather picking, although any bird can potentially be at risk of developing the behavior. In some birds, feather picking can border on an obsessive-compulsive type of behavior. A variety of factors can cause feather plucking:

  • Infections (including bacterial, viral or parasitic)
  • Allergies (including pollen, mold or certain foods)
  • Environmental factors (including heat, humidity, noise or stress)
  • Anxiety
  • Boredom
  • Sexual frustration
  • Predisposition
  • Hypothyroidism
  • Malnutrition
  • Isolation
  • Lack of exercise or activity
  • Not enough playtime with you
  • Too much or too little natural sunlight

If you've determined that your bird is exhibiting unhealthy feather-picking behavior, you'll want to schedule an appointment with a board-certified avian veterinarian to get advice for your bird's unique situation. Your veterinarian will evaluate whether your bird's feather-picking habit stems from a medical issue or is based on other factors. You may also wish to seek the assistance of a bird behavior specialist or board certified veterinary behaviorist.

Routines are important for your bird and should be followed as closely as possible. Make sure your bird gets the proper amount of sleep, proper nutrition and lots of love and interaction with you. Follow these tips to help prevent your bird from unhealthy feather picking:


Minimize Stress

Some birds can become anxious from something as simple as their view. If your bird sees too many potentially frightening things outside a window—such as animals or people—she may become stressed. This stems from the fact that the bird feels confined in her habitat and can’t "get away" from the frightening scene she's observing.

Birds are very perceptive and can understand the moods of their human family, so it's possible that your bird is stressed and anxious because you are stressed and anxious. Even if you’re having a difficult day, try to avoid appearing upset in front of your pet.

If you think your bird is feather picking because she’s stressed, try not to overreact when you see her in the process. Telling her "No!" or otherwise making a big deal of the event may bother her even more and perpetuate the problem. You'll also want to avoid repeatedly correcting her feather-picking habit, as she may perceive this as a form of positive attention, which could actually encourage her to feather-pick even more.


Relieve Boredom

Just like kids, birds need toys to keep them entertained, to mentally stimulate them and to help them burn energy and stay fit. Regularly rotate your bird's selection of toys to keep them fresh and interesting. Choose from a variety of wood blocks, ladders, ropes, barbells and hanging toys made especially for your bird's size and species.

Many pet birds also enjoy playing simple games with you, like "peek-a-boo." Games can encourage trust between you and your pet and provide a fun way to spend quality time together.


Provide a Healthy Diet

Provide a high-quality varied diet for your bird, including "fun" foods that require work to eat. Foraging behavior is important in birds and should be incorporated into their feeding. Providing mental stimulation and variety for your bird can help reduce boredom, which can help prevent your bird from becoming a feather picker.


Examine the Environment

Your bird could be bothered by something in your home's air, such as cigarette smoke, air fresheners or even home cleaning products. If you suspect that one of these might be disturbing your bird, try eliminating them one-by-one to see if the situation improves, or move your bird to a different location. Aim to keep your bird in an area with plenty of familiar and comforting activity to observe. When you and your family aren't home, consider leaving the TV or stereo on for extra comfort. Your bird is very sensitive, so ensure she isn't too cold or too hot and that she receives the right amount of natural sunlight each day.