Feather picking is a common
and frustrating problem in pet birds. Some pets
nibble the ends off their feathers, while others
tear their skin, creating large open sores. Any bird
can feather pick, but Psittacine birds, such as
African Grey Parrots and Cockatoos, are the most
Your pet's feather picking may start
because of irritation from a medical condition and
progress to obsessive-compulsive behavior. Or
several problems may coexist. There are several
common causes for this behavior.
Bacteria can attack skin and feather follicles,
creating an itchy, painful problem your bird chews
at to relieve. Pets with vitamin deficiencies from
incomplete diets are at increased risk of infection.
Some viral infections that specifically attack
growing feathers, such as psittacine beak and
feather disease and Polyomavirus infection, cause
inflammation or abnormal feather eruption that
irritates your bird's skin and triggers picking.
Other more easily treatable conditions such as
parasitic infestations can also cause a fierce itch.
However, these parasite infestations are not
commonly found in hand-raised birds.
Just as in people, pollen, mold and certain foods
occasionally trigger itchy allergies in birds. Your
pet may resort to feather picking for relief. An
allergic reaction to Giardia infections, an internal
parasite found in some water supplies, can cause
skin irritation in cockatiels.
Excessive heat or low humidity can make your bird's
skin itchy and flaky. And stressful change, such as
a new family member or pet, moving to a new house or
moving the cage to a different room, may cause birds
to pick their plumage.
Many birds normally live in flocks where they enjoy
the sights and sounds of other birds. When you keep
a solitary bird, you assume the role of the flock.
So if you're nervous, upset or absent, your bird may
feel anxious and respond by feather picking.
Many birds, like some children, crave any attention
they can get. If they discover picking at their
feathers brings you running or even just causes you
to scold, they'll repeat the behavior to get your
attention and your attention reinforces the
Some pet birds might be just plain bored. Evolution
has trained them to be wary of predators and to
poke, prod and chew at everything in their
environment as they forage for meals. It's perfectly
natural for them to chew all day long. In the
absence of a proper outlet, such as a chew toy, many
turn to themselves.
Normally, elevated hormone levels in sexually mature
birds can make them irritable and anxious,
especially during breeding season. So if possible,
avoid environmental factors that stimulate breeding
instincts including long periods of light exposure
greater than 12 hours per day, nest boxes or toys
your female may treat as eggs. Many environmental
stimuli cannot be avoided so other methods must be
used to avert the chewing behaviors.
Most birds groom each other in the wild on a daily
basis, so solitary life may confuse and stress them.
They may feel the urge to preen constantly and pick
at their own feathers.
Research suggests that low thyroid-hormone levels
may cause poor feathering or feather loss, which
resembles feather picking. Watch your bird carefully
to see if the feathers are falling out on their own.
What You Can Do
First, visit your avian veterinarian to
make sure a medical problem isn't the cause of the
Information about your bird's environment,
personality traits and where you purchased your pet
may help unravel the cause behind the compulsive
behavior. Be patient. Finding a medical condition
that causes feather picking can be an extensive
process. If your bird is physically healthy, there
are many treatment options. But keep in mind that
treating feather picking can be frustrating for the
owner, veterinarian and patient alike.
Another person to work closely with is a
qualified bird behavior specialist who has been
scientifically trained in bird behavior. Be careful
of those with no formal training as they may cause
more harm than good. Work with your veterinarian and
avian behaviorist to determine realistic
Learn about your bird's normal preening and
molting behavior so you can recognize abnormal
feather loss. Birds who pluck their feathers usually
give themselves away. If your pet sports feathers
only on hard-to-reach places, such as the head and
neck, feather picking is likely the culprit.
Remove sources of stress and fear such as loud
stereos, the family dog or bright lights at all
hours of the day. Birds with separation anxiety may
benefit from a softly playing radio or television
for company while you're away.
Offer imaginative ways for your bird to forage by
hiding food in hollow toys and cardboard tubes or
attaching food to ropes or chains. Let your pet
satisfy the urge to preen excessively by providing
items that can be destroyed including whisk brooms,
empty paper towel tubes, wooden sticks or rolled-up
papers. There's a limitless supply of interactive
toys to occupy your pet's time. Remember to
alternate the toys to prevent boredom.
Don't give your bird attention while feather
picking. Shower her with attention as often as
possible, but never for inappropriate behavior.
Remember, reward good behavior and ignore unwanted
behavior. A behavior that is not rewarded, in some
fashion, will generally extinguish itself. You may
need to use these measures for the rest of your
bird's life to keep your pet from a path of
Providing a home that can fulfill all the
needs of these highly intelligent pets is a
challenging task, and some birds will continue their
self-destructive behaviors despite your best
efforts. Patience and perseverance are your best
weapons against your precious pet's disagreeable