Avian Rx: What Is Feather-Plucking and Why Do Birds Do It?

Posted by TF Oren
macaw with plucked feathers

Feather-plucking is both a naturally-occurring and maladaptive behavior, depending upon the context in which it occurs.

So, why do birds pluck their feathers?

In the wild, birds sometimes pluck their feathers to line their nests with during breeding season. Normal preening and grooming also results in loss of feathers.

When feather-plucking, feather-picking, or pterotillomania, occurs in pet birds in captivity, however, it is a more serious issue that indicates an underlying medical or behavioral issue.

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There are a variety of medical and physical factors that can result in the behavior. These common causes include but are not limited to: parasites, allergies, skin irritation, inflammation, hypothyroidism, psittacine beak and feather disease (PBFD), psittacosis, heavy metal toxicosis, bacterial or fungal infection, obesity, systemic illness, nutritional deficiencies, and genetic factors.

If you notice your bird plucking its feathers, consult an avian vet immediately. If the vet determines that your bird is physically healthy, then the feather-plucking is likely a behavioral issue.

Cockatoo with feather mutilation
Severe feather-plucking can result in wounds. Photo via Cockatoo-info.com

Stress is one of the major drivers of feather-plucking in captive birds. Any number of social and environmental factors can generate such stress. If your bird is physically healthy and there are no medical causes for plucking its feathers, here are three questions to ask:

1. Is my bird's diet healthy?

Improper nutrition can cause your bird great stress to the point that it resorts to self-mutilation. It is imperative that you feed your bird a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables on a daily basis. A healthy diet is key to avoid feather problems.

2. Is my bird's cage clean enough, large enough, and stimulating enough?

Naturally clean animals, birds will respond poorly to a dirty, unkempt cage. In addition, a cage that is too small, or one that does not provide adequate stimulation in the form of things to climb and toys to play with, for instance, will lead to a bored, stressed-out bird. They are complex, intelligent creatures and their environments must provide sufficient enrichment.

Increasing foraging opportunities in the cage (by using pipe feeders rather than bowls, for example) can also help reduce feather-plucking by providing a forage-based feeding experience closer to what a parrot in the wild would have.

3. Does my bird get enough attention and mental stimulation?

This is key. Parrots are smart, social animals. They thrive on interaction with their flock. For captive parrots, their owners are the equivalent of a flock. Thus, it is imperative that you as a bird owner spend enough time interacting and playing with your bird in order to fulfill that need for socialization.

Caged birds that lack sufficient social and mental stimulation will feel neglected and are therefore much more likely to pluck their feathers. Separation anxiety could also be an underlying cause of behavioral problems.

african grey parrot- feather picking birds
Photo via Best Friends

Feather-plucking is a difficult, destructive behavior to curb once it has begun. If you notice your bird showing any tendencies toward self-mutilation, do not wait to consult an avian veterinarian, and take immediate steps to increase the quality of your bird's diet, environment, and level of interaction.

Have you seen a bird that has plucked its own feathers? Let us know in the comments below. 

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Avian Rx: What Is Feather-Plucking and Why Do Birds Do It?