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The Bird Just Keeps On Pluckin'
by Judith Glick

Life with a parrot is often a challenge. One of the most frustrating problems with pet birds is feather plucking. Feather plucking becomes a problem when birds over-groom to the point that their feathers are removed, or badly damaged. In some cases, this problem continues on to severe self-mutilating. This problem can occur in any species of pet bird, and no veterinarian, no pet owner, no breeder can say with absolute certainty, "I have the perfect cure," or can in fact claim any certain cure at all.

Plucking has been attributed to many, varied causes. Sometimes changing a pet's environment may seem to encourage the bird to let its feathers grow back. Other factors that might help are a better diet, or a changed diet. An observant owner may be able to correlate plucking behavior with a particular food or toxin in the environment. In some cases, residue from smoking on an owner's hands has been implicated as a factor. When a bird is plucking, it is always a good idea to handle the bird only after washing hands with a mild soap.

Allowing the bird more time out of the cage, and more interaction with the owner can help in some cases. Toys can encourage the bird to play when their owners are at work, rather than to pluck. Bird-safe toys can be purchased at a local pet store, over the Internet, or from the many catalogs that specialize in avian or exotic pet supplies. It is important to monitor your pet's interaction with any new toy. A strange toy may scare a bird, and a large bird may ingest a small toy. Some toys may cause a bird to get trapped by either dangling threads or by catching some part of the body (toes, wings and beaks, frequently) in the toy. So it's important to know your bird, monitor, and be careful.

Birds also have been known to have seasonal plucking. The cycles of plucking may be related to weather changes, or to seasonal breeding readiness. Dry winter air can often seem to make plucking worse; other birds pluck more when the days or longer - or shorter. More light or less light can also seem to impact plucking activity. Bird species become sexually mature at different ages, and males and females can also vary. In either the weather-related seasonal plucking or the sexually-related seasonal plucking, the bird may stop plucking during the "off-season", then restart again when the season changes.

Some birds seem to start plucking from the discomfort of new pinfeathers, then the plucking may become a habit, like human nail chewing. Other times the problem can be related to insufficient sleep time. Parrots can need 10-12 hours of sleep a day.

Plucking can also be related to a systemic illness, or a parasitic infestation. Giardia is probably the best-documented example of a parasitic cause; it frequently causes plucking in cockatiels.

In any case, the first step to take when a bird is plucking should be a visit to a veterinarian specializing in birds for a complete work-up, to eliminate illness as a cause. In the case of a new bird that is not plucking, it is also wise to go a veterinarian for a "well-bird" checkup to establish a baseline of healthy results for each specific bird. This will sometimes help the veterinarian to diagnose a problem in the future.

Only time will reveal if any of the steps taken will result in stopping a bird from plucking. No one, even the best-trained veterinarian, or the most successful breeder, can guarantee success in stopping plucking. It remains a mystery in many cases. If your bird plucks and then stops, consider yourself one of the lucky ones.

If you are considering a bird as a pet, it is important to give thought to this issue. If your psyche requires a pet to be perfect, please pass on having a bird.

However, no matter whether your bird plucks or not, don't give away your parrot for that reason. If you have tried to find a solution and have failed, you should not feel guilty, and should not let well-meaning friends convince you that you are at fault. Continue to love your pet and you will get more joy back than you can ever imagine.

Possible Cause Possible Cure
Vitamin A deficiency causes dry, scaly skin and itching, which can lead to plucking Add fruit and vegetables high in beta carotene to the bird's diet. Examples are cooked sweet potato, and red pepper.
Dry seasonal air Humidifier and extra baths/showers/mists
Change in environment (even as small as moving cage across the room) Try to return to previous environment, or try to set up area in a similar fashion.
Owner not spending enough time with the bird and/or insufficient time out of cage Make more quality time for the bird. Spend 10 to 15 minutes one-on-one with the bird alone in the bathroom. Shower together.
Reproductive frustration Sometimes shortening the hours of daylight will prevent reproductive readiness, or shorten the length of time the bird is ready.
Insufficient sleep Cover the birds cage, or provide a "night cage" in an area that can be kept darker and quieter for longer.
Nothing tried has worked. A small percentage of birds may be helped with psychoactive drugs (Prozac, Haloperidol) under a veterinarian's care. This treatment is experimental, and the success rate is low.

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Most recent update: 11/4/03
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