By Tony Silva
“My Amazon is plucking, what medicine can I use to get it to stop?” “My caique was feathered last night, this morning it is naked. The bottom of the cage is lined with feathers. What can I do.” “Each day my cockatoo pulls out a few feathers. How can it be stopped?” These types of questions come to me weekly from aviculturists from all corners of the globe.
My response invariably starts with a series of questions: How is the bird housed, what toys or enrichment does it receive, what diet is it being fed, is the bird a pet or a breeder, is the bird bathed regularly, has a veterinarian seen the bird and what, if anything, suddenly changed that could have contributed to the plucking. The answer generally suggests that the bird is in an aviary and is a breeder or that the bird is a pet and is played with for a few minutes each day, sometimes a little longer; that bathing is very infrequent; and that the diet is often skewed towards items that are not healthy. These and many more scenarios demonstrate a poor understanding of parrots. Most expect the bird to sit idly in a cage. The bird is supposed to behave perfectly, not despoil its feathers, and either talk, sing, or breed. Preparing a more varied diet is often regarded as time-consuming. In the case of pets, I often hear that toys have been in the cage for years and have not been changed, often because the bird ignores them.
The above typically see me respond: What would you do if you were forced to live in a small room, were only allowed to eat a few items, were never allowed out or given the ability to bathe, had no means of entertainment, and had your wife or partner is with you continuously or you were forced to live alone—would you pull your hair out, chew your fingers nails, fight with the other person or lose all interest in living such a dull life? Many birds live in a similar situation.
Wild parrots display several periods of activity: in the morning they must forage for food, in the hottest part of the day they must rest, then they must again find food and finally find a roosting spot. Throughout the day the bird interacts with its mate, siblings, or flock members and has a whole environment to explore or interact with, must be ever watchful for predators, and must maintain contact with other flock members. At no time is the bird bored; indeed it can chew, inspect holes, chase insects and lizards, fly as far as it wishes, and keeps continuously focused on everything in the environment. It only devotes a fraction of its day to keeping the plumage tidy or resting. Its diet varied depending on the season and it has the opportunity to bathe each time it rains.
My birds are housed outdoors in south Florida. During the rainy season, we can have three or four bouts of rain during the day. Typically the birds seize every opportunity to bathe, even if they have barely dried from the previous downpour.
In a cage, a pet is confined to a small area when compared to the expanse of a forest, may have a clipped wing that prevents it from flying, and, if given toys, a strange object to keep amused that can be present for weeks at a time. The daily change in its environment is limited to seeing changes in its owner´s attire or hairstyle and household activity. If the bird is lucky, its owner will spend quality time with it, breaking the monotony of cage life. Many bathe their bird irregularly or only during the warm months. Few realize that parrots are very cold hardy and that bathing in winter is perfectly normal. In Europe, I have seen macaws and cockatoos bathe in the water that replaced ice in a tub on the aviary floor. The temperature at the time was -1°C (30°F).
A breeder may have nothing but a perch, a nest, and a mate in the bird’s immediate environment. It is expected to remain mentally acute and reproductively fit. If it is especially fortunate, it will have other birds of the same species nearby with which to interact. Many breeders provide no toys, feeling that they merely distract the birds from their role, which is to reproduce. Equally few provide enrichment, which is generally available locally.
My view is in contrast to the norm expected by most. I believe the caged bird must wake up every morning feeling challenged and motivated.
In many scenarios that I see each month the birds are bored. This is why enrichment is so important. Branches, palm seeds, pods, pinecones, split green coconuts, small cardboard boxes filled with corn cob that hide a special treat, small sections of wood, and more are important and need to be provided continuously. They will enrich the environment, allow the natural destructive habits of parrots to play out, and will keep the birds amused for a long period of time, because the branches, coconuts, pods, etc are never the same. The enrichment can be supplemented with toys, which should be changed every few days to prevent monotony, but toys can never require the same energy consumption used to destroy enrichment. Toys and enrichment are thus not of equal importance. I clearly favor enrichment first and then the offering of toys. Both pet and breeders should also be moved around. There is no rule in either case that says the birds should be kept in the same spot for the rest of their lifetime. Moving the birds in fact replicates nature, where they move to different parts of their range to find food, nesting sites, or to interact with others of their kind.
Our pets at home are regularly moved around, from one porch to another or from the bird yard to the porch. The same applies to breeding pairs and birds that are not tame and are housed in groups; the suspended cages can be lifted and moved without much effort. The change is also the first immediate step that should be taken when a bird begins to pluck: move the pet or pair to another area, preferably one it does not recognize. This will provide a distraction while palliative measures can be taken.
The next step is a complete medical exam, as some cases are caused by illness (skin fungus, metal poisoning, disease). This needs to be followed by a review of the diet to correct any deficiencies (if they exist) and then to overwhelm the bird with enrichment, the intent being to focus its attention away from its feathers and towards the object being introduced into the cage.
Acting immediately rather than later increases the likelihood of stopping the plucking: the behavior has not yet become fixed and the feather follicles have not been damaged to the point that feathers will no longer regrow. The presence of a pathogen (if it is the cause) or a dietary deficiency (if it is the cause) can be corrected once the clinical test results have been obtained.
In the case of a pet bird, if the plucking is because its owner has passed away, no longer has the expendable time to provide the bird the attention that it was accustomed to because of changing lifestyles or is suffering from health issues, then perhaps finding the bird another owner may be necessary. If this is the case, I always recommend that a friend or visitor to the home, which the bird has established a relationship with, be considered a temporary or permanent foster caretaker for the bird. If no one exists, then someone else can be found or the bird can be passed to a rescue or breeder. Many former pets when placed in a breeding situation stop plucking.
Feather pulling may also stop when bathing is incorporated into the daily regime. Indoor birds should be bathed daily. Outdoor birds can bathe during rainstorms but if these are infrequent, a sprinkler system can be installed above the aviaries. This water can also cool the birds down during very warm weather.
Modifying one´s behavior is also important, especially when involving pet birds. If a bird pulls it feathers and the owner admonishes it, paying it the attention that it may be seeking, then the behavior may become entrenched: the bored bird has found that by destroying its plumage it is receiving the attention that it demands. This is also why some birds call hysterically for attention. Like plucking, they trained their owner to respond by being voluble.
When a bird begins to pluck, immediately place yourself in its place and ask yourself why, seek veterinary help, and then take prompt action to rectify the causal factor. Only by acting quickly can this vice be stopped.
To learn more about plucking, refer to my recently published book:
This article as well as some more interesting articles and be read in the following downloadable edition: