Feather Plucking in Parrots

by Vicki Barnard

Feather plucking is a someone frequent issue with many parrot species, and this unfortunately includes the Quaker Parrot. Written by a veterinary technician, this article provides solid information on this frustrating disorder and the most common causes.

Definition and Description.

Feather picking, also known as feather plucking, is a condition in which birds cause damage to their own feathers. All normal, healthy birds preen daily, but feather pickers typically overpreen to the point of obsession. This can include chewing on their feathers or actually plucking them out. Sometimes they just chew off little bits of their feathers; others chew them into a broken, twisted, crushed, or mangled shape. Some birds may chew their feathers clear down to little nubs of shaft with possibly a little tuft of feather fragment left on it. The feather pluckers pull them completely out, shaft and all.

Some birds may pick in one small area, such as on one leg, other birds pick every feather they can reach, and it’s possible to find feather pickers of any degree between the two extremes. Common plucking locations are the chest, abdomen, upper legs, and inside the wings, but remember: If they can reach it, they can pick it. The only areas they can not reach are the head and the back of the neck. Those feathers will always appear normal (assuming there is not another bird within reach). If they’re not, the owner is advised to get the bird tested for feather-deforming diseases such as Psittacine Beak and Feather Disease (PBFD), or French Molt in Budgies, without delay.

Causes.

Feather picking itself is not a disease. It is a symptom of disease or a result of some other problem. It is exclusively a captive bird problem. In the wild, lack of feathers means the lack of ability to fly or keep warm. A bird in such a condition is not likely to survive. There are many possible causes of feather picking, several of which are medical (i.e., disease-related) and some which are not.

Some disease-related causes of feather plucking include:

  • Endocrine diseases such as low thyroid levels, progesterone or testosterone imbalances
  • Infectious diseases such as pox virus or psittacosis
  • Poor nutrition
  • Food allergies, especially to seeds
  • Liver disease
  • Pruritis: “Itchy Bird,” caused by:
    • Internal parasites such as roundworms and tapeworms

      Giardia infections (can trigger severe skin irritation)

      Bacterial, viral, or fungal infections of the skin and feathers

    • Yeast infections
    • Staphylococcus aureus infections
    • Intestinal, respiratory, or crop infection can cause whole-body pruritis because of a hypersensitivity reaction
    • Internal tumors or Kidney disease: Bird may pluck over the skin above the tumor or kidney
    • Inhaled allergens (smoke, cockatoo dander, perfumes, house deodorants, pollen, dust mold)
    • Contact allergens (laundry detergents, deodorants, perfume, hair products, litter or nest box material)
    • Ingested allergens (especially certain proteins, carbohydrates, chemical additives such as preservatives, colors, or flavors)
    • Dry, flaky skin or thickened reddened skin dermatitis

      Folliculitis

    • Improper wing clipping, where the cut shafts poke the bird’s back
  • External parasites such as feather mites are very rarely a cause.

Other causes, not related to any disease, include:

  • Boredom
  • Nervousness
  • Insecurity, Stress (can be caused by an alteration in daily routine, a new environment, or new owner)
  • Overcrowded housing: Finches in particular
  • Sexual frustration
  • Overenthusiastic plucking of a brood patch
  • Excessive courtship behavior: one bird plucks the other
  • Parents persecuting their chicks to drive them from the nest so they can breed again (possibly an inherited trait)
  • Inadequate bathing facilities
  • Breed predisposition, as in Quaker Mutilation Syndrome (QMS)

” Itchy Bird” is distinguished by the way the bird acts–instead of casually, calmly preening and plucking, it will dig furiously at itself, act agitated or irritated while plucking, and rub its head or sides vigorously against cage bars, perches, or anything else available.

Quaker Mutilation Syndrome has no single definitive cause and no sure-fire cure, which makes it highly frustrating for both the owner and veterinarian. QMS includes not only the feather plucking described earlier, but the bird goes one step further and mutilates the flesh on the chest, wing webs, and thighs. Although it tends to be a seasonal problem with adult Quakers, placing them in a breeding situation does not usually stop the problem. Even worse, QMS birds tend to produce chicks that grow up to be QMS birds themselves.

Those are some of the major causes of feather plucking. It’s also possible to be dealing with more than one cause at a time, which can really make the diagnostic picture muddy. Some examples of one problem leading to another are:

  • Plucking can not only be a result of folliculitis, but can cause it as well.
  • Self-mutilation can lead to secondary bacterial infections, which causes more self-mutilation, setting up a cycle very hard to break.

Clear up the underlying medical cause and plucking may continue anyway…it has simply become a bad habit.

Diagnosis.

Diagnostic tests include a physical exam, looking for lumps, injuries, feather cysts, lipomas or other tumors. Do a Complete Blood Count and blood chemistry panels. Test for parasitic, yeast, fungal, and bacterial infections. Also test for psittacosis, Psittacine Beak and Feather Disease, and Giardia. Other tests may include radiographs or a skin biopsy.

It is very important to get as much background information as possible from the owner, as the only real clues may be contained in the bird’s history. Find out the bird’s diet, especially what it is actually eating as opposed to what is being provided. Have the owner recall if there have been any environmental changes, including new family members or pets, new location, or even the absence of a family member. Any onset history and observations the owner can provide may help.

Treatment.

There are many different treatments, as you might have already guessed by seeing the list of many different causes. When a disease or infection is diagnosed as being involved, provide the treatment specific to that disease. Also pull any broken or shredded feathers so new ones can grow in.

When the cause is raging hormones, the cure is far less cut and dried. Two years ago my Quaker, Lumpy, was diagnosed with this problem. Part of her drug therapy included a progesterone injection (along with the antibiotic Baytril orally). It worked. However, the use of testosterone or progesterone is now considered a thing of the past; the current counter-hormonal therapy is an injection of Human Chorionic Gonadotropin (HCG), which has no known adverse side effects. According to Dr. Brian Speer, D.V.M., ABVP, certified in Avian Practice, some Quakers have responded favorably to HCG therapy. However, my own avian veterinarian has had instances of decreased effectiveness with repeated use.

It is important to give birds an opportunity to bathe every day. In the winter in particular, artificial heating can lower the humidity significantly, and “dries them up like little raisins”. This is an almost guaranteed method of developing an Itchy Bird.

Behavioral therapies include sedatives, behavior modification, collars, bandages, bad-tasting sprays, grinding the upper beak, environmental change, nutritional change, and acupuncture.

Tricyclic antidepressants such as haloperidol have gained in popularity recently, but one veterinarian reports that less than 50% of birds respond favorably. On the other hand, one Quaker owner reports that her bird, who started plucking due to a food dye allergy and became an obsessive plucker, is currently on Prozac and doing much better.

Environmental change can be very tricky, since both boredom and stress need to be avoided. Change is necessary, but make all changes gradually. Protecting a parrot from traumatic experiences is essential. Overprotected parrots, however, who have not been introduced to change in safe, secure ways are often feather pickers.

Make certain the bird is provided with good nutrition, as picking adds nutritional stress to the bird. Providing the following easily shreddable foods can help both nutritional and entertainment needs: Raw carrots, green beans, spinach leaves, peas in the pod, corn on the cob, apples, breadsticks, wheat toast, zucchini sticks, mini bagels, or mini rice cakes. There are others but make sure they are not toxic to birds (avocado for instance). Some easily shreddable toys: Rope, straws, cardboard, new toothbrushes, new makeup brushes, wood, pine cones, wooden craft sticks, twisted and knotted paper towels, and any commercial toys appropriate to the bird’s size and beak power. All fresh food and anything from outside should be washed and free of pesticides.

Other things to do to alleviate boredom include playtime with the owner, leaving a TV or radio on during the day, and making sure the bird is getting enough sleep by artificially lengthening nights. That also helps the “raging hormone” cases get out of breeding season.

Conclusion.

The best results are always achieved when the underlying cause is identified, but no single treatment works consistently, even with a known diagnosis. Working with birds that pluck for behavioral reasons will usually lead to significant improvement, but may never completely prevent future episodic picking during times of confusion and stress. These birds can be compared to fingernail biters and even smokers. They find their self-destructive behavior rewarding, relaxing, and enjoyable. It becomes a deeply engrained, tough habit to break, but with dedication and patience on the owner’s part the condition can be improved.


References.

Chris C. Pinney, D.V.M. The Illustrated Veterinary Guide for Dogs, Cats, Birds, & Exotic Pets. McGraw-Hill, 1992.

Gary A. Gallerstein, D.V.M. The Complete Bird Owner’s Handbook. Macmillan Publishing Company, 1994.

David Alderton. Parrots, An essential reference for keeping more than 200 parrot family species. Salamander Books Limited, 1992.

Jeanne Smith, D.V.M. Do You Have An “Itchy” Bird? Bird Talk Magazine, March 1996.

Margaret Wissman, D.V.M., Dip., ABVP – Avian Practice. Causes and Cures: Feather-Picking Cockatoo. Bird Talk Magazine, October 1996.

Margaret Wissman, D.V.M., Dip., ABVP – Avian Practice. Causes and Cures: Quaker Mutilation Syndrome. Bird Talk Magazine, October 1996.

Sherry Rind. Feather Picking: Sudie’s Story. Bird Talk Magazine, February 1997.

Sally Blanchard. The Complexities of Feather Destructive Behavior. The Pet Bird Report, Issue #23, October 1995. Internet URL http://www.petbirdreport.com/complexities/shtml

birdvet@juno.com (Internet Screen Name) Avian Advice, online reply Re: Feather picking Ringneck,, March 3, 1997 (URL unavailable)

LooneyBin7@aol.com (Internet Screen Name) Post on Quaker message boards, Birds, America Online Pet Care Forum, AOL Keyword: Pet Care, Re: New to Quakers, May 18, 1997

Brian Speer, D.V.M. Diplomate, ABVP, Certified in Avian Practice, Internet Screen Name

AVN VET@aol.com. Re: Quaker Mutilation Syndrome, Posts on Questions to Vets message boards, replies to Vicki Barnard, Screen Name DejaBooMom@aol.com. AOL Pet Care Forum, AOL Keyword: Pet Care. May 28, 1997; May 29, 1997