M ost parrot owners never are faced with the heartbreak of having their beautifully feathered tropical treasure reduce itself to a sad and bedraggled-looking ghost of its former self. But when feather destruction does happen, this obsessive, destructive behavior pattern causes great stress to the parrot owner who must deal with it on a daily basis and wonder if they have failed their feathered friend.
Once a parrot discovers the pastime of feather chewing, plucking, pulling, stripping, barbering, clipping or otherwise destroying its own feathers, it quickly becomes a satisfying habit much like nail biting in humans. As difficult as it may be to understand the satisfaction derived from biting and chewing fingernails, many people do it. The
nail biting habit in humans correlates well with the feather biting habit in parrots. Once this habit becomes established, it is extremely difficult to break.
The most important criterion in dealing with feather destruction is the determination as to whether it is a MEDICAL or a NON-MEDICAL (behavioral) problem. One way to make this determination is to note whether or not the head and upper neck feathers are involved. If there is a problem which involves the head and upper neck feathers, then I strongly advise a trip to a good avian vet. Since the bird cannot reach the feathers in these areas (assuming that it is not being plucked by another bird), the likelihood of a medical problem is very real. Psittacine Beak and Feather Disease (PBFD) is the greatest cause
for concern in this situation. PBFD is a deadly avian disease that attacks the immune system of parrots much as AIDS does in humans. If a bird that appears to be plucking its feathers has any signs of deformed feathers or of beak problems, a trip to an avian veterinarian is a necessity.
Many other medical causes may be suspected, such as bacterial, viral, fungal or parasitic diseases, tumors, cysts, heavy metal poisoning, allergies, or malnutrition. These causes can be ruled out by an avian veterinarian.
Feather lice are very rarely found in caged birds and are almost never the cause of feather destruction. It is a dangerous practice to spray birds for lice "just in case." This should be done only by an avian vet, since many birds have been harmed by the indiscriminate use of toxic preparations marketed to control bird lice.
If the bird is plucked only in the areas that it can reach, but has normal feathering on the head and upper neck, more than likely it is a behavioral problem. Here are some of the possible causes of non-medical plucking, most of them in the general category of stress. Following each cause are some possible solutions.
This is all too common in our dry and sometimes artificially heated homes. It is not a natural environment for most parrots. The lack of humidity can cause their skin to become dry, flaky, and itchy. What starts as an attempt to scratch an itch can quickly evolve into fullblown feather plucking, and once it becomes a habit, it is very difficult to stop. The easiest way to supply extra humidity is to provide frequent baths, and mist from a spray bottle. Birds seem to avoid picking damp or wet feathers. If this does not solve the problem, here are a few other suggestions.
• Humidifiers that are well maintained, and never allowed to become dirty and to pump dangerous fungal spores into the air, can help to create a more moist and natural environment for the parrot bothered by itchy skin.
• If one does not wish to bother with this source of humidity, a handy spray
bottle or a clothes drying rack in the bird room on which to dry the family's laundered towels works just as well. Otherwise, a sheet or a large towel can be wet and squeezed partially dry and placed on the rack. It may not secure a spot for your home in House Beautiful magazine, but it will work wonderfully well to moisturize the atmosphere for your parrots.
• Aloe vera spray is quite effective in soothing and moisturizing itchy skin, thereby preventing plucking. Feathers that are damp and that taste of Aloe do not seem to be nearly as appealing to a feather plucker. One of the purest ready-made sprays is GEORGE'S Aloe Spray, and it comes in a spray bottle, eight ounces for around five dollars. If you cannot locate a health food store that carries this spray, you can easily make your own with Aloe vera juice and distilled water in a spray bottle. Four parts water to one part Aloe is a good solution. It can be made stronger or weaker according to your needs. When buying the Aloe iera, look for the purest possible juice, not gel. Many of the gels are simply juice with added thickeners that you should not spray on your bird's feathers. If you buy the more expensive brands, you will get a product with no additional ingredients, which in themselves can create problems. The bird can be sprayed several times a day and sometimes this alone will solve the problem.