There are many theories on the reasons why birds engage in feather destruction, everything from nutritional deficiencies, infections and hormonal imbalances, to environmental and psychological problems. One theory causing debate in the avicultural community is the suggestion that hand-fed birds are more likely to feather pick. Some veterinarians believe that hand-feeding baby birds can intensify the feather plucking. Typically, aviculturists pull the babies from their nest at 2 weeks of age and start hand-feeding them with a syringe. This is generally done in hopes of making the birds more tame or due to incompetent parent birds.
However, according to Jeffrey Jenkins, DVM, an avian veterinarian in Southern California, “these birds miss out on the normal training and developmental interaction with their parents. These parrots imprint on people and don’t learn how to be birds. This creates abnormal behavior such as feather plucking.” Prior to 1992, when parrots were still being imported, few birds were feather pluckers, he noted. “The imported parrots knew how to be birds because they were raised by their parents,” Jenkins said.
The young wild macaws in South America’s rain forests hang around the nest for two years before going off on their own. They spend this time observing their parents and learning how to live. Pet birds, when they’re pulled from their nests at a young age, might not get this valuable training.
Some avian enthusiasts believe that one of the most important life lessons hand-fed baby birds miss out on is how to take care of their feathers. “Probably the majority of pet birds today do not know how to properly groom themselves or care for their feathers,” contended Illinois veterinarian, Richard Nye, DVM. “Many times,” he said, “when a feather gets out of place the pet bird doesn’t know what to do with it — so it grabs the feather, chews on it, breaks it off or pulls it all the way out. The bird doesn’t know how to take the feather in its beak and smooth it out so that all the little veins stick together like they should.”
Other avian experts, however, consider the argument that hand-feeding increases a bird’s chances of feather destructive behaviors premature and even potentially dangerous because not enough is known about feather plucking. Although it may be “very easy to come to that conclusion,” Dr. Susan Clubb, DVM, Dip. ABVP said, “we need more data.” Clubb has been trying to uncover such data. In collaboration with the Loro Parque Fundación and other veterinarians, she conducted a 4-year study on 3,000 parrots, both hand-fed and parent-reared birds, to trace the origins of feather pluckers. She found that both wild-caught and hand-fed birds could be feather pluckers, but she also found that a higher percentage of parent-reared — not hand-fed — birds were feather pluckers.
Clubb added that she believes a lot of veterinarians come to the assumption that hand-feeding babies can cause feather plucking later on “simply because what they’re seeing in their practice is hand-raised birds.”
Howard Voren, president of the Organization of Professional Aviculturists and a breeder for 35 years, echoes this sentiment. He said that, today, there is a larger percentage of hand-raised birds than there are parent-raised birds in the United States, thus leading people to the conclusion that hand-rearing increases the chances a bird will pluck because hand-raised birds are what people have experience with. “Twenty years ago, when the majority of birds were imported, you still had plenty of feather pluckers,” Voren said. “I raise 1,800 babies a year and they don’t turn out to be feather pluckers,” Voren said. Voren added that he does have one pair of feather-plucking sun conures and that the majority of their young do turn out to be feather pluckers whether they are hatched from an incubator or parent-reared.
A parrot can become upset when its owner goes to work during the day and the bird is home alone without the proper toys or other entertainment. “A lot of these hand-fed birds have never been taught how to entertain themselves and don’t know what to do when they’re by themselves,” Jenkins said. The stress or boredom can motivate the bird to pull out its feathers.
Yet, Clubb said she found in her study that many feather pluckers actually have an inflammatory skin disease. This was particularly prevalent in macaws and Amazons. However, there is still the possibility that some birds, such as cockatoos, may have a psychogenetic problem that leads them to feather plucking.
So what is the solution?
Both Nye and Jenkins see co-parenting as the answer. This means that the baby birds stay in the nest until they are weaned or fledge, and the parent birds do all the feeding and rearing. “When the babies are about 2 weeks of age, the bird breeder can start handling the chicks for a short time every day,” Nye said. “The human just holds the chicks for a few minutes to get the babies used to being handled, and then the babies are put back in the nest. Each day, the birds can be taken out of the nest for a little longer period of time.” The end result, he said, is that “you’ll get a tame baby bird that knows how to be a bird and probably a lot less problems down the road with feather picking.”
Voren on the other hand, said “The major contributing factor to feather plucking, above and beyond a bird’s individual propensity for nervousness, is what they are confronted with in their living environment long after they are weaned."
According to Clubb, co-parenting was presented as a solution to feather plucking at UC Davis but nothing has been proven to work yet. “We need to continue to look into the causes of feather plucking,” she said.