Some medical conditions contribute to feather problems, and an avian veterinarian should be consulted for diagnoses and treatment options. Courtesy Carol Hodges, Ontario, Canada
People whose birds destroy their feathers often feel devastated and alone; however, the problem is very common, especially in African greys, cockatoos and Eclectus parrots, to name a few. In fact, I have received so many questions about avian friends that destroy their feathers that I cannot publish all of them! It is impossible to offer a single, easy solution. Also, feather destructive behaviors are usually difficult to address without first working with a veterinarian and/or an experienced and reputable avian behavior consultant. There are, however, a few common triggers or contributing factors that may lead to feather destruction.
Feathers affect a bird’s ability to fly; they protect birds from intense sunlight and chilly breezes. They are also good indicators of a bird’s health status, and they attract mates — as well as people. For many people, the defining characteristic of companion birds is beautiful plumage. Even those who do not know what species of bird they have remember the colors of its feathers, right down to the tiniest colorful markings. Birds spend hours preening themselves and each other, and greatly enjoy a compliment on their beauty.
Because feathers are so important, why do some birds choose to destroy them? Although the list of causes is long, one of the most common reasons is stress. Birds and humans respond differently to stressful situations. For example, under similar levels of stress, one person might raid the refrigerator while another chews his or her fingernails. Similarly, one bird might scream when stressed while another may damage its feathers. In each situation, the participant exhibits what I like to call a“vice of choice.” We all have one; mine is dark chocolate, what’s yours?
Stress alone has numerous causes, one being illness. Because illness is a common source of stress, the first step in detecting the reasons for feather destruction is to have your bird examined by a reputable avian veterinarian. Although not all feather problems are health-related, those that are need to be diagnosed and treated prior to behavioral intervention.
Some medical conditions that contribute to feather destruction include: a malfunctioning or nonfunctioning uropygial gland (preen gland), hypovitaminous of vitamin A; skin irritations or allergies; poor nutrition; infections of the feather follicles; external and internal parasites; physical trauma, as well as numerous infectious and non-infectious diseases.
If the veterinarian determines that there is no medical problem, an appointment can be made with a companion bird behavior consultant. In some cases, especially when the bird has destroyed its feathers during a period of several months or more, the appointment with a behavior consultant may be needed while the bird is undergoing medical treatment.
Although this may sound as if the bird’s stress level is being compounded, behavioral intervention works well in situations where the bird’s medical condition requires collaring [an Elizabethan collar prevents a bird from being able to reach its feathers]. The consultant may take advantage of the bird’s inability to reach its feathers to determine any environmental contributing factors and to redirect its behavior to more acceptable activities.
The Human Factor
Believe it or not, people often train their birds to destroy feathers. Birds are flock creatures, and your attention and participation is important to your bird. Most birds perceive any type of attention from their favorite persons as positive, so scolding while they are cheerfully denuding themselves is like giving catnip to a cat. This is especially true if you have neglected your bird’s emotional needs.
Clients often describe a bird’s feather problems while snuggling and cuddling the little guy. Attention focused completely — almost hypnotically — on the bird, they tenderly caress the bird while touching all the bald areas. If they briefly look at me, their bird will immediately fuss with a feather, quickly drawing the person’s attention back to it. Like a carefully choreographed dance, in which the bird is clearly leading, the owner’s attention remains fixed on the little feathered family member. I remind the person that he or she is rewarding a bird’s feather picking with that kind of response.
If you are clear and consistent, altering your bird’s behavior can be fun and easy. It is more constructive to make a point of paying attention to positive pet bird behaviors, like shredding a piece of paper or food or when the bird is simply sitting around not doing anything in particular, than it is to reward negative behaviors. Many problem behaviors gradually disappear by simply talking to or touching the bird to reinforce good behaviors and silently turning your back or leaving the room when the bird begins to misbehave.
Offer a variety of safe objects and foods that can be torn, shredded and picked apart to divert the bird’s attention. This will also give your bird a healthy and acceptable outlet for destructive behavior.
The only exception to an immediate veterinary examination for feather-destructive behavior is when the problem suddenly occurs in an otherwise very healthy and active bird and in conjunction with some change in its environment. For birds that are seldom exposed to anything unfamiliar, the change can be as simple as moving around furniture, putting new throw rugs on the floor or hanging a new picture or decorative object on the wall. It can also be in response to a favorite person leaving for a vacation or altering a previously rigid work schedule.
In each situation, after things are back to normal, the bird’s negative behavior usually stops within a few days provided the person does not unintentionally reward it. In this case, the bird will slowly be desensitized to accept whatever triggered the episode and to avoid the behavior in the future. If the behavior continues, a veterinary appointment is required.
When things cannot be returned to normal, as in the death of a family member (human or animal), or when there is an addition of a new family member or relocation to a new home, a companion bird behavior consultant can often smooth things over relatively fast.
Other reasons for feather destruction include: chafing from the cut quills of a bad wing-feather trim; boredom; excitement or any other energetic emotion; disturbances during sleep times; too much activity in the surrounding area; copying another bird; not understanding how to preen properly (this is seen in some hand-fed, incubator-hatched birds); sheer entertainment; hormonal changes; environmental irritants or toxins — cleaning solutions and room sprays or toxins from a cigarette smoker that neglected to wash his/her hands before handling the bird; and jealousy.
Birds are exquisitely tuned in to our emotional status. People often believe that they are hiding their feelings around their birds, only to have them react to the stress levels of their people. Ironically, people are often stressed by their birds’ feather condition and perpetuate the problem precisely because they are worried about it. The bird only knows that a primary “flock” member does not “feel right” and, not having any understanding at all of the stressors in our own lives, responds as it would in the wild — where a lack of “rightness” often means that a life-threatening situation exists.
Seek Immediate Help
Work with feather destructive behavior immediately. In all creatures, including humans, the longer a behavior is practiced, the more difficult it is to alter it. Consequently, if a bird has been destroying its feathers for more than six months, the behavior is likely to continue if it is not dealt with behaviorally, even if the triggering source has been eliminated or altered to a more comfortable level.
Because feather destruction affects people on such an emotional level, the assistance of a trained professional is useful because this individual has a detached and experienced perspective to determine all contributing sources of stress. He or she can devise a program of behavior modification that is specifically suited to the unique needs of both human and animal inhabitants. It is imperative that all members of the family interact with the bird in the same manner so that being well-behaved becomes an understood requirement — not a choice.
If the feather problem is not resolved over time, consider the fact that your bird is a complete and remarkable individual that, like most of us, has problems or feelings that we do not even know about. Remember that it is what’s inside your little companion that owns your heart and that you, like the rest of the readers of this column, are wonderfully lucky to share your life with such a magical creature.