Feather destructive behavior is one of the most frustrating phenomena in avian medicine, for the owner, the veterinarian and most especially the bird. However, recent research indicates that 35-40% of the time there is an underlying medical problem. Therefore, correct diagnosis and treatment of this medical problem could partially or completely resolve the feather destructive behavior.
Feather destructive behavior is defined as the abnormal over-preening and mutilation of feathers by the bird itself or another bird in close proximity. It is an obsessive, destructive behavior. It is not difficult to identify a bird afflicted with this behavior. Affected birds have damaged, mutilated or a lack of feathers below the neck - the head feathers are always spared. The one notable exception to this is the bird whose feathers are picked by a cage mate. Cage mates will often pluck the head and facial patches of their mates. The process of molting must be distinguished from feather destructive behavior. Molting is a normal process whereby the old, worn feathers are lost and subsequently replaced by new ones. The frequency of molting will vary with species and climate. In warm areas, one to two molts per year is average with small amounts of feathers being lost over a number of weeks as they are replaced with new ones.
Feather destruction, when due to a medical problem can often be cured. However behavioural feather destruction, once present for over 3 months can often only be controlled, not cured completely, since it is then too well established a pattern of behaviour for the bird.
Many species of caged birds are prone to feather destructive behavior. The most common species to exhibit this behavior are African grey parrots, cockatoos, macaws, conures, grey-necked parakeets, and cockatiels. Amazon parrots seem to be spared this affliction although they can exhibit a self-mutilation syndrome which is believed to have an infectious origin. These birds will mutilate their skin (vs. feathers) of the legs, toes, wing webs, groin and underarm regions and can often be helped with medication.
There are both medical and non-medical causes for feather destructive behavior. Some causes include malnutrition, stress, changes in hormone levels, external and internal parasites, boredom, internal disease, and bacterial or fungal infections of the skin or feather follicles.
The most common medical problem is malnutrition. We must distinguish that malnutrition does not imply lack of food, but rather poor nutrition. Often these birds are seed eaters and obese as a result. We recommend that seventy to eighty percent of your bird's diet be constituted of high quality pellets such as Tropican. The remaining twenty to thirty percent can be other foods to provide a variety. For example, fruits, vegetables, and a wide variety of human foods can be fed. We recommend that you avoid giving your pet bird avocado, chocolate, alcohol or any foods containing caffeine, saccharine, MSG, excessive salt, sodium nitrite (found in cured meats) and sulfur dioxide (found in dried fruits). It is also important not to give high sugar foods, or very sweet fruits on a daily basis since this can contribute to digestive tract yeast infection.
Infectious disease can induce feather destructive behavior. For example, some bacterial or candida infections of the crop can result in plucking over the crop area. Another example is giardial infections known to be associated with diarrhea can lead to plucking over the vent area in some species.
Fortunately, external parasites such as lice and mites are extremely rare among cage birds, contrary to popular opinion, but should still be considered as feather destructive behavior.
Allergies, specifically to nicotine and other smoke contaminants can occur. It can be difficult to diagnose this as the cause, unless one is willing to remove the bird from its environment for up to three months and observe for an improvement. Contact allergies to nicotine can occur on the feet of some birds as a result of sitting on the hand of a human smoker. The human needs to wear gloves to protect the bird if this is the case (or stop smoking since birds should never be exposed to smoke directly!).
Feather destructive behavior and sexual isolation and frustration have been linked. Gender of the pet bird is often unknown since there is no external genitalia to indicate their sexual identity. The sex hormones (testosterone or estrogen) are produced by the bird's reproductive organs. These can be extremely potent and can change a bird's behavior. Under natural conditions these behavioral changes would result in the attraction of a mate and the pursuit of courtship and mating behaviors. However, pet birds are often solitary and therefore cannot engage in these pursuits. The stress that follows can result in feather destructive behavior.
Hormone influenced feather destructive behavior can be the result of a bird trying to create a "brood patch". A brood patch is a featherless area in the breast which allows efficient transfer of heat from the bird to its incubating eggs. Providing an appropriate mate is an obvious solution but is often not practical and can change the relationship of the human and original bird. Reducing sexual stimulation (removing mirrors, not petting your female bird over the back, and moving birds of opposite sex out of sound range) may be helpful.
Often the pet bird chooses a favorite human as their mate. Separation from this human can be stressful and traumatic. This stress can lead to feather destructive behavior and the resultant concern and attention of the owner will unconsciously reinforce the behavior. We recommend that you attempt to give a newly arrived pet bird only the amount of time that you can realistically sustain in the long-term. Allow your bird time to be alone and independent and hopefully it will develop healthy play skills (of course provide lots of toys, chewing items, and encourage foraging for favourite foods by hiding them). A surprising finding in recent behavioral research is that hand-raised baby birds may in fact be too dependent on humans since they become overly imprinted. A healthier alternative appears to be a parent-raised baby which has had daily positive socialization with humans.
Other non-medical causes of feather destructive behavior include the stress of confinement and household variables (noise, confusion, presence of other pets which may represent a potential predator of the caged bird).
There are no easy solutions for psychological or stress induced destructive behavior, Collars are available to physically prevent feather destructive behavior but are used only as a last resort if the bird actually starts to self traumatize the skin. These collars create an artificial barrier between the bird's beak and its feathers. They treat the symptom (feather destructive behavior and mutilation) but do not eliminate the underlying cause(s). Collars themselves can be stressful and we feel they should only be applied as a temporary measure when it is necessary to stop self-mutilation and prevent trauma to the skin. They also prevent normal feather maintenance or preening which becomes another stressor.
If medical causes have been ruled out and boredom or the stress of separation from a favorite human is regarded as the main cause of the feather destructive behavior, then you must be prepared to make some changes.
Increasing the amount of time you spend with your bird (if possible) will reduce feather destructive behavior because your bird is otherwise engaged, but you must not increase the amount of time you spend with your bird, and then suddenly decrease it, since your absence may trigger a feather destruction episode.
Ensure that your interactions with your bird are positive and mentally healthy i.e. alot of cuddling can actually worsen feather destructive behavior since it can increase hormonal influences on your bird. Instead, try clicker training with your bird. If you google "avian clicker training" you can come up with many websites that can teach you how to train your bird to do fun and interesting behaviors, and because this does not involve alot of physical touching of your bird, it is a wonderfully contructive way to interact together.
Boredom may be combated by providing a wide variety of foods and encouraging foraging behavior with those foods. Emphasis should be placed in foods that require some time to eat (non-shelled walnuts, snow peas, string beans, corn-on-the-cob, etc.) and foods that represent a variety in colors, shapes, sizes and textures. This type of feeding keeps the bird stimulated and interested in food, increases the time to eat and therefore decreases the free time that would be spent on feather destructive behavior . Foraging behavior should be encouraged and is extremely important in providing mental and physical stimulation for your bird. Start by hiding food under a piece of paper and work your way to a closed small cardboard box and then hiding spots so the bird really has to look for their food.
The same factors should be considered when providing play toys for your caged bird. A wide variety should be offered. These toys (for example, chains, bells, rawhides, wood pieces, mirrors, hard rubber toys, puzzles) should be durable and made of stainless steel if they are a metal object. It is important to provide natural objects that a bird can investigate, chew up and rip apart. Branches from non-toxic and pesticide-free trees can be offered to satisfy destructive tendencies (i.e. eucalyptus, northern hardwoods, fruit, tree branches, Australian pine trees and also large pine cones) - avoid cedar, redwood or pressure treated wood. Objects that can involve the bird in physical activity are also important. For example, large ropes to climb on, cardboard boxes with holes in it, paper bags, PVC piping with holes drilled and filled with peanut butter offer good recreational activity. Other things which we have found particularly successful are shoe laces (birds love to pick off the plastic), cardboard circles with holes in them that can be threaded over the perch, natural fiber rope and egg cartons. Stimulate the bird's other senses with television, radio and tape recordings, rattles, bells and music boxes. These provide both visual and/or auditory stimuli that can prevent boredom. A bird with feather destructive behavior whose attention is diverted will spend less time pursuing their vice.
Sometimes changing the location of the bird's cage and/or perch is helpful. The suitability of the new location will depend upon the temperament of the bird and the relative unsuitability of the previous location. For example, a feather destructive African grey parrot (sometimes a shyer and more suspicious bird) might be better off in a more private and secluded area. By contrast, an umbrella cockatoo (usually docile, more affectionate and gregarious) would more likely be better off in a very public, busy area of the house. The size of the cage space can sometimes be a factor. Providing sunshine either naturally or through full spectrum lighting is important for general wellness.
Some birds with feather destructive behavior may not receive adequate rest. Eleven to twelve hours of sleep is required for most pet birds. Covering the cage at night is important, and if the bird's day cage is in a room where there is a lot of activity your bird may need to go into a back room in a covered small sleeping cage with a comfortable perch.
Bathing or misting your bird on a regular basis (daily) may be beneficial because wetting the feathers encourages normal preening behavior. The hope is that the bird will spend more time conditioning the plumage and less time chewing on the feathers or pulling them out. The rule of thumb is misting daily and a good soak on a perch in the shower weekly.
Medication can also sometimes play a role in feather destructive behavior to help relax the bird while other techniques are instigated for controlling the problem. Various medications exist but do not work in every bird, and generally can only help control but not cure the problem.
Feather destructive behavior has been and will continue to be a grave concern for both veterinarians and owners alike. These are just some of the current ideas regarding both causes and treatments. As more information becomes available, we will strive to keep you updated during you yearly physical examination visits.