Avian Behavior: Feather Destructive Problems = Feather Picking
Feather Picking & Skin Mutilation:
Feather picking is the most frustrating behavior we have to treat in the veterinary medical field and skin mutilation is the worst manifestation of the behavior. The first and most important thing is to have the bird thoroughly examined by an avian veterinarian. I always recommend to clients to give their bird the benefit of the doubt and first assume it is a medical problem. If medical problems are ruled out then we can safely spend the time needed to work on the behavior. Of course the easiest and best way to treat feather picking is to avoid it in the first place (see the correct beginning below). However, if you already have a feather picker there are some things we can do.
First realize that feather picking has many forms including those listed below in 1-4, following the discussion on types of pickers will be a discussion on some basic changes that may help your bird. Again, the best resource is your avian veterinarian and I always recommend discussing any changes with her/him prior to the implementation:
1) Over preening of feathers:
Over preening is often the first sign of a potential feather picker and can be seen in birds of all ages but I often see this in young birds that have not yet started to pick. Certainly, not all over preeners will go on to pick, but in my experience these birds are at a higher risk of becoming pickers. So what is over preening? My definition is a bird that almost appears obsessed with its feathers and appears to constantly be preening or mouthing its feathers. Of course, preening is a normal activity that is needed for the health of the bird, but the individuals I’m discussing seem to be mouthing their feathers the vast majority of the day and with increased frequency when disturbed by environmental change. Also, the feathers of these birds often look ragged due to this over preening. In my experience these birds are less confident and more prone to emotional upset by any type of change. However, these guys are the lucky ones because if caught at this stage they have a good chance of a normal life in captivity.
2) Chewing of feathers:
Our feather chewers can be self chewers or can be companion birds that are picking or chewing the feathers of the face and cheeks of their cage mate. For this discussion I’m focusing on the self chewers as another manifestation of picking. Okay, these guys are not necessarily pulling out entire feathers but actually appears to be grooming and while doing so are chewing off parts or all of the feathers. Some of these guys will only have the tips of the feathers chewed as seem by the jagged/irregular edges. The others of this group will actually chew off the entire feather and can chew all feathers on the body or just a select few. The chewed feathers can be identified by the remains of an irregular feather shaft especially on the wings and tail
3) Plucking out feathers:
The feather plucker is the most common type we see in practice. These guys will vary from the bird that just plucks a few coverts exposing the fluffy underlying gray down feathers (often over the top of the wings) to the bird that has plucked its entire body. Please note that pluckers cannot pluck out head feathers so if a bird is also missing head feather (and doesn’t have a cage mate that may be plucking) the bird is likely losing feathers from another cause such as PBFD virus. So, the typical whole body plucker has few to no feathers on the entire body, except the head which is usually in perfect feather. Often we see these birds after they have been plucking for an extended period of time or have seen several other veterinarians. Again, realize that it is best to start treatment early with all feather pickers and to do a complete laboratory health work-up first.
4) Chewing on skin to create wounds:
Not all feathers chewers or pluckers will go on to actual skin mutilation, but this manifestation if the most dangerous for the individual bird. These birds will also pluck feathers, but will go on to actual chewing/tearing of the skin. Areas targeted can vary but often I see injury/scabs on the keel or feet and legs. The injuries can vary from mild superficial skin wounds to life threatening injuries. I consider this an emergency problem for the bird and thus it must be addressed immediately. I’m not a big fan of placing birds in e-collars (cones that look like lamp shades and placed around the neck to prevent access to the body) but often time these guys have to be collared to prevent ongoing injury. If an e-collar is used it is extremely important to work on correcting any underlying medical and/or behavioral issues. The e-collar should not be used as the correction to the problem and the bird should not be made to live its life in the collar.
ENVIRONMENTAL CHANGES AND SOME TREATMENTS:
The most important thing to remember when treating a feather picking or chewing bird is that this is often a lifelong management issue and there is no quick fix or cure. Therefore, it is important to realize that correcting this problem may take a considerable amount of time and commitment. Also, the longer the behavior has persisted the more difficult it is to correct. It is always best to take the bird to your veterinarian as soon a behavior is noticed. The birds caught early have the best chance of success in reducing or eliminating the negative behavior. That said, the following are some environmental changes I often suggest after a complete health screen of the bird. (for caging and housing see correct beginning)
1) Full Spectrum Lighting:
Often our birds are completely housed indoors and never see the sunlight. Even those by a window will not benefit from the sun because the window acts as a filter preventing the bird from absorbing the benefits of the sun such as Vitamin D3. Birds use the sunlight by preening their feathers with feather dust in the case of cockatiel or cockatoos or the oily secretions of the uropygial (preen) gland. The substance on the feathers will undergo a chemical reaction from the sunlight producing Vitamin D3 which the bird ingests with further preening of the feathers. The exclusively indoor bird does not have the benefit of the reaction. One alternative is to provide full spectrum lighting. The packaging for the light should state that is provides both UVA and UVB rays and must always be a fluorescent light and not an incandescent bulb. The introduction of the light should be slow to prevent stress to the bird. I’d suggest starting out with the light in the same room but not lighted or next to the cage and gradually moving it closer to the cage over several days. When the bird appears comfortable with the light is can be placed within 18inches of the cage and turned on. Ensure that the bird is unable to access the light or cord because most will chew given the opportunity. Also, the light should not be left on around the clock. Night time and darkness is also important to the bird’s health and I recommend 12 hours of uninterrupted darkness each night. Some of the better light will simulate dawn and dusk with a slow brightening and dimming and can be placed on a timer for consistency. Another option is to provide an outdoor cage for temporary sunning. The cause must have shaded areas available at all times and should be protected from wild birds or their droppings.
Many of our captive birds are adapted to the jungle and very high humidity. I suggest you research the natural lifestyle of your particular species and attempt to provide something close to their natural temperature and humidity. Often we live in areas of the country with very low humidity (i.e. Arizona) or we live in areas that require artificial heating which will lower the humidity. Either of these situations can be uncomfortable for our birds. Feather pickers will often benefit from increased humidity because it is soothing to the skin and allows them to keep their feathers clean. A great way of increasing the humidity is to provide a daily bath for your bird. Bathing can be done in a variety of way depending on the individual. Many of the larger parrots enjoy showering with us and there are actual shower perches that can be purchased. Smaller birds may enjoy misting or a shallow bowl of fresh clean water placed in the cage daily. Noise will often stimulate bathing activity and my birds will almost always bathe when I run the vacuum. For smaller birds I’ve also run the skin faucet slowly and placed the bird on a towel over the skin divider (for traction). The birds will watch you running your hands under the water and often will join in on the activity. Bathing with water alone will improve the health of the skin and feathers, but for feather pickers I’ve often added a prescription shampoo to the bathing routine (especially for the shower birds) and this is often an effective way of treating secondary skin infection caused by the trauma of picking. Of course you should never use an over the counter shampoo and also check with your vet prior to using any substance on the skin or feather. Often time anti-pick sprays will often increase the feather destruction because the bird is attempting to clean the substance off its feathers. So always check with your vet first. A humidifier is another means of increasing the humidity. If used, the water chamber must be cleaned in the dishwasher every day to prevent growth of fungus and bacteria that can be very harmful to our birds. Also the paper or cage litter must be changed daily to prevent growth of fungus and of course the bowls should always be cleaned daily as well.
3) Provide mental stimulation during the day:
I cannot over stress the importance of this need. Our birds are often left sitting alone in the cage, with a dish full of food, while we are at work. These can be long boring hours for our intelligent companions. They have no interaction with other intelligent beings most of the day, there is no work involved in getting food and there is no ability for vigorous exercise during the day. Why wouldn’t they feather picking. In the wild these same birds would spend their time interacting with flock mates, flying to distant locations while expending lots of excess energy, and most importantly looking for food throughout the day (mental stimulation). So what can we do? Toys, toys, toys… Think of a child spending time in a room alone and then the same child in a room full of enriching/interactive type toys. Still not perfect but better. I always suggest a variety of toys (see links below) that should include hand toys, puzzler toys, treasure chests, chewable toys and foraging toys. Think of toys not as an option or luxury for the pet bird, but as essentials to that bird’s well being. Please review the excellent links that are provided at the bottom of the page as well as the article on foraging shown below. I also suggest placing a TV or radio on a timer so that it repeatedly goes on and off through the day. This will still allow the bird some quiet time while also providing mental stimulation. Placing the cage in partial view of a window is also helpful. And requiring them to forage for their food is excellent mental stimulation. Foraging may involve hiding food or placing food in toys that they must "unlock" to get the treats (see foraging article below).
4) Vary the location of the cage or have multiple cages:
Caution should be used especially in a timid bird with little self confidence. Some birds are so frightened of change that a cage move will cause picking (see correct beginning). However, if your bird is already picking providing variety in the cage location may give them other things to think about and provide some distraction to slow the picking. Of course, it is best to start out early with a baby bird but even older birds can lean to tolerate change if the introduction is gradual.
5) A companion bird?
This is a tough question and can go either way depending on the individual bird. Ideally, I recommend when purchasing a baby bird that 2 birds be purchased. I believe it is unfair to these intelligent beings to require that they spend their lives alone. If raised together many birds will become lifelong companions. The babies should both be hand fed so that they are very tame and you must interact frequently with both birds to keep them tame and loving with the family members. The down side of having 2 birds is that they can become aggressive with each other (especially if introducedlater in life) and breeding activity can be stimulated. Breeding activity or hormonal changes can occur with 2 birds of the same sex of even with a single bird that has a mirror. The negative aspects of these hormonal changes are potential aggression, feather picking due to hormonal stress, and reproductive problems such as egg binding in females. If a bird has lived the majority of its live alone and has behavioral problems such as feather picking I often do not recommend getting a second bird. The original bird is often very jealous of the newcomer and fighting may ensue, also the new bird may develop the same behavioral problems as the first. It is best to work exclusively on the original bird to improve its general health both mental and physical.
Don’t have your bird in the kitchen or in the center of activity but rather on the periphery of activity so that they can be a part of the family but can also "escape" for some quiet time.
7) Toys and perches:
see behavior tips and links
8) Nutrition – General Recommendation:
The feather picker is causing damage to its skin and feather follicles which can lead to secondary infection. It is important to provide the best possible nutrition for your particular species of bird to allow for a healthy immune system and prevent the stress of vitamin and nutrient deficiency. Realize that all birds are not the same and cannot eat the same diet. Ideally, I like to offer a variety of foods that include a organic and color free avian pellet, a large variety of fresh veggies, and a small percent of fresh fruits and seeds. The following are a few dietary generalization on some individual species, but again it is important that you speak with your veterinarian and do research on your bird prior to making any changes.
In general you need to provide a large variety of fresh food for your bird. Typically I recommend a core diet of an organic and color free parrot pellet. A large variety of fresh vegetables should be provided for both nutrition and mental stimulation. A small amount of seeds can be provided as a treat. Seeds should be clean and fresh. Sprouted seeds can also be offered and are a good way of introducing greens to the stubborn eater.
- Macaws: Variety will occur with the individual types of macaws. However, in general these birds require a higher fat content in their diet which can be provided with some of the large nuts as a part of their regular diet.
- African Greys: Greys are often subject to calcium deficiency and will require higher calcium content in their diet then other birds. The best way to provide this is by providing calcium rich foods such as cheeses and yogurt in moderation. Greens such as collards, kale, and mustard greens provide a healthy source of calcium. Another source is from almonds and dairy products in moderation.
- Eclectus: Ares often require more vitamin A in their diet than other birds, but you must be very careful with supplements because it is easy to create Vitamin A toxicity. Again, providing natural sources of Vitamin A is best. Feed dark leafy green and yellow veggies daily. Sweet potatoes, squash and bell peppers are a good source of Vitamin A that many birds enjoy.
- Small Birds: Budgies & Cockatiels: These guys are my exception to the rule of pellets. In general I like to place my avian patients on a complete balanced pellet, but for budgies and cockatiels I recommend that the pellets be no more than 50% of their diet with fresh/clean seeds offered daily and of course fresh veggies.
Foods to Feed Only in Moderation:
- Those veggies containing a high amount of oxalates. Some common examples include: spinach, chard, and bok choy.
- Fruits, which can provide too much sugar in the bird’s diet.
- Diets that are based 100% on cooked beans/grains/pasta. These diets often have too much phosphorus and are very high in calories which can result in an obese bird.
- The diet should not be based on seeds. Seed diets contain too much fat and are deficient in many nutrients.
Foods to NEVER Feed:
- The pits of most fruits – i.e. Avocado
- High acid foods such as tomatoes and pineapple (uncooked)
9) Medical Options:
Certainly treatment of any primary or secondary medical causes of feather picking will need to be treated by your veterinarian. Many of these birds will develop secondary fungal and bacterial infections from the chronic skin damage. Also, many illnesses will cause picking and these will be discovered based on a physical and laboratory examination. Each illness will have its own treatment based on how it is affecting the bird.
A couple of things that I don’t recommend for routine use in feather picking birds are
- Medroxyprogesterone acetate (Depo-Provera) which can cause obesity and liver disease
- Steroid injections which potentially can cause liver and gastrointestinal disease.
Medications for anxiety
It is important to remember that a medication is not a quick fix for this very complicated problem and is not warranted in all cases. You must first have a complete physical and laboratory examination of your bird and then work on correcting any environmental concerns. The best use I’ve had for medications are in those birds who are long term picker, very nervous birds, and birds causing skin damage. Also, remember that none of these drugs are had formal studies done in birds and are not labeled or approved for this use. Some medical options may include:
- Clomipramine: This drug is labeled and used for dog separation anxiety.
- Haloperidol: An antipsychotic drug that can have liver side effects
- Fluoxetine: Prozac, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor
- Amitriptyline: often used in cats for elimination problems, tricyclic antidepressant
Medications for hormonal feather picking:
Some birds will be greatly influenced by hormonal changes and this stress will cause feather picking. It is best to first make environmental changes such as removing mirrors or nest boxes (this can include anything the birds thinks of as a nest box), preventing hormonal stimulation such as petting that induces this behavior, and altering the light cycle to mimic winter sunlight. If all these changes fail than drug therapy may be warranted. Drug therapy is most effective in females but has also be tried in males.
- Lupron: leuprolide acetate has an inhibitory effect on the pituitary that should reduce the hormones FSH and LH. This drug has been used in birds for chronic egg laying, hormonal aggression and feather picking. Again, this is not a perfect drug and certainly not for all situations.
Antihistamines for Allergies and itchy skin:
Most feather pickers are NOT allergic birds and are not picking due to itchy skin, but there are exceptions and some birds will benefit from antihistamines. For those birds that do have allergies or skin irritations it is important to reduce environmental causes such as cigarette smoke in the air or on your hands, perfumes or other aerosolized sprays, and dust from cockatoos which can cause allergies in birds such as macaws. Always have clean hands when holding your bird, don’t use any sprays around the bird and ensure that the room is well ventilated.
- Diphenhydramine: both oral and topical forms
- Hydroxyzine: both oral (liquid) and topical
IS FEATHER PICKING A MEDICAL OR BEHAVIOR PROBLEM?
Often it is both. Without a doubt feather destructive behavior (FDB) is the most common problem I see on a daily basis. I often see a bird after it has been picking for months or even years. At this late stage it is impossible to determine if it began as a behavioral problem or a medical problem. Regardless of how it started, most feather pickers will have a medical component as well that must be addressed. Something as simple as a skin infection is often enough to keep most pickers picking. So, before we can even approach the issue of behavior the health aspect of FDB must be addressed. Every bird showing FDB must be seen and fully evaluated by a veterinarian. Many, chronic and often hidden illnesses can be manifested as FDB. I always advise owners that before we can safely spend the months it may take to alter a behavior we must first resolve any primary and even secondary diseases. It is not atypical for a bird that started picking due to behavior to develop secondary skin infections that must be treated medically. So first please take your bird in for an evaluation by your avian veterinarian. Also, I encourage that the bird be presented to an avian veterinarian at the earliestsigns of FDB. The earlier the condition is noticed the better the chance for complete resolution of the behavior.
Not all FDBs are as obvious as the bird a bird that has only a few tail and flight feathers left and a fully feathered head, most are much more subtle. Feather destructive behaviors can range from the bird that over grooms its feathers resulting in a ragged appearance to the feathers, to the bird that plucks large amounts of feathers from its skin resulting in a chick-like appearance with exposed down feathers, to the most serious form, the bird that actually mutilates it’s skin resulting in potentially deadly infections and wounds. It is important to note that while not every feather chewer goes on to mutilate, some do, and we don’t know who these birds are in the early stages of the disease. Also, regardless of the degree of feather or skin damage it is important to realize that feather destructive behavior in all the various forms is a serious behavioral disorder that should be corrected or at least managed to improve the quality of the life of these birds. In short, look for ragged or unusual feathers on your bird, areas on the bird that are actually devoid of feathers, and skin wounds on the bird. Any of these signs should warrant a trip to the Veterinarian.
My bird has feather destructive behavior so does this mean my pet is unhappy or poorly cared for?
Absolutely not, the majority of birds I see with FDB are well cared for and well loved pets. I often stress to owners that they cannot and should not blame themselves for the behavior their bird is demonstrating. Like all behaviors, FDB is caused by multiple factors and not caused by one particular incident, or environmental factor. Factors such as how the bird was raised, socialized, and weaned all greatly influence the behavioral development of your bird prior to the bird even entering your home. In addition, guilt over FDB and having to view the affected bird daily will often cause the owner to place the bird with a new family, because they assume the bird is not happy with them. Unfortunately, this often results in the bird going through several different homes in a short time frame and causes a worsening of the behavior due to the stress of the ever changing family and environment. A better solution is to recognize that the bird has a behavioral problem and then take the steps that we’ll cover below to alter the behavior. FDB appears to be predominately a captive bird disorder. Of course, if wild birds did demonstrate the pronounced feather destructive behavior we often see in our pet birds they would quickly be consumed by a predator. It is now commonly thought that the life of the wild bird is so radically different than our captive pets that FDBs just don’t develop. Wild birds are well socialized by hatching out within a clutch of chicks and fledging within a flock structure that requires a wealth of interaction often between numerous birds. In addition, wild birds spend most of their day foraging or looking for food. Foraging not only exercises their brain but also requires vigorous physical exercise with birds’ often flying miles in search food and water sources.
How are pet birds different than wild birds?
In contrast, our pet birds are kept largely in a cage that even when of generous proportions is unlikely to allow much exercise, they always have a ready source of food and water, and they are often housed alone. The wild bird that spends the greatest part of its day foraging is the same bird that is only provided limited socialization, no exercise and no foraging in captivity. Is it any wonder they pick? I love birds and intend to continue to share my home and my life with them. Therefore, I’m not advocating that birds should only be wild, but I am advocating that if we keep birds as pets than we must find the best way to make their lives as full and rich as their wild counterparts and as rich as they deserve.
Why does it matter how the chicks are raised?
Our pet birds are usually removed from their parents and or flock at a very young age or even when an egg. Their socialization from this point on is largely dependent on the care and knowledge of the breeder who must take over the role of flock and parents. Too many times the pet bird is raised alone and never allowed to learn correct parrot social behavior from clutch mates. Often the chick is adopted out prior to even weaning and many times the chick’s wings are cut prior to the first flight further restricting the physical, emotional, and mental development of the bird. Please understand, I do believe that pet parrots should be hand-raised, because I find it senseless for a being that is going to live in our homes for decades to live frightened of their caretakers. However, I also believe the way in which the chick is raised is vitally important to later behavioral development. Ideally, clutches of chicks should be raised together in a social group during and beyond the time they fledge. Allowing the chick to fledge and safely learn to fly is important for muscular and mental development. I believe that chicks that have learned to fly are more confident adults. I don’t however believe that all pet birds should be left flighted. The decision to trim the wings is largely dependent on the type of home the bird will live in. Hundreds of loved companion birds are lost every year due to an unexpected and inadvertent escape. While in some homes a flighted bird can be safely kept, in most homes it is best to slowly and progressively trim the wings of the fledged chick to the point at which flight and escape is limited.
Okay, so what is foraging and why is it important?
Foraging in the classic sense is the time in which a bird spends its day flying to and looking for food. Little of its time is spent in actual eating and much of the time is spent in the process of looking for the food. Foraging is a great way to stimulate the parrot’s mind and also encourage more movement and exercise.
So, how can a caged pet bird forage?
It is important to note that foraging must be taught to most of our pet birds and advanced foragers take months to develop and not days. Teaching a caged bird to forage involves a series of very simple changes to the bird’s cage and or free standing tree. Keep using the bowl in which the bird was typically fed, but don’t fill it to overflowing, put in just enough food for the day, and don’t put the most favored treats in the bowl. Now add several smaller foraging bowls all over the cage. Place these small bowls in the cage such that the bird must fully traverse its cage to get to all the bowls. Now place only a very small amount of a favorite treat in each of these bowls. It is important that the bird not reach the first bowl and eat its entire daily ration. We want to encourage the bird to move to and explore all the bowls. At this point you are already providing the bird with more exercise than our formally sedentary parrot who sits on its one favorite perch all day. When the bird has mastered finding treats in all the little bowls, begin to add a small piece of paper on top of each bowl so that the bird must push it off to get to the treat. Advance from here to taping the paper on the bowl so the parrot must chew through the paper to get the treat. Some retail foraging bowls come with lids that can be placed tightly so that the bird must work out how to undo the lid to get the treat. The idea being that as the bird masters each stage the foraging is made a little more physically and mentally demanding. Many excellent foraging type toys can be purchased from retail stores such as www.birdsjustwannahavefun.com, but toys can also be easily and inexpensively made at home.
- Paper cups make a great foraging device. Use small paper cups and place a small treat in the cup, wad the cup into a ball and place in the cage or on the tree. The parrot must chew through the cup to get the treat. Advanced stages of this include placing a tie around the cup and suspending it from the tree so that the bird must pull the cup up by the tie to allow access for chewing.
- Tamale wraps can be used to make a great hidden treat. Again, place only a small amount of treat in the corn husk and wrap until fully covered and tie closed. Then allow the parrot to chew the tamale until the treat is revealed. Commercial type piñatas are available from retailers and serve much the same purpose as the tamale wrap, but come in interesting shapes and colors.
- Cardboard rolls are another easy foraging toy. The roll should be appropriately sized so that the bird can easily pick the roll up in its hand and chew out the treat that is hidden inside. Also, thicker cardboard is better as it requires more time for the bird to get the treat out. Many commercial products are available and now come in various colors and sizes.
- Paper can be weaved in the cage bars
- Adding machine tape can be hung on a perch
When your bird has become a master forager you can start to vary the routine somewhat and place a large variety of foraging toys in the cage. Some of the toys are now empty, some are filled with actual toys, and some are filled with small treats. You can also introduce some of the acrylic type toys that require an action such as opening a drawer, turning a wheel, or lifting a lid to get to the treat. A few of the better toy retailers include birdsjustwannahavefun, The Bird Brain, and Parrot island which makes a variety of treasure chests with various toys to fill them with.
So, as a result of these small changes you have implemented you will have a more physically, emotionally, and mentally fit companion bird with which to enjoy your life. The bird has gone from spending its day plucking out feathers and sitting on one perch to roaming all over the cage and discovering many yummy and interesting treats in its now much more exciting world
The photos used in this article are a combination of patient photos, my own birds and wildlife photos that I’ve taken in AZ and IA. Much of my own education has been through extensive reading on just about anything involving bird behavior. I’ve learned greatly from the published materials of Dr. Echols whose work has contributed greatly to the well being of captive birds world wide. I’ve gathered foraging & behavior information from various journal articles involving avian behavior, the Association of Avian Veterinarians Conferences, Exotic DVM, and Captive Foraging DVD . Most importantly, keeping and raising birds throughout my life has provided me with unlimited opportunities for learning. My love and awe of birds is largely what lead me to become a veterinarian and the care I’ve provided my birds has been paid back a thousand fold with the knowledge they have shared with me, allowing me to utilize that knowledge repeatedly when caring for my patients. I thank them all - Jill M. Patt, DVM - Little Critters Veterinary Hospital