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Feather abuse is a tough problem

Our six-month-old blue-and-gold macaw, Buffet, has pulled so many feathers out on the top of his head, he is just about bald. There are pin feathers where he has been pulling at them, so he hasn't done enough damage to stop them from regrowing (yet). We are very worried, and don't know just what to do. The only other strange thing he does is whenever I play with him for a little while, he often acts like he is going to throw up on me. He never does this with my husband. The things that I have read about self mutilation and feather plucking has been basically generic, and really doesn't fit our bird. But, if you have any advice, or experience with this type of problem I would really like to hear what you have to say.

-- Ashley Lane Orgeron

Pepper, my Hahn's macaw of three years, has recently started chewing - not plucking - her chest feathers right down to her skin, leaving a small bare patch about the size of a coin. She started doing this to herself a couple weeks after the arrival of our new blue-and-gold macaw. Our avian vet feels there is nothing physically wrong with her and she might be "hurt or angry" that there is a new bird in the house, leading to this destructive behavior. That may be so, but I really would like to know how to stop her feather chewing. I have tried giving her lots of extra positive attention but am worried about this. Otherwise she seems to be in very good health. Thank you so much.

-- Michael Moretsky, Seattle, Wash.

I recently accquired two peach front conures that are bald from the neck down. Their previous owner said they pulled each others' feathers out and that one bird lays eggs but has never hatched them. I have separated them, but I am very concerned and would like to know what steps I can take to insure their health. What caused the birds to be disgruntled with one another and make them pluck at each other and will the feathers grow back? I had never seen a cage so filthy and unkempt. Any help you can give would be most greatly appreciated.

-- Michael

When I bought my 13-year-old cockatoo three years ago, she picked just under her wings and the shop owner told me it was normal stress due to changes. Now she keeps her legs and chest picked clean. Other than seasonal allergies, the veterinarian says she is healthy. I've read everthing I can get my hands on. I rotate toys weekly. I have tried varying her diet. She has a staple of Zupreem pellets, augmented by cornbread and a mixture of rice, beans, corn, and veggies. I added full spectrum lighting in the room about a year ago. Whenever I am home, she is with me. She's very jealous of my roommate and has laid a couple of eggs. At least once a day she starts a courting behavior with me. What am I missing in this equation? She doesn't take care of her plumage at all. I've tried misting with water but it doesn't seem to get her in the mood to preen. I'm concerned that there may be something I'm doing wrong or something I could change to make her happier.

-- Ron Williams, Vallejo CA 94590

My 5-year-old female moustache parakeet, Sherbert, plucks her chest and neck feathers every November through May. All she wants is my husband to hold her and pet her. Is this normal? Please help her.


While I was away on a nine-day vacation, my 2-year-old African grey, Jinx, plucked out most of the feathers on his breast and lower back. Six weeks later Jinx is rapidly growing back his feathers (mostly down so far) and seems very happy that I am back (he won't get off of me). How long will it take for the feathers to return to normal, and is there anything I can do (diet/supplements) to encourage their growth?

-- Jeff Olson, Davenport, Iowa

Self-inflicted feather destruction is a very complex problem. There are many underlying causes ranging from behavioral to infectious and everything in between. Regardless of the cause, once initiated and established, feather plucking is very difficult to stop. Your first course of action should be to rule out any underlying physical problems. External parasites, skin or internal infections, viruses and environmental irritants, to name a few, all can make your bird's skin itch, which in turn can make him want to worry his feathers. A medical workup will require a lot of time and effort and may involve a lot of tests, which can be expensive. In the best-case scenario, you can cure the responsible health problem and your bird will stop itching and stop picking. However, it doesn't always work out this way. Sometimes the destructive behavior becomes so ingrained the bird continues to pick.

In fact, only a very small percentage of feather plucking is caused by a medical problem. Most of it is psychological. Think about it: Most species of birds we keep as companions are highly social, living in flocks composed of complex relationships. They have plenty to do. In the wild, parrots spend approximately 50 percent of the day searching for food and 25 percent interacting with flock members. They spend only 25 percent of their time preening their feathers. Preening is a vital activity that keeps feathers healthy. A properly preened feather with normal structure is insulating, protective and necessary for flight. But when we isolate our pets from other birds, confine them to cages and provide them easily accessible food in large quantities, we eliminate a large block of time that normally would be spent interacting with other birds and searching for food. What's left? Preening, a normal activity taken to extremes in both time spent on it and the degree of intensity with which it's performed.

Let's take your situations one by one and see what the possible causes might be. In the case of Buffet, the balding macaw, have you actually seen him pull out his head feathers? While some owners have reported their birds using a foot to yank out feathers, this is rare behavior. Usually the bird scratches them out or rubs the head on an object in the cage. The "throwing up" behavior you see is probably Buffet attempting to regurgitate for you, a courting behavior; in other words, he considers you his mate. Or he may be begging to be fed by his surrogate parent.

Pepper, the Hahn's macaw who chews her breast feathers, is reaching sexual maturity at the age of three, so hormones could be a factor. Unfortunately, a mate won't necessarily solve your problem. First, there's the hassle of acquiring a second bird - first determining its sex, then screening its health and quarantining it prior to introducing it to Pepper. Even if this goes well, the two birds may not be compatible and you may end up with birds in separate cages - or Pepper plucking the other bird or vice versa. If hormones aren't the issue, Pepper simply may be frustrated by the presence of the new bird. Any change in environment can precipitate feather picking.

Michael's conures, who have pulled out each others' feathers, simply may be a mismatched pair. When we humans pair up (called marriage) and it doesn't work out, we have divorce as an option. So do birds in the wild. Caged birds can't escape one another and plucking may be a manifestation of their unhappiness. Separating them for a few weeks should reveal if this is the case.

Cockatoos and African greys appear to be more susceptible to feather destructive behavior than other parrots. It would be helpful to have more history on this cockatoo. Was it hand raised? Incubator or hen hatched? Did it spend time with its parents and if so, when was it separated? I ask because we are now realizing that chicks who don't spend enough time with their parents and clutchmates - in other words, domestically bred and hand-raised birds - can grow up to be psychologically abnormal. That's because they do not get to observe other birds' behavior during their formative months. Providing such birds with compatible mates may not even work because they do not understand they are birds! In the case of Ron's cockatoo, sexual frustration also should be considered a factor. She does consider you her mate.

Yearly seasonal feather plucking, especially from late fall to spring, is thought to be due to an increase in hormones. Courting and sexual behavior, as in Sherbert's case, often accompany the plucking. Sherbert considers your husband her mate, and holding and petting her further stimulates and encourages this behavior. A combination of not handling her and hormone injections may stop the behavior.

The bird that suddenly starts to feather pluck when you go away is responding to your absence. Some birds pick every fall when children go back to school and the house empties. When summer vacation rolls around again and its "flock" returns, the bird stops destroying itself and lets its feathers grow back in normally.

In each case, be sure your feather-abusing bird sees a veterinarian to rule out disease, and be sure to provide him with a well-balanced diet. Every time your bird plucks a feather, the feather follicle is stimulated to form a new one. The entire replacement process takes several weeks. Along with breeding and egg laying, replacing lost feathers - whether they molt naturally or are plucked out - is one of the most demanding jobs your bird undertakes, so make sure he gets plenty of good nutrition. Pellets are a good source of protein; so are beans, eggs, cheese and cooked meats and fish.

Dr. James Harris James Harris, DVM is owner and medical director of the Mayfair Veterinary Clinic in Sandy Bay, Tasmania, Australia. He founded Montclair Veterinary Hospital in Oakland, Calif., and has served as medical director and chairman of the board for the International Bird Rescue Research Center in Berkeley. Dr. Harris' numerous professional honors include California and National Bustad Companion Animal DVM Awards. Copyright 2010. All rights reserved.

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