Birdsafe California Bird Nerds

By Carla Thornton

Otis feathered
Otis before...

FORGIVE G. Freedman for feeling a little discouraged these days. She has tried everything she can think of to stop her cockatoo, Otis, from destroying himself. Nothing is working.

Two years ago when Otis began plucking out his feathers and opening small wounds on his chest, Freedman leaped into action. Following experts’ advice, she put him on an all-organic diet, bathed him daily, installed a full-spectrum light and provided lots of toys.

Months of careful tending seemed to pay off. This summer, Otis refeathered into beautiful white plumage, much to Freedman’s relief.

Then, over a two-day period in August, Otis broke off every feather he could reach and picked another small sore over his crop.

Otis barbered
...and after barbering his feathers.

"This is truly the most frustrating and stressful thing I have ever dealt with in my life -- and I've had a few doozies," said a weary Freedman. "When I hold him, it’s like cuddling with a porcupine. He looks like a punker."

Far from neglected
Despite his appearance, Otis seems happy and eats well, says Freedman, who keeps her bird on a playstand all day outside her home office in upstate New York. "This is not a lonely or bored bird by any means."

Otis now gets water filtered by reverse osmosis and food sprinkled with acidophilus, kyolic garlic and a "little pure cinnamon just in case he has a yeast, bacteria or parasite infection going on."

Although previous tests at her vet’s office have shown no medical problems, Freedman is having the bird retested for a variety of diseases.

At the same time, she’s considering scaling back her efforts.

"I believe owners can fuss over their birds too much. It seems like those who do the least have full-feathered birds, and those who do all the researching and preparing of fancy meals usually have the pluckers."

The feather-picking club
Freedman is not alone in her frustration. Untold numbers of parrot owners wrestle with the vexing problem of feather picking. By some estimates, up to 20 percent of all captive psittacines do it.

Plucking is virtually unknown in the wild bird population, and no other pet practices the self-destruction parrots do.

The problem unites parrot owners in a way that other bad bird habits do not.

Owners speak their own lingo and alphabet soup of acronyms, such as "barbering" and "QMS" (see Painful words: A feather-picking glossary).

They gather on Web sites, mailing lists and online clubs (see the end of this article for links) to commiserate and discuss the latest treatments.

A veritable cottage industry has sprung up around feather picking, ranging from special anti-picking toys to behavior consulting to the use of questionable alcohol-tinged elixirs.

Any bird can pick, ranging from budgies to macaws. However, larger, more intelligent birds seem to suffer from the problem the most often, especially African greys and cockatoos.

Birds who pluck only occasionally might pull out a few leg or chest feathers. They might strip, worry or break off the ends of feathers, leaving plumage looking pale or stubbled.

In severe cases, the bird removes all feathers and down for a near-naked plucked-chicken effect, or it might concentrate so heavily on one area it inflicts bleeding wounds.

Some have compared plucking to trichotillomania, the obsessive compulsive human disorder of hair pulling.

The "tiresome mania"
Plucking is not a new problem among pet parrots, if literature is any indication. In A Simple Heart, published in 1876, Flaubert describes Loulou, an unidentified green parrot with "his front blue, and his throat golden" as having the "tiresome mania" of pulling out his feathers.

Sometimes the cure is easy. Cockatiels and budgies, for instance, are prone to giardia, a protozoa that makes the bird’s skin itch. Once treated, these birds usually stop disturbing their feathers.

For this reason, it’s a good idea to rule out medical reasons first. At the first sign of plucking, ask your avian vet to give your bird a thorough physical examination and basic blood and fecal tests. (For tips, see Diseases that can cause feather picking.)

Unfortunately, one vet visit rarely cures the typical feather plucker. A bird might pluck out of habit after disease is gone, or for any number of other, unrelated reasons.

Behavioral or medical?
What causes feather picking?

Avian vet Brian Speer, DVM, of The Medical Center for Birds in Oakley, Calif., believes behavioral problems, not medical, are mostly to blame.

Parrots develop psychological problems as a result of being raised in incubators, says Speer, coauthor of the book Birds for Dummies. Then owners exacerbate the condition with incorrect handling.

Birds should be taught to step up and step down when requested, sit on the hand without climbing the arm, allow their toes to be pinned for protection, and remain on perches, he says.

"You’re their friend but not their love toy."

Consistency works even with strong-willed cockatoos, a species prone to chewing on itself, he says.

"A year and half later something clicks. Suddenly, they’re not clingy anymore. Those birds never mutilate again."

"Unemployment" brings boredom
Simple boredom is responsible for 90 percent of feather picking, believes Dr. James Harris of Montclair Veterinary Clinic and Hospital in Oakland, Calif., and author of’s "Ask Dr. Harris" column.

"Birds observed in the wild spend 50 percent of their waking time finding food, 25 percent interacting with their flock, and 25 percent preening. We put them in cages where they have no flock or social structure and put a bowl of food in front of them.

"We have essentially eliminated 75 percent of their normal daily activity. The bird has no job left to do. So it takes what it does normally, which is to preen, to the extreme." (For a laundry list of other non-medical causes offered as reasons for feather picking, see Why do birds feather pick?)

Dr. Clint Chastain, a veterinarian with the Preston Road Animal Hospital in Dallas, agrees, noting that feather picking is a curse of the modern bird.

""One hundred years ago, pet parrots roamed the house at will or were kept on free-standing perches," he says. "They got a lot more attention from people - and training.

"With the advent of mass merchandising, birds moved into cages and the amount of attention and handling went down, allowing frustration and psychological problems to develop."

Desperate for answers
Whatever its cause, feather picking can drive frustrated owners to the fringes for a cure.

Some experiment with holistic remedies. Others, desperate to break a life-threatening mutilation habit, look to Elizabethan collars, hormone injections or tranquilizers (see Should you drug your bird?).

Prolonged picking can take its toll. At a minimum, permanent baldness might occur in spots where repeated feather removal has damaged the follicles. Naked birds can have trouble regulating their body temperature. When picking progresses to broken blood feathers or mutilated skin, a bird can lose dangerous amounts of blood.

Always a plucker?
After biting and screaming, plucking may be the most frustrating behavior problem parrot owners face.

Small triumphs - a feather returning here, a patch recovering there - quickly turn to bitter disappointment when a bird backslides and plucks again.

Follicles take from three to eight weeks to generate new feathers. Then the anxious owner can experience the rollercoaster emotions of success and failure all over again.

Common wisdom holds that once a plucker, always a plucker.

And while this gloomy maxim appears to be the case in many ongoing struggles, it doesn’t always hold true.

Some parrots do stop picking, thanks to luck, their owners’ persistence at finding a solution, or a combination of the two.

We spoke with some who seem to have found the right combination of therapies necessary to help their birds recover, perhaps permanently.

Here are their success stories.

Arkie's story: no one cure

Like many owners whose birds have ceased picking, Rosemary Patrick is not exactly sure which "cure" helped her senegal parrot, Arkie. She’s just glad the problem seems to have gone away.

Arkie pulled some feathers shortly after Patrick got her as a young bird in 1997. Then all was well for two years.

Arkie and Rosemary
Arkie, with a mildly picked underbelly, and owner Rosemary Patrick.

Arkie resumed her bad habit in late 1999. For over a year Patrick wrestled with the behavior of her bird, whom she describes as a "moderate chewer." Arkie’s shoulders looked ragged and she picked her chest some. She had no tail feathers.

The shotgun approach
Two different vets who saw Arkie diagnosed boredom or hormonal problems. Patrick rejected the idea of hormone shots but followed one vet’s advice to buy an outdoor aviary.

However, once she set up the 4-foot-by-6-foot enclosure, she couldn’t bring herself to leave Arkie in it alone all day. "We live in an area where there are hawks, crows, coyotes and snakes."

Late last year, Patrick began making changes suggested by a parrot behavior expert. She extended Arkie’s sleeping hours from eight to 10, provided more foot and shreddable toys, bought a humidifier and bathed Arkie once a week.

She switched her food to Harrison's High Potency and almonds and added the dietary supplement methyl sulfonyl methane to her drinking water.

Offering security
Patrick even positioned a ficus tree between Arkie’s cage and the nearby window so she wouldn’t feel as exposed and hung peacock feathers in her cage for her to chew and hide behind.

Leg picking
Plucking can range from a relatively minor habit...

Arkie gets a few hours of liberty every evening and spends time outside in a small cage on the weekends while Patrick does yard work at her sunny southern California home.

Patrick let Arkie’s wings grow out as part of her multi-pronged regimen of therapies, but recently began clipping them again out of concern for her safety.

Within a few weeks of beginning her new life, Arkie began to pick less and is now fully feathered.

"I'm hoping she will stay feathered. I feel like I know much more than I did when I got her and learning more all the time, thanks to the feather picking mail list and the senegal mail list," says Patrick.

Two years ago in October, after an earthquake struck near Las Vegas, Maggie and Russ Buchanan’s Congo African grey parrot, Sammy, responded by "fright molting" most of his tail feathers.

Sammy had picked a few feathers from his neck and legs before, but nothing would prepare the Buchanans for what was to come.

Sammy's story: saved by Vitamin E

Triggered by molting
When new tail feathers began to replace the ones he lost, Sammy plucked almost all of his down and chewed the skin on his rump and back until it bled. Each time another tail feather molted, about every six weeks, he would attack himself anew.

Bad picking extensive feather damage.

He "ripped out his down, acted like a dog with fleas, and shook his head a lot," remembers Maggie.

By December 1999, Sammy had stopped moving or eating on his own and had lost 13 percent of his weight. By then the Buchanans had tried a laundry list of cures, including hydroxyzine and steroids for allergies, soaking baths in aloe and medicated shampoo.

With Sammy unchanged, they sadly contemplated euthanasia.

One last idea
In desperation, Maggie decided to try one more thing: slathering Vitamin E oil on Sammy’s self-inflicted wounds.

Within seconds, it became apparent the oil provided the relief the bird needed.

The next day Sammy began talking again and the day after that he destroyed a brand-new television remote.

"I knew then that Sammy had come back to me," says Maggie, who enthusiastically continued to apply the Vitamin E. Five days after the first application, Sammy began to shed his ugly, fibrous scabs and a week later was fully healed.

An imperfect solution
In the 22 months since, Sammy has backslid several times, each time triggered by a molt. He remains on a low dosage of the anti-psychotic drug haloperidol.

The Buchanans estimate they have spent a couple of thousand dollars on medical tests, behavioral consulting and medications for their bird.

In February, Maggie launched a Web site and mailing list for parrot owners whose birds feather pick and mutilate.

"It was out of desperation, frustration and selfishness that I started the list," she admits frankly. "I was hoping to find someone who had the answer for Sammy's mutilation."

Although she has yet to figure how to stop molting from upsetting Sammy, Maggie considers the vitamin E oil something of a miracle treatment. Each time Sammy threatens to chew his flesh, she quickly applies a small amount of oil. That usually does the trick.

Macy and Hayley: changes in diet

Many owners credit preservative-free diets with relieving their birds of pluck-inducing food allergies.

Linda Hodge of Riverview, Fla., is sold on Avian Naturals’ Just Say No dehydrated and freeze-dried vegetable, fruit and nut mixes.

She believes the organic food protects her Timneh African grey, Macy, from an allergy to sulfite, typically used to preserve dried fruit.

Sulfite allergy relieved?
Hodge bought Macy from a local pet shop about a year ago because she felt sorry for her. The bird had overpreened the color off her feathers and snipped pieces off, leaving her legs, underbelly and neck looking fuzzy and oddly silvery.

When Macy began to lose weight, too, a frightened Hodge decided to switch the bird’s diet to Just Say No on the advice of a woman who was giving it to her allergic son.

A week after starting the new diet, pinfeathers appeared and now, three months later, Macy’s "beak is smooth and shiny, her weight is increasing along with muscle mass and her picking has stopped," says Hodge enthusiastically.

No more beans
When Anne Finlay's Quaker parakeet Hayley plucked herself naked, medical tests turned up nothing wrong.

Hayley stopped picking when Finlay switched her to another rice and vegetable diet used by a fellow Quaker breeder.

Hayley, a Quaker parakeet, began to grow her feathers back after owner Anne Finlay switched to a bean-less diet.

Finlay now suspects an allergy to the beans in Hayley's old mash, the only difference between the two diets.

"She is in great feather now and not so hyper. The process of elimination and trial and error is best when you are looking for the cause of feather picking."

You can find the bean-less recipe at Joy Thompson's Wings of Joy Aviary Web site.

Bubba's story: GSE baths

Holistic feather-picking remedies--those that rely on herbal, homeopathic or other alternative treatments--are popular, if for no other reason they promise a gentler, more natural treatment than drugs or barrier collars.

After disease has been ruled out, there's no harm in trying alternative medicine, says Dr. Joel Murphy, a veterinarian in Palm Harbor, Fla.

Murphy, who has written several parrot-care books, calls upon a wide array of holistic solutions when standard medicine isn't the answer, including acupuncture.

"We've had a lot of success with belladonna (the holistic treatment, not the herb, which is poisonous) in stopping African greys from plucking," he says.

Grapefruit seed extract
Denise Newkirk believes grapefruit seed extract may have helped her blue-and-gold macaw, Bubba, stop picking.

When Newkirk adopted Bubba two years ago, the bird’s plucking escalated from chest and thighs until it had denuded almost its entire body. Bubba’s mate, Lolo, pulled out the feathers Bubba could not reach.

This summer, Newkirk began spraying Bubba every day with a solution of distilled water and GSE, a bitter-tasting extract thought to inhibit bacterial and fungal skin infections, among other uses.

After two weeks, Bubba began using a bathing pan by herself and allowing new feathers to grow. She no longer picks.

Newkirk is not sure whether the GSE or frequent baths alone cured Bubba. Regardless, “her case had become so extreme, I felt the GSE was worth a try.

"When Bubba was plucking, it was as if she was at war with herself. Now, she arches her neck with pride while primping as if to say ‘look how pretty I am’."

Kogi's story: stuck for a cure

The breeder who raised Candice Basham’s 3-year-old African grey parrot, Kogi, called him "Mr. Cool" because nothing bothered the bird. All that changed after a series of illnesses and an earthquake turned Kogi into a nervous feather plucker.

On the way home after each vet visit, Kogi would tear out his chest feathers.

"He always seemed at a heightened state of anxiety," recalls Basham. "He would scream when I didn’t come home at a certain time. There was a constant demand for attention."

Cure works for owner, too
Years before while visiting China, Basham, a technical writer in northern California’s Silicon Valley, had experimented with a
Kogi, an African grey, plucked his neck and wing feathers before owner Candice Basham cured him with a form of acupuncture for birds called aquapuncture.
form of acupuncture that cured her of carpal tunnel syndrome and relieved joint pain in a knee.

After reading up on acupuncture for birds, including David McCluggage’s Holistic Care for Birds: A Manual of Wellness and Healing, she decided to try it with Kogi.

In March, Basham took Kogi to see a vet who practices a form of acupuncture on his psittacine patients called aquapuncture.

Because birds won’t allow acupuncture needles to remain inserted at pressure points, Dr. Chris Sanders of Portola Valley, Calif., uses a thin hypodermic needle to inject a small amount of Vitamin B complex beneath the skin.

The solution, instead of an inserted needle, applies the needed pressure, then dissolves harmlessly.

Back to his old self
While a vet technician restrained Kogi in a towel, Sanders first applied the needle to the top of Kogi’s head.

The bird yelped, then his eyelids began to droop and he seemed "zoned out," recalls Basham. Sanders injected solution into half a dozen more "stress and anxiety" locations under Kogi’s wings and on his legs.

From the first treatment, Kogi relaxed and "didn’t care where I was," says Basham, laughing. The bird got two more aquapuncture treatments, a week apart each time.

Kogi has his old laid-back personality back - and that, happily, includes no more feather picking.

"Some vets say that after a year, picking becomes a habit that can’t be broken," says Basham, while Kogi whistles and gurgles in the background of a telephone conversation. "I happen to disagree."

Related article | Featherpicking glossary
Related article | Diseases that can cause feather picking
Related article | Why do birds feather pick?
Related article | Do drugs stop feather picking? Published 2001.


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