Plucking: A Search For Answers

Allee

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If you've spent very much time with parrots you've probably heard the term or seen the results of plucking. Plucking is disturbing and complex, in many cases the reasons are difficult to pinpoint. There are no easy answers or explanations.

It's a terrifying event to discover a pile of feathers in the floor of your bird's cage. It's even more shocking to see a bare patch of skin or a bleeding wound on your beloved pet. Each case is different and the reasons are numerous.

Parrots don't pluck in the wild. Consider that for a moment. Wild parrots face stress in their natural environments every day. They also find mates, build nests and provide for their chicks. They endure weather changes, vanishing habitats, scarce food supplies, all while fending off natural predators, and still, they don't pluck.

In many cases, our beloved pets are treated like royalty, they are family members, a lot of them live in cages that cost more than their owners' refrigerators, sofas or mountain bikes, their diets are healthier and more costly than our own, we spend more on parrot toys than we spend for shoes or entertainment, the birds' every whim is catered to, or so it seems. Sound familiar? Why then, would a seemingly healthy, happy, parrot resort to attacking itself in such a horrible way? Simply said, living with humans may not kill them, but in some cases, it can cause them to pull out their feathers. Sadly, in extreme cases, plucking can lead to mutilation which can in turn lead to death.

It should also be said that a tremendous number of parrots have not only adapted to our environment, but they thrive with their human flocks, their life expectancy is far longer, they are healthier in most cases and appear to be very happy pets. That's saying a lot, considering many parrot species are only a few generations removed from their wild relatives. So what makes some birds pluck while others never do?

As much as we'd like to offer a cure for each and every case of plucking, the best we can do is to explore some of the more obvious causes, teach you to recognize the symptoms, and offer some resources that may help you to resolve your own bird's unique cases.

Plucking usually starts with over preening, barbering, feather chewing or feather picking. This happens when a bird becomes preoccupied with normal, healthy feather grooming and progresses to unhealthy habits. The legs, chest, upper back, under the wings and around the neck are popular starting places.

Some species are more predisposed than others to plucking. African greys, cockatoos, macaws, quakers, conures, and eclectus top the list, but any parrot can pluck. One of the most advanced cases I've ever seen was a budgie. I also know a male cockatiel who resides in an avian clinic, his owner relinquished ownership and permanently entrusted the bird's care to the veterinarians. The cockatiel's plucking and treatment is ongoing and the vets have yet to find a specific cause, medical or otherwise. It should be noted that in this case the bird was treated well from the day he hatched, and to date there are no obvious medical or environmental reasons for the bird to pluck.

When you see signs that your bird is plucking and start looking for answers you will find an overwhelming amount of information that may or may not apply to your bird. A lot of research has been done and new research is being added daily. There is no short answer, but the good news is, in many cases there are changes that can be made to help your parrot stop plucking.

Basic Needs
Some of the more basic reasons for plucking can be addressed easily.
It should go without saying that parrots need and deserve to have their basic needs met. Cage, set up, diet, vet care, exercise, enriching activities and interaction. All these factors play an important part in any parrot's health.

Avian Vet Care
You may not want to be told that your bird needs a thorough examination by a qualified Avian Veterinarian just because he pulled out a few feathers or because you've noticed subtle changes in his behavior, but that's the best possible advice. The initial exam can either pinpoint or rule out medical issues that could be the underlying cause. Many Avian specialists will be willing to work with you to resolve your birds plucking issues even after medical issues are resolved or ruled out.

Diet
I can't stress enough how important diet is. For many years seed was the standard accepted diet for avians. Today we know better, and we are still learning. There are so many commercial parrot diets available it's difficult to decide which one is best. Information is also freely available for the asking, but opinions on diet vary widely. For our purposes here, suffice it to say, diet in one way or another is often a direct or indirect cause of plucking.

Environmental Toxins
Our homes are filled with products that can be harmful or fatal to our avian companions' fragile respiratory systems. It is wise to make yourself familiar with the long list of possibilities. Non stick cookware and appliances, chemically treated carpets and upholstery, paints, aerosols, candles, potpourri, room fresheners, cleaning products, smoke from any source, zinc, lead, cadmium. These are just a few of the more obvious dangers. Many toxins can lead to a bird's sudden death. Exposure to harmful, breathable or consumable toxins can cause less visible, but very serious health issues for your bird in the long term, these underlying causes can in many cases lead to plucking.

Stress
Just like people, birds are individuals, where one may thrive in a particular environment another may be driven to distraction by the very same thing. Other household pets, wild birds, sirens, car alarms, children, strangers, cage location, video games, weather, a favorite human's absence, a new home, new family member, a traumatic experience. Again, the list is endless, knowing your bird goes a long way toward keeping them happy, safe and comfortable in their feathers.

Air Quality
Dry air, airborne allergens, powder down, dust, all these and more can cause our feathered friends to itch, the discomfort can then lead to over preening, barbering, obsessive chewing and plucking. Frequent baths or showers for your feathered friends, clean cages, air purifiers and appropriate humidity levels contribute to clean, healthy, bird friendly, air, humans benefit too.

Hormones
It's no surprise that hormone levels tend to aggravate plucking, especially in birds that have plucked in the past. This is not usually the only determining factor, but hormones should not be excluded as a possible cause.

Once A Plucker...
For whatever reason caused a bird to pluck in the first place, be aware that the plucking can or may have become habitual, in these cases, treating the bird is similar to treating a long time addict. The bird has learned to use plucking as a method of self comfort and often it's a hard habit to give up. In some cases the plucking has continued long enough to cause permanent follicle damage and the feathers can never be replaced. Once a bird has plucked, they seem to be more susceptible to returning to the habit in times of stress.

Abuse and Neglect
We've all seen the photos, most of us have read at least a few stories and clenched our fists in outrage over the human species' unbelievable capacity for cruelty. On the other side of that coin are the kind and compassionate souls who take it upon themselves to undo the damage, to show the horribly abused, the forgotten, and the neglected that there is hope, there is love, there is a better life and a better way. To you kind souls, you have my deepest gratitude and respect. Not a single one among us can save them all, but together we can learn, we can support each other and we can keep an open mind and see the problem for what it is, without judgement or condemnation toward our fellow bird lovers. We can and should explore the many facets of this widespread problem and put our heads together to find positive solutions.

We have started a list of links that we feel may be helpful. If anyone would like to add a particular link, please contact any of the moderators and we will happily add it to the list.

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Treating and Preventing Feather Picking

Parrots - Feather plucking in parrots - Learn causes and remedies for feather plucking and feather chewing.

Winged Wisdom Pet Bird Magazine - Quaker Mutilation Syndrome (QMS) in pet parrots & exotic birds

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We are frequently asked, Is my bird plucking and how do I stop it? I wish we could give you a quick cure, failing that, we instead wish to offer you a few possible explanations, a place to share information and openly discuss your own birds and your personal experiences. It's possible someone else may have have found positive solutions to some of the various symptoms of plucking. At the very least, the parronts of pluckers will know they are not alone.

Some photos may be graphic and some stories, difficult to hear.
We will not tolerate judgment, condemnation, negative or insulting remarks. All inflammatory posts will be removed without prior notice at the moderators' discretion. These birds and their humans are heroes and should be treated with all due respect. It is our hope that we can leave this thread open for ongoing discussion and new resources as they become available.
 
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Anansi

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Allee, thank you so much for sharing your experience and insight into the issue of plucking. So many birds suffer from this, and parronts are often at a loss as to whether the issue is medical or behavioral, and have no idea what can be done about it.

I think this is a much needed and very important thread, and I look forward to further contributions by the other plucking experts in our midst.
 

strudel

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I'm lucky not to have this issue with my birds, but it's wonderful to have such a resource if I ever need it and for those others who have to deal with this.
 

amusic20

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We have lots of birds at the sanctuary who have plucked so much that their feathers haven't grown back, and some can't fly. One cockatoo in particular has to wear a collar so he doesn't self-mutilate. We make sure to give these birds the attention they deserve, which they may not have gotten before. One of the heavily-plucked B&G's has decided she likes me, and I'm happy to show she's loved.
 

Avatar

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This is an excellent post. My CAG started plucking during a molt so I took him to the vet. His bloodwork was normal thankfully. My vet asked me many questions about my bird and told me misting/showering daily was inadequate and suggested adding a cold humidifier. I was amazed he stopped plucking after 24hrs. It just goes to show that there are bunch of factors to investigate and never give up on trying to improve your bird's life. Plucking is a symptom of a problem that needs investigation, keep working until to figure it out. Never give up.

Allee's post is excellent to show just how many facets could start and perpetuate the issue. It is the most concise article I have read.
 

Kalel

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Very interesting and informative topic indeed. I recently stumbled upon a theory that plucking is genetic. First time I have ever heard of that. Not sure what to think of it, but I think it's interesting enough to share. Check it out. It's a short read. Parrot Island - Exotic Bird Sanctuary - Home Page
 

Anansi

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Very interesting article. Not sure if I'd be ready to attribute all plucking to genetics, but the possibility that some cases might be due to inbreeding seems quite plausible to me. Thanks for sharing.
 

Kalel

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Sun conure named Lemon (nickname Moonie) hatched August 28, 2014, BFA Professor Green hatched August 22, 2014, Macaw Flash hatched Sept 15, 2007
You are very welcome:)
 
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Allee

Allee

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The feathers in this pic were plucked by an eight month old cockatiel. In her case she plucked the feathers after a terrible clipping given to her by a pet store owner. She pulled out all the feathers several times after they were fully grown in. You can see the feathers were mature but at the base of the shaft, you can still see blood and skin indicating the feathers didn't molt out naturally. These feathers also show signs of a bad diet. She had no perches in her tiny cage in the pet store so the feathers are ragged due to constantly rubbing against the bars of the cage. In this bird's case after the clipped feathers came in satisfactorily her plucking stopped automatically. She only plucked the feathers damaged by the clip. Feathers tell a story.



All the feathers in this photo were molted out naturally, you can tell by the normal wear and tear and by the clean shaft completely in tact.

 

Anansi

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Great examples, Allee!
 
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Allee

Allee

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Harry volunteered her plucking progression photos.

Happy healthy Harry after months of not plucking.





For Harry, her plucking always starts with her legs.



Then her breast.



Then her back.



Thank you, Harry!

Harry hasn't plucked in more than two weeks now and she's showing some new feather growth.
 

jiannotto9492

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So here's a feather Duke lost today. He's going through his first molt and there's been a bunch of these little feathers all over the place.
 

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Allee

Allee

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Parrots lose lots of feathers during a heavy molt, it's not necessarily a cause for concern. The feather in the photo actually looks like it was bitten off, but a single bitten feather is also no reason for concern. During a molt a bird's skin can become itchy and irritated, pinfeathers can't be comfortable, occasionally a parrot will get a bit overzealous removing the offending feathers.

Is that what you were asking?
 

jiannotto9492

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Allee, I agree that this particular feather looks like it was nibbled on.
14824d1437602086-plucking-search-answers-img_20150722_180141152_top.jpg


Duke may have nibbled on it because it was itching him, but it didn't fall off straight away, but did so when you were holding him.

Another example of what chewed/picked feather look like can be found in this thread:
http://www.parrotforums.com/behavioral/55663-chewing-feathers-like-gum.html

14819d1437566458-chewing-feathers-like-gum-image.jpg

Just an update you had me wondering as to if he was over preening and nibbling or not so I took a trip to the vet and she said that it was all normal molting.
 
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Allee

Allee

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That's good to hear, jiannoto. I'm glad Duke's vet sees no cause for concern.
 

JerseyWendy

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I took some photos of fallen out (molted) feathers this morning from Ripley, Niko, and Sam.







Niko obviously overpreened one of them before it came out. :54:





But no worries, I won't be rushing him to the vet any time soon, because this guy rarely has a single feather out of place. :D

 

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