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Learn how to prevent and alleviate Feather-Picking.....

Billie Faye

Biking along the boulevard
Avenue Spotlight Award
Real Name
Billie Faye
I received this article MANY years ago...it was photo copied for me and sent by email...I found where I put it and have been "trying" to copy it but with no luck so NOW I am trans-scribing it BUT it is 21 pages long and I'm breaking it up into the different sections...this is the first one and it has to do with
Learn how to prevent and alleviate this frustrating condition.

Now this aritcle was written back in about 2004-2005...but has WONDERFUL information in it that I feel is great to help today....so enjoy/comment and others will follow...

By Layne David Dicker
Several years ago I had a behavior consultation with a woman whose bird was clearly doing great damage to his own feathers. After discussing the bird’s history and assessing the level of its current care, I launched into a discussion on “feather-plucking”. Within moments my client, the human one, had grown quite anxious, and I stopped talking and asked if there was a problem. She remarked that I probably shouldn’t waste too much time talking about “feather-plucking” since her bird didn’t feather pluck, it feather chewed. Of course, how silly of me not to notice.

Accordingly, as opposed to languishing in beak/feather-contact semantics, I just call any behavior whereby a bird does damage to a feather, “feather-abusive behaviors”. This broad penumbra includes everything from mild chewers to birds that remove every feather that they can reach. Whether they pick, barber, over preen, chew, mutilate, strip, clip or “worry” their feathers, they’re all feather abusers. I even include the green winged macaw I saw recently that had stripped every barb off of the central feather shaft, leaving himself looking like some sort of tropical porcupine.

But is it accurate to lump all of these behaviors together? Based on the state of our knowledge at this point, I would have to say yes. Neither I, nor the colleagues with whom I have spoken, can assign a particular cause to any of the carious manifestations of this behavior. In other words, there is not an identifiable scenario that is more likely to lead to feather stripping instead of feather-plucking.

Now that we know what feather-abusive behavior is, I should tell you what causes them. Unfortunately, I don’t know exactly what causes them. I have ideas and theories, and I have an approach to dealing with feather-abusive behaviors that has proven very effective, but I cannot point my finger at a specific event of cause and say, “That’s it!” this is not for lack of trying.

For years I would approach a situation of feather abuse in search of the cause of the behavior. Unfortunately, two significant problems arose from maintaining this approach. First, I would only rarely find a “cause,” (which I define as an event at such significance that it would cause a bird to engage in a potentially fatal behavior) and second, when a cause was found, the picking would start again even after that purported cause was eliminated.

The logical conclusion to be drawn from this is that feather abuse is the result of a series of events and rarity, if ever, does it have a sole cause. This follow from the patterns that I observed, and it makes sense in of itself. I believe that parrots are far too resilient to be pushed over the edge by a single event, however cataclysmic it may be, in the wild, parrots deal with life and death situations on a daily basis, and they have not been observed to pick, pluck, chew, chomp or do anything other than take excellent care of their feathers.

I now look at feather-abusing birds as having reached “the pluck point”. What I used to call the “cause” appears to be the event that pushed the bird to that point but not what got them all the way there, in other words, it is no more “the” cause than any of the other situations that got the bird to the point where one more “stress” pushed them beyond the pluck point. Accordingly, when I deal with a plucker, my goal is to get the bird as far from the pluck point as possible….so much so that those events that used to be looked at as “causes”, like taking a vacation, getting a new dog or re arranging the furniture, will not cause a bird to even bat an eyelash, let alone pluck it out.


One interesting thing about the pluck point is that it is not consistent among birds, meaning that it is higher with some and lower with others. The reason for this is that there are some things about a bird’s behavior composite that the bird’s human family cannot change. For example, a gavage-fed, poorly socialized lesser sulphur-crested will have a much lower pluck point than a properly raised dusky conure. These genetic and neonatal factors are out of our control (Of course, you can control this somewhat by buying a weaned bird from a quality breeder).

As for the genetic factors that can lead to feather-abusive behaviors, this seems to be both species related and individual pair related. Certain aspects of a bird’s personality will be inherited from its parents, and a pre-disposition to feather-abusive behaviors could be among those traits. Similarly, it is undeniable that far more African Greys and Cockatoos become feather abusers than, say, Amazon parrots. This is not to say that your grey or cockatoo will become a plucker, only that they might be a step closer to their pluck point than an Amazon.

These birds still come out of the egg far below their pluck point, and if kept there, will never abuse a feather. One generality is that calm breeders (including both the human breeders and the bird’s parrot parents) tend to have calm babies, and environmental stress is a factor that leads to feather-abusive behaviors.

Once hatched, a bird becomes subject to nongenetic factors that can either make them more or less resilient to picking. (BREEDING TECHNIQUES:
From a breeding standpoint, I see fewer feather-abusive behaviors when the baby birds:
· Have been left in the nest box for 10 days to five weeks.
· Are reared by on hand-feeder or alternating hand-feeders.
· Are raised with other birds.
· Are weaned at the appropriate time, without deprivation.
· Are sold fully weaned, plus two weeks
· Are allowed to fledge and then are gradually flight-feather trimmed.
· Are not AGGRESIVELY groomed.

The incidence of feather-abusive behaviors skyrockets when the babies:
· Are incubators hatched or Day 1 hand fed.
· Endure changes in hand feeders
· Are raised in isolation.
· Are weaned prematurely, weaned according to a “schedule” or are weaned via coercion or deprivation.
· Are sold unweaned, irrespective of the hand-feeding experiences of the buyer.
· Is aggressively flight feather or toenail trimmed.
· Are fed by gavage tubes/needles…LD
Unfortunately, these factors can permanently elevate a bird’s picking potential. This means that the bird may always be dangling on the plucking precipice and that there is less room for error on the part of the bird’s human family. Some of these birds can begin to feather abuse at four months of age or younger.

The typical picking scenario, where a bird in its human home is damaging its feathers, provides three areas to be examined. First are the potential physiological causes, then the environmental causes, and then the purely behavioral causes. All are examined and all are fixed.


There are several purely physiological causes of feather-abusive behaviors. A comprehensive article on this subject was written by Samuel Vaughn DVM, DABVP (Bird Talk, August 1997, page 42). If your bird is picking and it is caused by some physical malady, a qualified avian veterinarian should be able to clear it up tout de suite before it habituates. Some of these physiological causes are Giardia infections, feather cysts, mites, zinc toxicity, and even foreign body ingestion. It is my opinion, and that of many avian veterinarians, that there are a vast number of yet unknown physiological causes of picking, including allergies and specific nutritional deficiencies. In any event, the moment you notice your bird damaging its feathers, go to your avian veterinarian and have it examined. If you vet doesn’t know what tests may be appropriate, have him or her contact a veterinarian who does.


Birds will habituate a behavior very, very quickly. They are prey animals that appear to believe that the behaviors of the previous day, one in which they were not captured and eaten, formulate a good plan for survival. Accordingly, if they have been abusing their feathers for a while, they may form the belief that plucking is a good thing. I have found that after a month of picking the chances of total elimination of the behavior without use of restrictive device (a collar) fails dramatically. I would say that the chances of success drop from 90 percent if caught within 30 days to below 50 percent if after that.

So, if you see a bird plucking, act fast! But do not react at all. Remember that birds, as social animals, will do almost anything for our attention. If, when we see our bird pick, we go over and scratch them or move their heads away from their feathers or demonstrate any physical reactions at all, we are teaching the bird that they will get attention in exchange for picking. You also shouldn’t panic or worry about your birds actual or potential plucking. One of the clear causes of feather-abusive behaviors is environmental stress, and parrots are highly emphatic animals. So, if you stress out, they will stress out.

Accordingly, if you see what you consider to be abnormal feather interaction or damaged feathers, don’t worry or react in any way: just calmly leave the room and call the vet.

I find no credence to the “sexual frustration” theory of picking. Birds are just reacting to hormones and attach no “emotional baggage” to the fulfillment of those urges. In fact, many breeding birds also pick. Further, if sexual frustration leads to picking, why is plucking so rare in amazons when these are birds are known for their hormonal surges? A bird that plucks does not need to be placed in a breeding program (Unfortunately, it is common practice to put poorly behaving birds into breeding situations. This only serves to propagate birds with a possible genetic predisposition towards bad behavior.)

Environmental factors are external events with both physical and psychological effects. They are also objective elements that all birds, or all companion birds, require and they are major factors in elevation your bird to the pluck point. (An interesting and varied diet has many emotional benefits for your bird. Poor food and water placement can result in contamination with fecal waste. Never feed birds from your mouth: our normal bacterial flora contains many organisms that are pathogenic for birds)


All birds must breathe only fresh, clean and usually moist air. Dirty or smoky air will coat the feathers and cause over preening, which is a common feather-abusive behavior unto itself and is frequently a precursor to all-out picking. Further, the effect of environmental nicotine on a bird’s skin or behavior is not known, but nicotine transferred from a smoker’s hands is known to be a major cause of self-abuse, especially foot chewing. Finally, given the incredible efficiency of a bird’s respiratory system, tobacco smoke and other toxins cause severe physical damage and death in companion birds. Therefore, make sure your birds have fresh air and do not smoke anywhere near or even in the same house with them. Many veterinarians also recommend that, after smoking, you wash your hands and change clothes before handling a bird.

As for humidity, most parrots come from places so humid that you can almost swim while ostensibly on land. I see some amazing results when a humidifier is placed in the room with birds. In fact, much of the picking that was believed to be the results of hormones turned out to be the result of the lower humidity in the winter months, especially in the eastern United States. Be sure to follow the manufacturer’s directions for keeping the humidifier clean. Otherwise, fungi or bacteria will grow inside and be dispersed.


All birds should always have a source of clean, pure drinking water. This water should be free of additives or vitamins. As shown with the humidity issue, hydration is important to the health of all animals, and dry skin is a leading factor in feather-abusive behaviors. Further, all birds should receive frequent baths with water only ….no additives. Additives in the water will leave a residue on the feathers, which the birds will try to remove. This is one of the problems with using a bitter tasting solution on the feathers to stop a bird from plucking.


Whether or not a bird needs exposure to full-spectrum light is the subject of some discussion. From my observations, they benefit greatly from an hour or two a day of either sunlight or full spectrum indoor lights. Birds do not fare well in poorly lit rooms or houses.

In addition to good light, parrots also need good dark. This means10 to 12 hours of dark, quiet, uninterrupted sleep each night. This does not mean that you can just throw a cover on the cage, stay in the same room and watch Star Wars with the surround sound turned up to “11”. It means exactly what it says: dark, quiet and uninterrupted. Sleep deprivation is one of the sneaky causes of many parrots’ problems.

Parrots are not domesticated. In nature, if an animal needs something, it is provided. In the wild, birds are bathed constantly in pure water. They receive lots of sunlight and, given the equatorial habits of most parrots, about 12 hours of light and 12 hours of darkness. Parrots have been around for 20 -30 million years, so they are very well adapted to the conditions of their natural habitats.


This is the biggie, no question about it. With every bird that I see, my belief in the correlation between diet and behavior is strengthened. In the case of feather-abusive behaviors, this is especially true. From my observations, there is nothing that will get a bird above the pluck point faster than a bad diet and nothing that will get a bird below it better than a good diet.

Here is a simple discussion about diet….one with which virtually every authority on the subject will agree: A bad diet is a primarily seed diet and a good diet is a pellet-based diet. Although there are substantial differences as to the proper way to supplement the pellets, there is general agreement that a diet that consists of no less that 50 percent pellets (some recommend as much as 80 percent) and no more that 30 percent seeds (most recommend around 10 percent) or other fatty foods will be fine. Most fill the gap with vitamin A-rich vegetables, legumes, fruit, grains and some animal protein.

Current observations indicate that an all “people food” diet is not much better than a primarily seed diet. Unfortunately, it is virtually impossible to know and regulate what a bird eats when we present a variety of vegetables, fruits, legumes, grains and so on. We have little idea of what or how much is being consumed, and how much is being crumbled, hidden, ignored, played with, dropped or, in the case of cockatoos, thrown across the room. The only way to be certain that your bird is getting appreciable amounts of necessary nutrients is with a pellet-based diet. (Stress marks in feather can result from malnutrition or environmental factors)


Although many of the psychological factors that lead to feather-abusive behaviors do, in fact, come from the environment, they do not affect the physiology of the bird. Behavioral factors cause the bird to almost “decide” to pluck. The common thread that runs through these items is stress, pure and simple. The prevailing theory is that stress causes a bird to feel vulnerable and heightens its need to prepare for escape. In order to escape, the feathers must be preened so the stressed bird will preen and preen and preen.

So, what stresses a bird?

You can easily stress your bird. Birds are so sensitive to the emotions of their flock (That’s you, your significant other, your kids, other companion animals and so forth) that if you’re stressed, your bird will be stressed. This is not just anthropomorphism, in the wild, parrots must react immediately to the emotion of the flock so that they can fly away when any of them sees a predator. Consequently, they are very sensitive to us, and are constantly looking to see if we are calm and secure. I have seen many, many causes of feather-abusive behaviors in households where there is conflict. There are also some people that are just nervous and twitchy.

On a larger scale, a very active household is not the greatest environment for many parrots. Aside from the sleep requirements, parrots also need some peace and quiet in the middle of the day. If kids are running around or you have your birds at a place of business, your birds may not be able to get the rest they need.

Children and other pets can also stress a bird. Children can be very energetic and may poke at the bird or run into the cage. This can be very stressful to the bird and may not be the greatest thing for the child, either. (Losing a finger can be very traumatic). Parrots recognize dogs and cats as predators. Even if there is never any physical interaction, and there should not be. Just having a dog or cat stare at the bird is detrimental. Make sure that you can close off your birds from your other pets when you are not home. A cage is not enough: they must be in separate rooms. I clearly remember a case where on close encounter with a dog cause a baby grey to begin pulling his feathers out.

Cage location is critical. Do not place the cage where people can sneak up on the bird. The cage should not be next to a doorway or directly up against a window. In fact, anything that might startle the bird should be totally avoided. This includes loud or sharp noises or jerky movements. I find this to be an area where improperly bred birds tend to suffer more. Well-raised birds are better at tolerating these infractions.

Abrupt change is stressful to birds. In the wild, something “different” is often something dangerous. Many birds react to a person’s new glasses or haircut. Since there isn’t a giant parrot-eating pair of spectacles in the rain forest (none that have been discovered, anyway) it is not the glasses that are causing the reaction but the fact that something has changed. Again, a young parrot that is introduced to change in a supportive environment can learn to handle this much better, but even the poorly socialized bird can handle new things so long as they are not presented in a threatening way. A bird can accept anything as long as it is presented safely and slowly. (WHEN YOUR PARROT IS A CHICKEN: Presenting new things to a bird is a rather simple matter: Just do it slowly. New toys are a great example. Some birds are toy phobic. If this is the case with your bird, avoid taking the new, scary thing and thrusting it directly into the bird’s inner sanctum. Put the new toy on the floor across the room from the bird, and leave it there for a day or two. After that, move it a few inches closer to the bird. Do this every day until it is at the foot of the cage and then move it to the outside of the cage. After you have inched it up, in it around the door and into the cage.
· No bird will be frightened by this process if you take it slowly enough.
· The pace can vary depending on the bird. Pay attention to its reactions and move accordingly.
· By the time the toy is half way across the room the bird will have it all figured out and will be thinking, “Okay, give me the silly toy already!”
Many birds are also towel phobic. Unlike the fear of toys, which is indicative to a broad environmental sensitivity, towel phobia is usually a learned behavior resulting from being toweled roughly or improperly. The problem with towel phobia is that it makes grooming or routine veterinary exams into life-threatening experiences. Further, in an emergency, you don’t want a compromised bird to worsen its situation by resisting being toweled. The process for a towel-phobic bird is slightly different than a toy-phobic bird.
Go to a linen store and buy a few identical towels. Take one of the towels and cut out a piece one-inch square. Play with your bird with this piece of towel. It should not associate it with a towel. After a few days, cut a piece 2 inches square and paly with your bird with this. As you move on to larger and larger pieces, being to cover his head for an instant, increasing the time for this as well. Gradually envelop the bird while always remaining positive and playful about the activity…LD)

Abrupt change also includes abrupt schedule changes. Although no bird should be on a rigid schedule (the same thing at the same time every day) because it will become dependent on it, it is best to give the bird some security by having a basic routine (about the same thing at nearly the same time almost every day). If you know that you are going to have to change the bird’s schedule, try to do it gradually. This even includes birds that are sleep deprived. Abruptly putting them to bed three hours early will probably stress them further, increasing their sleep time by about 10 minutes a day is recommended.

Neglect and under socialization are major factors in feather-abusing behaviors. A secure bird requires about four hours out of the cage and in our presence, and about 45 minutes of physical contact per day. This varies, but less than this is quite against the nature of parrots and can lead to picking.

Boredom can also be a problem. The more interesting you can make the cage environment, the better. Rotate toys, make food fun and challenging, have a variety of chewable perches and give safe natural branches (a great anti-plucking device!)


Now that you have observed some feather-abusive behavior, taken the bird for a full veterinary exam and fixed the bird’s environmental and psychological difficulties, will the bird stop feather abusing? If it is caught before the behavior is patterned, the bird will probably stop. There picking may end abruptly or may gradually abate. There are several scenarios in which the picking may persist.

My feeling is that if you have a healthy and happy bird that has a minor picking habit, so what? It is a sweet and cherished companion irrespective of a few bald spots (This is, I believe, how my wife regards me.) I would never collar or drug a bird where the pattern of the picking is clear, all problems have been resolved and the habituated problem is minor or moderate. It seems silly to collar and stress a bird over a cosmetic issue.

U fortunately, there are cases of severe picking and self-mutilation that cannot be quickly or sufficiently resolved. These birds must be collared for their own safety. In the case of habituation of a severe plucking problem, I recommend that the collar be left in place for no less that the time it takes for total re growth plus 30 to 60 days. Removing the collar can be done immediately and permanently, for increasing longer periods every day by gradually trimming the collar back, or whatever works for your bird.

On hot issues has been the use of drugs (Haldol, Zanax and Prozac) to combat feather-abusive behaviors. They are not a cure for picking, but they may sufficiently calm a bird so that behavioral changes can be made. Without making the appropriate behavioral / environmental changes, the bird will almost certainly start picking again once it’s off the drugs. Used in conjunction with a behaviorist and only where appropriate, they can be helpful.

I support alternative, non-western forms of medicine (acupuncture, homeopathy and holistic medicine). However, over-the-counter “calming” remedies do not, in my experiences, alleviate plucking or any underlying nervousness. You should never give a bird anything with an alcohol base, which many of these “remedies” have. If you chose an alternative form of treatment, use a veterinarian experienced in these disciplines as they apply to parrots, do not self-prescribe.

Refresher Course
To review, here are the keys in dealing with feather-abusive behaviors:
· Deal with them immediately. Any delays make them harder to diagnose and allow for habituation.
· While you should act immediately, you should do so calmly and without paying any direct attention to the behavior. There is nothing worse than taking an empathic animal with an obsessive-type disorder and obsessing on it. Calmer people have calmer birds.
· Have your veterinarian conduct a complete medical evaluation.
· Contact an experienced avian behaviorist and have them assess the current environment of the bird.
· Put simply, fix everything.

Does this blunderbuss approach negate the need to truly know, as best as possible, why the feather-abusive behavior began? Of course not. A bird’s
Individual history and needs will strongly determine which of the environmental issues are to be addressed and how. By eliminating all potential causes of the abusive behavior, you will be left with a bird that won’t be sent back over the pluck point by some minor intrusion, such as taking a vacation. The goal is to get the bird as far below the pluck point as possible and keep him there.

One final note. Just because your bird chews, barbers, picks, plucks or self-mutilates does not mean that you are a bad person. I cannot tell you how many people feel that need to whisper when they tell me that they’d like to have a consultation because their bird picks. Don’t worry; you do not have to wear a big red “P” on your sleeve. There is so much we do not know about parrots in general and specifically about feather-abusive behaviors. The fact is picking happens, and the only shame is in not doing anything about it once it is observed. LD

Part Two is Living with a Feather Picker....


Rollerblading along the road
Thanks for posting this for everyone. I was looking at Squeaky's naked back this morning and thinking about how much better off birds would be if more resources were made available.


Jogging around the block
Real Name
I agree. This is a very comprehensive article with lots of good information.


Rollerblading along the road
Avenue Veteran
Wow thank you for posting this, it must have taken forever.


Checking out the neighborhood
Real Name
Thank you for this wonderful article. Even though it is long, I read it all and realised how important and delicate the subject is.