• Welcome to Avian Avenue! To view our forum with less advertisments please register with us.
    Memberships are free and it will just take a moment. Click here

Living with a feather-picker ....

Billie Faye

Biking along the boulevard
Avenue Spotlight Award
Real Name
Billie Faye
this is Part Two of articles I received years ago: This was written around 2004-5

By Chris Davis

Put these tips into action to help limit feather-picking behavior.

Nothing drives a bird owner crazier than watching his or her parrot cheerfully destroying its feathers. Even highly educated and articulate individuals can be reduced to a state of gibbering lunacy at the mere idea of their little friend engaging in that particular activity.

When visiting client’s home, I will often be confronted with a cockatoo or female Eclectus that looks beautiful from the neck up. However, their nether regions usually leave a lot to be desired.

Appearances can range from disheveled and ratty to downright naked. Their people are never happy with the situation.

Owners of feather-pickers often feel angry, frustrated or even guilty. They wonder what they have done to create the situation and are eager to rectify it. Others place the blame directly upon the bird and just want it to stop that particular behavior. Regardless of the circumstances, feather-picking is something most of us cannot ignore.

In the beginning, we are drawn to hook bills because of their brilliant and beautiful coloration. Later, we become aware of their other attributes, but, until that time, our attraction to a particular species is usually based on their physical appearance. Because they are intelligent creatures, they are easily bored and being considered a food source in the wild affects their way of reacting to stress. Like us, they may develop a variety of negative habits that help alleviate those feelings. Unfortunately, a certain number of them will manifest this by damaging their feathers in some manner. A few will begin to mutilate their bodies as well. What causes these behaviors? And what, if anything, can be done to diminish or eradicate them?
First, it must be mentioned that feather destruction is a behavior that is usually not seen in the wild. In the wild, feathers are not an option. They are a necessity, and birds would never dream of damaging them. Feathers provide insulation from the heat and cold, shed water and are a protective buffer against thorns and other physical objects that could injure the bird’s skin. Feathers are also an attractive lure for helping them find the “mate of their dreams”. The longer feathers of the wings and of the tail provide the ability to fly and are essential tools for balancing the body when they are perched.

Most of a wild bird’s days are spent gathering food, playing and taking care of its young. With the exception of a midday siesta, its daylight hours are extremely busy. Boredom is not a problem.

Unfortunately, this is not true of domestic environments, where everything is provided and long hours are spent alone while the bird’s people are at work. Often, the bird has little or no physical or visual stimulus. Birds are extremely active creatures and their high energy needs to be focused in a positive direction, regardless of their environment.


Feather mutilation may occur for a variety of reasons, and, if the problem is expected to be solved, it is important to look at the bird holistically. Before working behaviorally with one of the little “naked wonders,” the bird should be examined by an avian veterinarian. Several years ago, a study showed that a substantial number of African grey feather-pickers had bacterial infections. More than 40 per cent of them stopped the behavior after being treated with proper antibiotics.

Several items my own clients have found that other subclinical infections, including Chlamydiosis and Aspergillosis, caused their birds to feather-pick, an even smaller number of my clients found that their birds stopped feather-picking after being treated for zinc toxicity. Jump rings, cage fasteners and C clamps may contain zinc; however, most birds do not spend a lot of time chewing on them. There are, however, a small percentage of individuals that will ingest enough zinc to harm themselves. Although rare, it does happen and may need to be considered when seeking a cause for the behavior.

GIARDIA, a micro-organism, may also contribute to feather-picking and, in some cases, to lacerations of the flesh. It can be difficult organism to find, even when tested for, and can be a little tricky to treat.

It is best to pursue the possibility of a medical problem before behavior modifications is considered. After all, if there is a physical cause, all of the modification in the world will not help. Sometimes, even after successful medical treatment, feather-picking becomes habitual and behavior modification will still be needed.

When considering potential physical problems, it is extremely important to examine your bird’s diet. Is it getting enough vitamins and minerals, as well as the protein and calcium required to grow strong, healthy feathers? Even if you are offering a wide variety of nutritious foods, they will do no good if your bird refuses to eat them. Begin offering any array of healthy foods, even if your bird does not like them. Many birds will not feel like eating a particular food at first. However, if they see it regularly they will often try it later. The field of avian nutrition is becoming more sophisticated, and there are now a number of excellent pelleted diets available, some of which are formulated for special dietary needs.


In cases where there is a direct environmental factor or event, or where birds have been checked by their veterinarians and found free of any physical reason for feather-picking, behavior medication can be extremely helpful. As with any behavior problem, it is important that it be addressed and dealt with as soon as possible. Like people, the longer a bird exhibits the behavior, the more likely it will become a habit. In birds that have removed the entire feather for a year or more, complete regrowth of the damaged area may be impossible because of the exhaustion of the follicle. The area may remain featherless, or sparsely feathered.

Some birds seem predisposed to feather-picking. These individuals will damage their feathers as a response to any and all stresses in their environment. Feather-picking is what I call their “voice of choice”.

It’s interesting to see how people often become discouraged when the bird’s behavior does not improve immediately, especially in long-term cases. Although they would accept a person’s “falling off the wagon” a few times while attempting to stop a bad habit, they do not extend the same courtesy to their feathered friends. However, in situations that have been months or years in the making, it will usually takes a relatively long time to stop the behavior. Even then, it is common for birds to resume feather-picking from time to time. In ideal situations, the episodes become fewer and farther apart, until the behavior either stops, or recurs infrequently during times at extreme stress. Of course, in some situations, especially those involving mutilation of the flesh, the behavior may never disappear and may need to be pursued from a different perspective.


I am often asked if collaring a bird is considered a useful technique for stopping feather chewing or flesh mutilation. In most cases, when collars are used by themselves without behavior therapy, they only are only effective in extremely rare situations, such as after surgery or when the bird is under more stress than usual and the behavior is of short duration. In situations where the bird has been chewing for longer periods of time, the collar will only have a temporary effect. Although the feathers may look beautiful immediately after the collar is removed, the behavior will usually quickly resume.

It has been my experiences with hundreds of clients that the collar can be very useful in long-term situations. In those cases, the behavior has become a habit and there is no other way to keep the bird away from its feathers. By collaring it and applying behavior-modification techniques at the same time, it can often take a shorter period of time to eradicate the problem. Once the bird’s access to its feathers is completely removed, it is easier to redirect its attention toward more acceptable behaviors.

Although use of the Elizabethan collar is popular, I find that many birds adapt better to an acrylic or Plexiglas tube collar, currently only available through veterinarians. Although some individuals, especially those snaky-necked cockatoos, are capable of stretching up, over and around them, most cannot. Additionally, the collar’s shape allows the bird more climbing and playing ability and more physical freedom. They also seem to be psychologically happier, which helps to reduce the overall level of stress. Although most birds eventually accept being collared, there are small percentages that will not tolerate the procedure. Consequently, collaring should be done by, and under the supervision of, an avian veterinarian.


Although it is becoming more popular to use psychotropic drugs to control feather and flesh mutilation, I recommend that they be used only on a temporary basis. Psychiatric studies conducted on mammals have shown that, in some stress-filled situations, drugs can help alleviate symptoms. Unfortunately, if the initial reasons for the behavior are not addressed and eliminated, the individuals may continue being stressed on some level, and the long-term effects of the drugs may be harmful to them. Although this study has not been conducted using birds, to be on the safe side, the likelihood of similar results should probably be considered. In some severe cases, especially when the flesh has been badly damaged and professional behavior counseling has been ineffective, drugs may need to be used on a regular basis.


To increase the possibility of success when working with feather mutilation, it is essential that all contributing factors within the bird’s environment be identified and examined. These can include situations as diverse as, and certainly not limited to: cage location, other animals, children, house guests, unusual occurrences, a break from routine, sleep deprivation, boredom and emotional levels of people in the household, as well as diet and increased hormonal levels.

Many people do not realize how profoundly their own emotional status affects their birds. I have repeatedly been amazed by how astute our feathered friends can be and by just home much of our own emotions are bounced right back to us. If we want our birds to improve, we eventually need to deal with the problems at hand. I have often found that people will change their own undesirable behaviors for their birds’ wellbeing long before they will do it for themselves or their human companions.

When attempting to modify any behavior, it is important to remember a few basic guidelines:
First, examine the environment for anything that may be a potential cause or contribution to it. Try to see the world from your bird’s perspective. Often, what you feel is insignificant may be driving your bird crazy. Examine the environment and the bird’s behavior at different times of the day. There may be something it only experiences intermittently, but makes it feel vulnerable enough to chew its feathers or exhibit some other undesirable behavior. One bird was chewing its feathers after its cage was moved to a room that had a grandfather clock in it; the chewing stopped after we turned off the clock.
Although the hormonal changes common to sexual maturity may be blamed for an episode of feather mutilation, it is not the hormones themselves that cause the behavior. Instead, the heightened stress level experienced as a result of the hormonal changes contributes to the behavior. Stress is cumulative, and, if the bird’s coping abilities have been exceeded almost any type of stress can trigger a number of undesirable behaviors. All environments have some form of stress, but some birds are not capable of handling stressful situations as well as others.
When the stress level has been heightened temporarily, such as construction or house guests, some birds may need to be moved to a quieter part of the home, or boarded in a friend’s home or a familiar facility. However, the bird’s stress at home needs to be weighed against the level of stress created by changing its location.
If your bird has a busy beak, give it a variety of toys to chew, rip and tear. There are many different sizes and styles available, especially for feather-pickers. They are often constructed of soft wood and bits of rope and/or cloth. Because they duplicate the tactile experiences of feather-chewing, many birds will substitute chewing on them instead of their feathers (at least part of the time). However, place them at beak level to the bird when it is standing on its favorite perch. Hanging them at that level against the side of the cage will encourage the bird to sit and play with them.
Often, for the sake of economy, people will purchase toys only with hard wood or plastic. Although this is perfectly fine in situations where the bird is not harming its feathers, remember that feather-chewing birds need to have something that duplicates that feeling. Hard toys will not satisfy that particular need, although they can have some of them for variety.
Many years ago, one of my clients had a green winged macaw that started chewing all of its contour feathers. A carefully conducted history did not reveal the cause of the bird’s behavior. The owner said no changes were made to the bird’s environment. I was mystified. Later, I suggested the owner replace one of the hard eucalyptus perches with a soft, clean, kiln-dried white pine 2 by 4, mentioning that the bird might spend time chewing that instead of her feathers. The woman looked surprised and blurted out that she just remembered that her bird had not damaged her feathers when she had kept pin-board perches in the cage. She clearly began doing so after they were placed with the perches made of hard wood! In fact, the woman changed to the eucalyptus because the bird chewed through too many soft pine boards. We both agreed that it was worth the trouble to keep replacing the boards as they were chewed, in lieu of having a ratty-looking bird.
In addition to commercial toys, other nontoxic objects can satisfy the bird’s need to chew. Paper, empty cardboard cartons, paper towel rolls, paper towels and clean white envelopes are some of the things that can be offered. One of my clients had been an apprentice carpenter who moved to California. Along with his furniture and other necessities of life, were packed two boxes of clean, untreated wooden corners that he had collected specifically for his bird. It loved chewing the sharp edges off the pieces of soft wood…as long as they are nontoxic, and your bird is not one of the rare individuals that actually swallows foreign objects, the items mentioned can go into the bird’s toy box for future destruction.
Many birds become bored by the lack of variety in toys, and the additional of disposable playthings can offer variety and stretch your toy budge. Another client’s bird had a habit of snapping off its tail and flight feathers. The bird stopped after it was provided with sticks of dry spaghetti, similar in size to its feather shafts. It spent its time snipping off bits of pasta instead of its feathers.
Because some birds are frightened of unfamiliar objects, showing them to the bird and playing with them outside of the cage is a good way to bridge its fear. Some things, such as paper and wood, may be torn or cut into smaller, less threatening pieces. Also, people can mimic playing with the objects to pique the bird’s interest, especially if it appears that the bird cannot have them, the lure of forbidden fruit works just as well on birds as it does on many humans!
For more adventurous birds, nuts and other treats can be wrapped in paper, and stuffed inside nontoxic cardboard boxes or paper towel rolls. They can also be sealed inside inexpensive envelopes. Old fashioned wooden clothespins (the ones without metal) can provide interesting chewing opportunities, especially if they have a face drawn on them with nontoxic permanent markers. For some reason, many birds enjoy chewing the little faces off.


If your bird is destroying its feather, beware of inadvertently rewarding the behavior. This is probably the primary mistake that people make when coping with this, or any other, behavior problem. Rewards can be given in a number of different ways, such as scolding, walking up to the bird, talking to it, touching it or pulling its beak away from its feathers, intently fondling and inspecting the damaged feathers (even those on the floor of the cage) is another form of rewarding. All of those responses thrill the bird and assure the continuance of its behavior. It is far better to turn your back on the bird or leave the room than to sit there and stare at it while it damages itself. If the bird is tearing up an object instead of its feathers, the same responses can train it to continue doing the preferred behavior.

In episodes of flesh mutilation, it is absolutely imperative that the bird be seen immediately by a veterinarian, medicated and physically prevented from doing further damage to the affected area. Although there has been relatively little study done regarding this subject on a medical level, some veterinarians theorize that the problem may be difficult to eradicate because of actual physical damage done to the flesh and nerves in the affected area. Also, some believe that bacteria introduced by biting deep into the flesh may create pockets of infection that are difficult to diagnose and cure. There may even be other possibilities, such as viruses, that we are simply not yet aware of.

Regardless of the reason for this behavior, never wait for the condition to “take care of itself”. In the vast majority of cases, it will only worsen without immediate professional medical intervention, followed by experienced behavior modification techniques. This is one of the most difficult conditions to work with, and the success rate is not as good as that seen for simple feather destruction.

Feather destruction and flesh mutilation can be terrible experiences for both people and their birds. In addition to the aesthetic and medical considerations, there can also be eventual erosion of the relationship between the bird and its human companions. This is largely due to our inability to handle our bird’s altered behavior and appearance. However, if the problem is addressed as soon as possible after it appears, the rate of success will greatly increase.

Fortunately, there are now a number of very good avian behavior consultants in business across the country who work by telephone and in your home.

If you are patient and will to work with your friend’s behavior on a number of levels, you will greatly increase your rate of success. Most birds put up with a lot from their human companions and give huge amounts of love and amusement in return. They are certainly worth whatever trouble it may take to lesson or eliminate their negative behaviors. It will take time, just as it does for us to retrain our own undesirable quirks and habits. Remember that your bird is one of your best friends; appreciate it whether it looks beautiful or not. Chris Davis pioneered the field of avian behavior consulting in beginning in 1974