Avizandum, July 2005
Parrot behaviour: A triangle for controlling feather plucking
Half a year ago I received a call from an owner of a year old African Grey Parrot. This bird named Coco was grooming the whole time and the owner was afraid that the parrot was starting to pluck its feathers. I recommended a check-up by a veterinarian and was glad to learn that Coco was absolutely healthy. Then the owner and I took a closer look at the environment and discovered that the humidity in the house was too low. It was only about 20%! However, African Greys really need a minimum of 60% to feel well. So we decided that the owner needed a room fountain to increase the humidity and to give Coco an opportunity to bathe whenever he wanted to. Coco stopped the excessive grooming and is doing fine now.
That was easy! But life is not always that friendly to parrot owners. Feather That was easy! But life is not always that friendly to parrot owners. Feather plucking is one of the most common and surely the most frustrating behaviours in pet parrots. There are many reasons why parrots begin to damage their plumage and some birds cannot even stop at this point and begin to bite into their own flesh. So what can one do to help these poor creatures?
A parrot owner, who sees that his parrot has started to pluck is usually shocked and wants the parrot to stop this behaviour immediately. But shouts, angry recriminations and spraying with a water bottle only reinforce this bad behaviour because the parrot is getting the full attention of his owner. Parrots are very intelligent and soon realise that they need only pluck a feather out of their plumage to get attention. So when you first see your bird pluck, move out of the room, take a deep breath and try to control yourself. Then proceed to the first point of the triangle for controlling feather plucking:
POINT 1: Call your veterinarian immediately and make a date for the same day for a complete check up. A lot of parrots have problems with their metabolism because of poor diet, a disease you may not be familiar with such as PBFD or lack of Vitamin A. Some parrots may have itchy skin whilst others may have an old fracture that remains painful and therefore they cannot help themselves. An avian check up helps you to find out if your parrot needs special medical care.
POINT 2: Check out your environment. Parrots are highly active and very intelligent birds. They need a very good diet with a lot of fruit, vegetables, high-quality seeds, protein and vitamins. Measure the humidity and check if your parrot is getting the full spectrum light it needs. Take a closer look at the cage. Does the parrot get the seclusion it needs if it wants some rest or is the cage in the middle of the room and the dogs bark around it the whole day? Do you smoke near your parrot? Remember that smoke is poisonous for parrots and the bird will want to clean its plumage if there is any nicotine on it. So wash your hands whenever you want to touch your bird after you have enjoyed a cigarette. Does the parrot get enough restful sleep? Or is it sitting near the television until one o’clock in the morning? Continue this list at your leisure until you are absolutely sure that you have not forgotten anything that may disturb your parrot.
POINT 3: Boredom, anxiety and phobias are some of the psychological causes for feather plucking. This is only a short list to highlight some of the causes.
Boredom: In their natural habitat parrots need to fly a lot foraging for food and are always under pressure because a hawk or falcon might be sitting in the tree around the corner waiting for lunch. A parrot in his natural habitat is busy the whole day. A parrot in our home does not need to look for food, lives its life as a perch potato sitting in its cage for most of the day and is not shown how to play. He is simply bored and because of his tedious life begins to play with his own plumage. When it plucks out his first feather epinephrine, a hormone, stops the pain and the parrot is very excited for a moment. The next plucked feather increases this feeling and in time the parrot begins to get addicted to this stimulation.
Anxiety: Parrots are prey animals and they are looking for shelter and guidance. Their genetic code is intended for a life in their natural habitat and they simply do not know how to behave in our living rooms. A parrot without guidance and special quality time with his owner feels insecure like a person sitting in the middle of a restaurant waiting for his or her date, who never arrives. Everybody is watching, the waiter is waiting and the person feels the shame. Parrots that do not know what the owner expects, get anxious and nervous and, maybe because of the lack of fingernails to chew, begin to pluck.
Phobias: Parrots are afraid of new things around them and some parrots are especially afraid of the colour red. Others get nervous when the telephone rings and many are afraid to come out of their cages. Phobic parrots need a lot of patience, love and security to help them to get over their trauma.
I could continue this list and would perhaps not stop until tomorrow. There are a lot of reasons why parrots might begin to pluck, but nobody can ever tell you if they will stop plucking.
Finally I want to tell you the story of Laura. She is a female Blue and Yellow Macaw, who had a dreadful life before she came to her new owners, a friendly couple with a young male Blue-and-Yellow Macaw. Laura was a feather plucker and did it in patches. She also screamed a lot and did not bathe. With time and patience the screaming stopped but Laura was still plucking when the couple first contacted me. Together we analysed the situation and changed the environment. The couple stopped smoking near the parrots, bought a special bird lamp and new special toys for Laura and began training to improve her trust in water. At the moment Lora is playing very well with her new toys, enjoys the special light of the bird lamp and tries some of the new food the couple offers her. But the biggest step is that Lora shows some interest in water and has begun to explore her new home. She might never get a beautiful plumage again but she is feeling well and is beginning to trust her new owners. Who could ask for more?
Hildegard Niemann – Parrot Behaviour Consultant
I was born in 1966, studied Biology in Munster and got married. I have two daughters, four and seven years old. My first paper concerning parrots was published in 1996, after that I reviewed books and articles about parrots for the journals Papageien and WP-Magazine. For a list about my reviews please take a look at my home page www.papageien-training.de. Since 2003 I have been a member of the editorial staff of WP-Magazin and started working as a parrot behaviour consultant in 2004. I got my first parrot when I was 19 years old and have had several different parrot species since then. During my time at home I had contact with parrot owners who often had problems with their parrots and I decided that, when my daughters were old enough, there is a lot of work to be done to help these people and their birds. A lot of parrots end up in rescue centres because of the lack of information the owners often have.
Caption: One of the most common behaviours of pet parrots: Feather Plucking