Feather-plucking in psittacine birds: part 2, Social, environmental and behavioural considerations

Social and behavioural factors linked to feather plucking in the parrot family

source: John Chitty
In Practice vol 25 no 9, October 2003
starts p550, 6 pages long

Most cases of feather plucking in birds from the parrot family have more than one cause, so using one therapy alone may not bring about a cure. It is usually important to assess the whole of the bird's lifestyle to work out whether there are non-medical factors involved. It helps to look at how parrots live in the wild to understand the needs of pet birds. Wild parrots live in flocks, and bond in pairs and family groups within those flocks. They may defend specific locations, such as nest sites, though they are not generally territorial. They are prey species that forage during the day, then roost. They seem to have to learn how to preen, though the need for preening seems to be innate.

Feather plucking may have social causes, such as poor socialisation in hand-reared birds, which may leave them anxious and lacking curiosity, and lacking the skills to preen. Birds that pluck because they have not learnt to preen can learn from other birds. Pet birds may also be overtired, especially if kept in a family living room, and may benefit from peace and quiet in a spare room in the evening. Birds also need to be bathed or sprayed, using warm water with nothing added, and they can be taught to enjoy it if they initially appear to dislike it. The cage should not be exposed or near irritants like cooking fumes. Poor wing clipping can also trigger plucking, and it is better not to clip birds' wings except when absolutely necessary.

Behavioural causes include attention seeking, so owners should walk away, and pay attention to the bird when the plucking stops. Separation anxiety has also been linked to plucking, if it happens when birds are left alone. Birds benefit from exercise before being left, and from being able to listen to a radio while the owner is out. They may feel anxious with an owner in the house, but not in the same room, so moving the bird to be in the same room as the owner can help. A parrot sitter may also help, if the bird is left alone for a long time. Encouraging independent play also has beneficial effects. Rehoming may be necessary if no other solution can be found, since flock birds may not be happy if kept alone, and buying a companion bird as a solution is not usually successful.

Drug therapy may help, but finding the right drug at the correct dosage is not easy, and drug therapy alone is unlikely to effect a cure. The article examines causes of feather plucking related to lifestyle in further detail.