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by Diane Burroughs July 07, 2018 7 min read

What causes feather plucking in birds?

As you’re learning about the factors that contribute to a feather plucking in birds, you’ll want to take a look at the proper techniques for grooming a parrot. Sometimes feather plucking in birds results from a poor groom or not grooming the bird at all. Grooming a parrot requires special skills. We recommend that if you have a small to a medium-sized bird that you ask your avian veterinarian to show you exactly how to do the various grooming tasks. If your bird is large and you don’t have anyone to help you, it may be best to take your bird to a professional parrot groomer.

First, learn how to towel train a bird

Grooming a parrot is fairly easy once you know how to do it but you have to be careful that you don't get bit. I recommend that before you embark on grooming your parrot you towel train. Towel training will make grooming and other veterinary procedures much less stressful for both you and the bird. Plus, if your bird ever has an emergency, being towel trained may well save its life. You'll probably need to towel your parrot for toe nail trims, beak trims, and wing trims.

feather plucking in birds

Photo Credit: Diane Burroughs,

  1. Start off with a clean, solid-colored bath sized terry towel, preferably in a calming color. 

  2. Get your bird used to the towel by keeping it near the cage for a few days. Give your bird a label to call it, “This is a towel.”
  3. After your bird has gained a sense of safety when it is near the towel try draping a portion of the towel over the cage. Reward your bird for investigating the towel. The investigation stage of training is essential for your bird’s psychological comfort. 

  4. Lay the towel on a bed or other flat surface and scatter some of your bird’s favorite toys and treats on it. Treat and praise your bird as it demonstrates more and more comfort around the towel.
  5. Once the bird is comfortable standing on the towel, try curling up the sides and encircling your parrot. Remember to ensure that it always seems like a fun game.  It's important that your bird not become frightened of the towel. Any towel game you can play with your bird, such as "Peek a Boo" will increase your birds' comfort with the towel.
  6. Make this towel your parrot’s own towel. This is the towel that you will take to the vet. Whenever you need to use it, tell your parrot what you’re doing. You might label it “towel time!” Come up to the bird from the front and remain cheerful and calm. Never try to fool your bird or use the towel as punishment. 

  7. Once your bird is extremely comfortable with the towel, you can actually towel it.  Bring the towel up, over and around your bird.
  8. Gently support the birds' head by holding it along its jawline and let the body rest on your palm. Never encircle the entire neck and never constrict the chest. 
  9. Talk in a gentle voice offering up encouragement. 
  10. Gently pull the body part that needs grooming out of the towel and carefully groom your parrot.
  11. Watch for your bird getting its toenails stuck in the fabric.


Feather plucking in birds

Photo Credit: Diane Burroughs,

One of the easiest things that you can do to curb feather plucking in birds is to give your parrot with frequent baths. Wild parrots bathe daily. Captive parrots need frequent baths to wash away dust, dander, and contaminants that have gotten on the feathers, even in the winter. Bathing moisturizes the skin, clears the nasal cavity and promotes healthy preening.

The easiest way to bathe your parrot is to bring your bird into the shower while you're showering. A good, quality shower perch with strong suction cups will stick to smooth tile or glass. A good daily bath will do wonders towards improving parrot skin and feather health. This is especially true for dusty birds like cockatoos and African grey parrots.

If your bird is fearful of the shower, train it to enjoy a shower slowly using Clicker Training for Birds techniques. You can also train your bird to accept a spray mister or a birdbath spray.  Small birds, like budgies and parrotlets love bathing in leafy greens or even a bowl of fresh water.

Bathing a parrot

Photo Credit:

Wing Trims

Improper and overzealous wing trims is a known contributing factor to feather plucking in birds. Over trimming is dangerous and can cause injury so knowing how to properly trim your birds' wings is important.

Whether you choose to do wing trims or not is a personal decision with pros and cons for either leaving the bird flighted or not.  A lot of people, who are not into flight training their parrot choose to keep their parrot safe with wing trims.

Birds generally only need wing trims only a few times a year. Your avian veterinarian can groom your bird and may even show you how to do it correctly.

The goal with wing trimming is to simply trim enough feathers to leave the bird incapable of gaining lift as it attempts to fly.  This usually means that you only need to trim 3 - 5 wing feathers. You'll want to leave enough feathers to allow the bird to safely glide to the ground in case of a fall.  If you trim too many feathers the bird will fall like a rock, cause a painful injury to its chest or bum.  The bird then starts to chew at the feathers around the injury.

how improper wing trims contribute to feather plucking in birds

Photo Credit: Customer Photo

Blood Feathers

First things first. You’ll want to learn what new feathers, often called blood feathers, look like. These feathers are called “blood feathers,” because they have an active vein running through the length of the shaft. In the image above, the second feather from the top appears to be growing it.  It is much shorter than the one above or the one below. Cutting into an immature feather is painful and it will bleed profusely. This is traumatic for the bird, and can even be deadly.  Birds only have a few tablespoons of blood in their bodies. If you're lucky enough to stop the bleeding, the trauma may cause the bird to begin plucking feathers.

As the new feather matures, the vein recedes.  Once the vein is gone it is safe to clip the feather. Nevertheless, keep a bottle of styptic powder nearby whenever you’re grooming a parrot. Avian veterinarians and bird groomers use styptic powder to stop bleeding caused nails or wing feathers that have been trimmed too closely.

How Many Feathers to Trim

An overly aggressive wing trim or a wing trim administered with dull scissors will also cause serious problems for your parrot. As mentioned earlier, you only want to trim enough wing feathers so that a bird is unable to achieve lift when it attempts flight. You do want the bird to be able to glide down, though, should it fall off of its perch. An aggressive wing trim that leaves the bird unable to carefully glide to the floor may result in an injury and is a common cause plucking feathers. If a parrot with an aggressive wing trim falls or tries to fly off the perch and hits the floor with a blow, it may bruise or lacerate its chest or vent area. These injuries are painful and the scar tissue from the wound may cause feathers to grow in improperly.  This constant discomfort causes the bird to start plucking feathers in effort to find relief. 


I recommend trimming feathers and nails with cat claw clippers, like those pictured below. Catclaw clippers are available at any pet store. The small scissors have rounded ends and notched blades that allow you to easily grasp the feather shaft or a small top nail tip to make the cut in exactly the right place. Should your bird jerk during the trim, the blunt tips make an accidental stabbing injury unlikely.  Always use sharp scissors to trim the wing feathers.  Should the shaft splinter, it is causes the bird a lot of irritation.  The bird may attempt to pull out the affected feather. 

Clip only three to five feathers on each side. You can always clip more feathers later if you find that your bird is able to achieve lift when it tries to fly. It’s better to trim fewer feathers and re-groom at a later time than risk injury from an aggressive groom.

Groom with sharp catclaw scissors to reduce feather plucking in birds

Source: BirdSupplies.comCat claw clippers

Beak and Nail Trims

In the wild, parrots naturally trim their beaks and nails as they chew on hardwoods, rub their beaks on hard surfaces to clean them and perch on rough surfaces. Captive parrots will need your help to keep their beak and nails in good condition. Your avian veterinarian can perform beak and nail trims. If you wish to do it yourself, please be trained by a knowledgeable professional to avoid injuring your bird.

Towel your bird, as described above and have styptic powder handy in case of bleeding. You can use cat claw clippers for this procedure, too. Take off only the sharp tip, approximately 1/8”. Cutting the claw too short is painful and traumatizing for the bird. For medium to large birds, it is helpful to have two people participate in the trimming process. One person can hold the foot and uncurl the toes while the other does the actual trimming.

For a painless, safer way to trim nails is to use a Dremel Rotary Tool with a sandpaper tip or a rotary product designed for pets. These devices cauterize while they trim, eliminating a bleeding problem. Unless the nail is highly overgrown only take off the sharp tip. But even so, it is wise to still, only take off about 1/8”. Be sure to go slow because the Dremel sands the nail and beak a lot quicker than you think. If your bird’s nails and beak are extremely overgrown, seek the help of a professional as this may be a sign of an underlying disease.

A third popular way to manage nail and beak growth is to use pedicure-style bird perches. These perches have bonded safe, sandpaper-like textures that trim the nails and beak. Some of the better quality brands bond the surface directly to a natural branch surface. Concrete perches should be avoided as they dry out the bird's footpads. Place the pedicure perch in a favorite perching location so that it gets plenty of use.

Grooming a parrot to reduce plucking feathers

Photo Credit: Diane Burroughs,

In summary, a well-groomed bird just feels physically better. Routinely grooming a parrot helps maintain its physical and emotional comfort and may reduce the chances of feather plucking in birds.

Hey, do you have some ideas and tips on grooming a parrot?  Let us know in the comments section.



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