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How To Stop A Feather Plucking Habit While Improving Your Bird's Well-being

how to stop feather plucking
By:  Diane Burroughs, LCSW

 

Feather plucking is a common issue that is seen a lot in domestic or pet birds. In fact, avian veterinarians report seeing a high incidence of this upsetting problem. 

But, it is important to know that feather plucking can be managed or even completely stopped if it's caught early before it turns into a habit. Another factor that predicts the outcome of feather plucking treatment is how severe the problem has become. 

A lot of people try, what I call a “one-and-done” method in their efforts to get their feather plucking birds to stop.  They randomly try one thing in hopes of stopping this complex behavior, like getting a bird light. 

Unfortunately, this approach rarely works.  I'll discuss how to use a more comprehensive approach to support feather plucking in birds that will have a better outcome in many cases. BirdSupplies.comis here to support all things parrot wellness.

In this blog post I'll address several issues related to feather plucking in birds:

Table of Contents

So, let's dive right in to address what you need to know to stop feather plucking in birds.

How to stop feather plucking
Anonymous customer photo: Timneh African grey in a homemade bird collar

 

What Is Feather Plucking?

Most bird lovers have seen beautifully feathered parrots before. Healthy birds produce vibrant and colorful feathers that are free from defects so that they can be realigned and cleaned through the process of preening.

If you stop and think about it, a lot of things go into the making of healthy, beautiful feathers. Wild birds have nailed it! They usually have everything they need to stay physically and emotionally healthy. From rich nutritional resources, to lots of sunshine, plenty of exercise, enrichment opportunities, and more. 

You can supply your bird with what it needs to stay physically and emotionally healthy, too by usingparrot wellness strategies.

Some people confuse molting with feather plucking. A feather destructive habit is different from molting.  Molting is the natural loss of worn out feathers so that new, healthy feathers can grow in. It happens maybe once or twice a year, depending on the species of the bird.  It's kind of like when your hair falls out and new hair comes in.

Feather plucking, on the other hand, is when a bird intentionally damages its own feathers due in the form of over-preening, barbering, or by completely plucking the entire feather out. 

In our pet birds this could be caused by physical stress from an underlying illness or a nutritional deficit or it could be from emotional stress from things like lack of sleep, boredom and lack of enrichment, or  chronic hormonal behavior.

Think of feather plucking birds as having a disorder similar to people who compulsively pull their hair out due to Trichotillomania. Or, people who cut on themselves.  According to the DSM-5, the diagnostic manual for mental health disorders, these disorders are obsessive compulsive in nature.

Interestingly enough, we are  now finding a strong correlation between both nutritional deficiencies and a history of traumatic experiences with mood disorders. These issues are believed to affect the brain chemistry that is responsible for a stable mood. It’s likely that birds may experience brain chemistry issues, too.

 Anonymous customer photo: Congo African grey in a Huggle bird collar

Is it bad to pluck feathers?

People often ask, is it bad to pluck feathers?  In general, the mere act of plucking out feathers isn't bad, per se. Of course, in some circumstances, a feather follicle might get infected.  If feather plucking were to progress to a self-mutilation problem, those wounds would, of course, be bad. 

However, it's important to know that the factors that cause feather plucking in the first place are not good. Feather plucking, in general, is a sign that your bird is under distress. We often see several stressors that come together resulting in a feather plucking problem. 

If you want to stop your bird from feather plucking you'll need to discover what issues are stressing it out and take care of it. It’s usually a multitude of issues. Then, of course, you’ll need to remedy them. 

What are the causes of feather plucking? 

Generally, feather plucking is a complex problem. In other words, there are several contributing stressors that come into play resulting in a bird that is driven to destroy its most precious asset - the very feathers that allow it to fly retract mean or attract a mate.

Parrot hierarchy of needs
©Diane Burroughs, LCSW 2021

 

As you can see on the  hierarchy of parrot needs your pet has the following needs:

  • Biological needs 
  • Emotional needs  
  • Social needs 
  • Behavioral training needs

As you can imagine, just like you and I, when your bird isn't getting its needs met it becomes stressed out.

The more stressors the bird experiences the stronger it's stress reactions become. So, now it probably makes sense how a complex set of unmet wellness needs result in the severe reaction of feather plucking and other challenging behaviors.

 

How do you help a stressed bird that feather plucks?

If you want to stop your bird's feather plucking habit I'd suggest that you follow the science.  Applied Behavior Analysis behavior scientists can literally tell us the most effective strategies for resolving challenging behavior in our pet birds, like feather plucking,  Here they are in order effectiveness:

  1. Planning for parrot wellness
  2. Antecedent rearrangement
  3. Positive reinforcement
  4. Differential reinforcement

Let's tackle these in order of effectiveness.

You'll want to put your energy in the most effective strategies first and then move on to the other strategies.

If you create a plan and a timeline of how you'd like to approach these remediation steps it will really help you out. Without a plan it's easy to develop a sense of hopelessness about the situation.

A bird behaviorist can coach you through this whole process. 

1. Provide For Parrot Wellness

Parrot wellness encompasses six components that greatly enhance the health and well-being of companion birds by providing an optimal quality of life.  The components include the following:

Preventative Healthcare:  It is important to get annual wellness exams to uncover any disease processes as early as possible when they can most easily be treated.  Your avian vet is highly experienced in spotting the early tell tale signs of nutritional deficits, common avian illnesses, and being able to tell if your bird is in pain. 

These wellness exams are really important!  Your pet bird is wired to hide all signs of illness, pain, and injury. By the time you notice that something's wrong your bird is very, very sick.

The first thing that you need to do when you notice that your bird is in distress is to get a wellness exam and follow your vet's advice. If you're uncomfortable with your vet's advice, get a second opinion.


A good avian vet who is schooled in everything “exotic bird” can also offer you great coaching on improving your bird's diet, daily care routines, and more.


Nutrition: It is critically important to feed your pet bird an optimal, species-specific diet to prevent the effects of malnutrition.  Your bird needs to be eating a high quality, premium bird pellet like Harrison's, Roudybush, or TOPS pellets accompanied by a wide range of uncooked, fresh, plant-based foods such as vegetables, low sugar fruits, herbs, grains, tree nuts, and more.

I highly endorse The Parrot’s Fine Cuisine Cookbook.

 

 

 

 

Behavior:  Develop strong “parronting” habits. Like any good parent, it's important to know what normal behavior is, as well as, training for new skills and shaping manners.

Over and above, it will be important to learn effective strategies to turn around challenging behavior. 

Applied Behavior Analysis Is the behavior change process a choice.You can learn more about positive reinforcement by reading Clicker Training for Birds and The Feather Plucking Workbook. Or, you can work with a bird behaviorist to make faster progress.

Environmental Enrichment:  Creating an environment that supports your bird’s energy levels, intellectual and problem solving capabilities, flock instincts, and more is essential for your pets emotional health. 

One best things that you can do for your bird is to teach it how to forage and our foraging activities as much as possible.  Foraging is the process of working to obtain food. Wild parrots do it all the time. In fact, they spend a good portion of their day just finding food sources and working to obtain they're rich nutrients.

Wild parrot parents teach their young how to forage so you'll need to teach your pet bird the joys of foraging. It's not that hard to teach a bird to forage. In fact, I've got a video on it here.  Or, if you prefer to read about it, check out my book here.

I've had a lot of people call me up after talking with their vet who told them, “ just get your bird some toys.”  In my opinion,  what that really means is to get your bird some foraging toys. These are toys that are designed for you to hide your bird's food in it. Some of my favorite foraging toys ( or should I say my bird's favorite foraging toys), are found below. 

I've tried some of the cheaper foraging toys on Amazon but I  was concerned about the metal hardware that was used to make them. That's why I recommend that you stick with quality, well-known brands.

 
  


Pediatric and geriatric care:
Plan for the unique life stage that your bird is in to satisfy its physical and emotional needs. If you're keeping up with your veterinary wellness exams, your vet can coach you on life-stage care strategies.

Pain prevention and management: Birds notoriously hide injuries, illnesses, and pain. This is yet another reason to stay on top of annual wellness exams.  A bird that is in pain will experience mood disorders and behavioral challenges.

Just like any animal or person, birds can experience chronic pain as they get older. And, a bird that maybe hasn't been offered a good diet will probably have some health issues that cause discomfort. If your bird has been re-homed, you probably have no idea what issues may have contributed to chronic pain.

Make sure that you work with your avian vet to treat  any current pain that your bird may be experiencing.  Never attempt to medicate  pain with Aspirin,  ibuprofen, or NSAIDS made for human consumption. 

2. Use A Bird Collar

A lotof people opt to try a bird collar early on in effort to interrupt the plucking cycle before it turns into a compulsive habit.  The majority of birds adapt to a bird collar fairly easily. But we’ve found that birds with a severe plucking problem or those who've developed a compulsive habit over a period of time need much more support than simply a collar.

Keep in mind that a bird collar only temporarily interrupts the plucking cycle.  In other words, most birds will return to feather plucking at some point after the collar is removed.  A bird collar does not change the underlying causes of why the bird in the first place.  Bird collars  support your bird while you're learning how to use it long-term, like optimizing for parrot wellness and applied behavior analysis.

3. Discover Behavioral Supports

The next three steps to stop feather plucking behavior in birds involve therapeutic behavioral strategies known as Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) Therapy.  ABA is a scientifically-based behavior change approachbased on the science of learning and behavior. ABA therapy involves using evidence of how behavior works to your individual bird’s actual situation. The goal is to increase behaviors that are helpful and decrease behaviors that are challenging.

The three strategies that I'm talking about include:

  • Antecedent rearrangement, 
  • Positive reinforcement
  • Differential reinforcement. 

These are the easiest strategies for a lay person to correctly use.  Negative reinforcement is also highly effective but it's hard for the layperson to use. And, if it's used incorrectly it could in fact make things worse.

While it's possible to teach yourself behavior change strategies at home, you're  likely to make much faster progress by working with a bird behaviorist.  A lot of people opt for just one session.

That's okay because usually the behaviorists will focus on optimizing wellness first. After all, keep in mind that we're talking about exotic pets here. Parrots require dramatically different care than a domesticated dog or cat. 

But, if you opt for  follow-up sessions, your bird behaviorist will not only help you perfect your wellness strategies, but delve into ABA behavior change strategies that will make a world of difference for your pet.

 

 Getting back to using ABA science-based behavior change strategies, there are a series of steps to take. The technical term for the process is called a Functional Behavior Analysis (FBA). 

If this is your first time doing an FBA, plan on spending about 8 -12 weeks on it, depending on your familiarity with behavior therapies.  By working with an experienced bird behaviorist, you could easily speed up the process to just a few weeks.

If you want to use the “do-it-yourself approach” here are the steps you'll need to take:

  1. Get a wellness exam to rule out any medical causes for the feather plucking.

  2. Conduct a time study or a detailed interview to get a crystal clear understanding why your bird is plucking in the first place.

  3. Analyze the time study to learn what triggers your bird and what is reinforcing that behavior.

  4.  When you know what triggers the behavior, you can rearrange the environment so that your bird doesn't get triggered in the first place. This is called antecedent rearrangement.

  5. Identify the function of the behavior. The term,” function of behavior,” simply means figuring out what the reinforcement is for the bird.  In other words, what is your bird getting out it when it plucks a feather out?

  6. Using positive reinforcement, teach your bird pro-social, desired behaviors that will replace the challenging behavior.

  7. Use differential reinforcement to turn newly taught replacement behaviors into your bird’s new routine.

Get the Feather Plucking Workbook which literally walks you through the process of optimizing for parrot wellness, conducting a time study, analyzing the results of the time study, and developing a behavior change plan. The Feather Plucking Workbook is also a really useful adjunct to individualized Behavior consultations.

 

  

Can birds die from feather plucking?

A lot of people are worried that  their bird will die from feather plucking. It is true that a feather plucking habit tends to get worse over time. However, there is no evidence that the mere process of damaging feathers or pulling them out completely will kill a bird

That's said, it is critical to understand that the underlying, unmet wellness needs of the bird can be deadly.

On top of that, we've seen over and over again that feather plucking often gets worse over time. Part of that, of course, is unmet physical needs like the progressive effects of malnutrition.  But, also, every time you're a bird pulls a feather out, it releases potent  endorphins from the brain that, in effect, turn the act of feather plucking into an addictive process.

This is why people who loved a feather plucking bird turn to bird collars to interrupt the plucking cycle. They want to interrupt the addictive process.

About 10% of birds that develop a feather plucking habit go on to a dangerous disorder that is called self-mutilation. Self-mutilation is when the bird begins ripping into its skin and muscle tissue. This is an incredibly concerning habit.  First of all, a bird can potentially bleed to death.  Secondly, the potential for a life-threatening infection goes through the roof.

Common species that turn to self mutilation include cockatoos, African Grey Parrot, lovebirds, Quaker parrots, and sometimes eclectus parrots.

Do plucked feathers grow back?

Caught early, most birds are capable of growing their feathers back. As a general rule, if your bird has been plucking for less than 2 years, there is a good possibility that the feathers will grow back in. Using a good bird vitamin like FeatheredUp! Will help a lot.

However, birds that have been plucking the same area over and over again may have caused too much tissue damage to support feather growth. That doesn’t mean that your bird won’t benefit from improved parrot wellness, though!

Know this.  Every time your bird plucks a feather out it rips out a bunch of skin tissue with it. Over time, scar tissue develops so that that feather follicle can no longer grow healthy feathers. 

Follicular damage is rare with birds that over-preen or barber their feathers. However, we see it a lot with bird’s that pull the entire feather out. That means shaft and all.

In conclusion …

If you want to stop feather plucking once and for all, catch it early. Then, combine the full range of parrot wellness strategies with intensive behavioral supports and you’ll see massive improvements over time. 

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