By David J. Kersting, D.V.M.
Feather picking can be one of the most frustrating conditions that a bird owner will experience. This condition is also an extreme frustration to the veterinarian because of the complexity of the possible reason or reasons that creates it. Many times feather picking can be caused by some medical conditions. A full medical work-up by the veterinarian will be the first step that you will want to take to evaluate a cause. Once a medical reason for the feather picking is ruled out completely you will need to evaluate the bird's environment to see if this could be behavioral or habitual. At this point it will be recommended to set up an appointment with a behaviorist that has experience with this problem. There are some things that an owner can do at home to evaluate some basic management problems that could be stimulating the feather picking.
The first management problem many birds have is the placement of their cage. We have always felt that a bird needed to be in the center of all the attention but with a nervous bird and some specific species of birds this is not going, to be recommended. Parrots have a natural "Prey" instinct, which is why it is important to have the cage in the proper place. The "Prey - Predator" instinct is responsible for the parrot being more visually stimulated then other animals. The cage should be in the corner of a room so that the parrot has only two sides to worry about instead of four. Also the cage should not be in the main area of traffic in the house, as this will encourage more nervous and defensive behavior. An owner needs to be aware if any animals in the house that may be jumping on the cage or stalking the bird from outside the cage because these activities can certainly make them very fearful. Also keeping them right in front of a window can be frightening for a highly stimulated animal who is trying to nap especially if there is a lot of wildlife activity; such as owls or hawks flying by. Remember that owls and hawks are a natural predator to your parrot. If the parrot is too visually stimulated, he will not be able to rest or relax. The reason we want to take these steps, such as keeping them out of windows, doorways, and from the center of the room, is to give the bird plenty of security.
Sleep is another basic management problem that we seem to have with our parrots. In the case of a bird that is feather picking, it is imperative to get adequate sleep. Each of our parrots should be getting at least 12 hours of sleep daily. Sleep is defined as continuous sleep from the time we put them to bed until the time they are uncovered in the morning. Naptime is never considered part of the 12 hours of sleep. The other mistake that we make as an owner is the cage needs to be in a quiet and dark area. If the cage is covered in the living area with the television still on, a dark and quiet area can not be accomplished. The bird will still see flashes of light as well as hear some loud and scary noises which will keep him or her from sleeping undisturbed. Sleep is important simply to reduce anxiety and nervousness that can be a result of the lack of a good night's sleep. If for some reason the 12 hours of sleep can not be accomplished in the room where the cage is, I would recommend either moving the cage to a separate room or have a sleeping cage in a separate room.
A third basic management problem is bathing. Bathing your parrot should, if at all possible, be done on a daily basis. There are many great benefits from doing this for every bird, especially on a bird that is picking or chewing his or her feathers. A significant amount of a parrot's time is spent grooming himself or herself. When picking or feather chewing begins, this can be a result of a dry skin condition, poor feather condition, or poor grooming habits that the parrot develops from not being bathed. There are many parrots that do not enjoy getting a bath. For those cases, alternative methods can be tried. Some parrots like to be misted, some like to take a shower, and others do not mind a bath in a sink or a bowl that has been offered them. Remember we would want to find the least stressful method of bathing to reduce nervousness and anxiety and not create it.
Toys can be another basic management problem. It is very important to give your parrot's beak other things to do than to pick or chew on its own feathers. Some toys are specifically made for the feather-chewing parrot such as "Shredders", whiskbrooms, 'Miss Millet Holders', and pacifiers. These toys were made to resemble the texture of a feather shaft to encourage the parrot to preen or chew and destroy the toy instead of its own feathers. It is recommended for all parrots to have at least 4-5 toys in their cage at all times. It will also help to move the toys around the cage and to rotate new toys in the cage on a regular basis. This will stimulate more interest in playing and accepting new things in their environment. If a parrot seems nervous about a new toy being placed in the cage investigate the reason. Many times the toy can be too large or a certain-color can frighten a bird for a particular reason. First, try leaving it out on a table a few feet from the cage. Then slowly over the next few days move it closer to the cage and see if the parrot responds more positively to it. If the parrot still appears frightened or nervous, I would recommend going to a different toy all together. Some owners have never introduced or continued giving new toys because the parrot seemed to not like or play with the toys. If this seems to be the situation, I would try a new method of introducing your new toy or make sure that you are rotating the toys properly. Make sure that the toys are picked appropriately for the size of the parrot and keep in mind what would be something fun as opposed to boring. Always remember that if the parrot chews up a toy quickly, this means it is a great toy and either continue buying more of this type or make things that are similar. The greatest expense will be to keep the parrot stocked with toys.
A fifth management problem that can result in feather picking is incorrect perching. Correct perching is important not only for the health of your parrot's feet, but if the perching is too large or too small your parrot could feel insecure and only be more anxious and upset in general. African Gray parrots have a terrible time with balancing with their small feet and large bodies and can fall easily where other species may not have as much of a problem. Baby parrots of any species will be very clumsy until they have achieved better balance and dexterity in their feet. This act of falling and sometimes injuring themselves can create high anxiety, which can be the beginning of some of the picking and chewing. A parrot that is falling a lot can break feathers, leaving broken or rough edges, which attracts more chewing. When picking out your perching, be sure to buy them according to the size feet that your parrot has. Keep in mind to use comfort perches, square, round, wild walks, and natural perching to have a good variety of perches. Also, soft perches like ropes, platforms, and happy huts can be used to sleep on, so remember to put them up high to encourage your bird to sleep there. Make sure that they can easily get from one perch to the next so that the footing is very confident and they do not fall.
The final basic management problem is rewarding the parrot for picking or chewing. One of the most important things we can do as an owner of a feather picker is not to reward the parrot for this act. Telling the parrot that they are ugly without their feathers or telling them to stop as they are picking their feathers will only stimulate them to do the act. Parrots, like young children, are always looking for attention from their "parents", whether it's positive or negative they do NOT care. Thus, because their parent noticed what they did and gave them a response, this encouraged them to repeat the behavior in order to get more attention. So, instead of making note of the behavior distract the bird from that activity (picking/chewing) by playing with one of their toys, pretending to eat some of the birds food or doing something that diverts the parrots attention away from the unwanted behavior.
We want to evaluate the basic management issues first. Once those issues are addressed, we want to start breaking down the other possible reasons that they are picking or chewing. Are they doing this at night or during the day? Are they doing this in front of us or when we are not in the room? Does your parrot seem nervous around someone in the family or has there been something newly introduced in the room where he lives? We need to understand the reason that he or she is so nervous and anxious before we can get the picking under control. Hopefully with this understanding and improving the management at home, we can have a happier and healthier parrot.