Feather picking is one of the most frustrating issues for a bird owner and it is the most challenging condition to diagnose and treat. There are both medical and non-medical causes for feather picking. The medical causes include malnutrition, internal and external parasites, changes in hormone levels and bacterial or fungal infections. Non-medical causes can be due to psychological, behavioral or environmental factors.
Statistically, 50% of caged birds have issues with feather picking and it appears that African Greys, Timneh Parrots, Cockatoos, Cockatiels, Macaws, Conures, and Grey-cheeked Parakeets are the most predisposed to this condition.
What is feather picking?
Feathers are quite important to a bird. Besides flight, feathers help regulate their body temperature, protecting them against climate extremes and help them to woo a mate. Birds pay careful attention to the condition of their feathers. They use their beaks to condition and waterproof their feathers and to meticulously remove the sheaths through which the new contour and flight feathers emerge. This is called preening.
When you understand preening, you can understand how feather picking can happen. Feather picking is similar to preening, except instead of drawing a feather through the beak to condition, the bird clamps down on it midway through the process and cuts it in half or pulls it out. The bird will obsessively continue to pick at its feathers to the point of destruction. This is not normal nor is it good for the health of the bird. If you suspect that your bird is feather picking you need to take immediate action. You will first have to determine the cause and then determine the treatment.
How can I prevent feather picking?
There are measures you can take to prevent feather picking. The first is to make sure your bird is getting a balanced diet. It's also important to make sure it is the right diet for your bird as diet needs can differ from bird to bird. For example, seeds which are high in fat should only make up 10% of a Parrot and Parakeet’s diet while Budgies and Cockatiels, who are naturally seed eaters, can tolerate seeds making up 25% of their diets.
The best way to make sure your bird is getting the nutrition it needs is to choose an extruded food for 50-60% of their base diet. Extruded foods were made specifically to help solve the malnutrition issue. This food is made from grains, seeds, vegetables and fruits and is fortified with vitamins and minerals. Then it is baked into pellets or variety of other extruded shapes. It gives your bird a well-balanced diet and prevents them from only eating their favorite foods.
Like everything else in life, variety is important. Fruits and vegetables will be a welcomed addition to your bird’s diet, just remember that fresh foods spoil and should be removed from your bird’s cage after a couple of hours. Choose fruits and vegetables that are deep in color as they will be more nutritious. Try hanging carrots or sweet potatoes from clips in their cage and choose fruits that would have been available in their native habitat like mangos, papaya or kiwi. You can also add a variety of grains like cooked brown rice, quinoa and pasta as well as cooked legumes.
Just as important as giving your bird proper nutrition, is keeping your bird's mental health intact. Many caged birds suffer from pure boredom. This is not an issue for birds in the wild but for birds in captivity this is a real problem and can lead to feather picking. You can engage your bird in a number of ways. One way is to spend more time with your bird. If it is impossible for you to do this there are many interactive toys that can help. Some even can mimic your voice. Birds are very social and enjoy interaction. Another way to divert boredom is to introduce new toys frequently. Birds are also very smart and it's important to give them challenges. There are a wide variety of toys to choose from. Just make sure you choose the toys appropriate for your bird. If you discover they are not interested in that toy anymore, remove it and replace with something different. Keep several on hand so you can switch them on demand. Keeping your bird engaged will remove their stress and keep them mentally healthy.
Location, location, location
Environmental changes like changing the location of the bird’s cage or perch can also be helpful. Finding the right location may depend on the temperament of the bird. For instance, if the bird is normally shy, it might be better off in a quiet place in the house but if the bird is normally very social, it might be better off in a well-trafficked area of the house. It is important to provide the right sized cage; space issues can create stress for your bird.
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These are just a few tips to help keep your bird physically and mentally healthy. If you bird does resort to feather picking, see an avian veterinarian at once and be prepared to make the necessary changes to correct the behavior.