Article by Tony Silva
Each week I receive multiple messages that are varying versions of: “My parrot is plucking, what medicine can I use to get it to stop?” My response invariably asks a series of questions: How is the bird housed, what toys or enrichment does it receive, what diet is it being fed, is the bird a pet or a breeder, has a veterinarian seen the bird and what, if anything, could have attributed to the plucking. The answers generally suggest that the bird is a breeder and has a mate and a nesting box or the bird is a pet and is played with for a few minutes each day. Both scenarios demonstrate a poor understanding of parrots. At times out of frustration I retort with: What would you do if you were forced to live in a small room, were never allowed out, had no means of entertainment and had your wife or partner with you continuously and nothing else to stay amused—would you pull your hair out, chew your fingers nails, fight with the other person or lose all interest in living such a dull life? The bird lives in a similar situation, so take the urgent steps to modify its environment.
Wild parrots display several periods of activity: in the morning they must forage for food, in the hottest part of the day they must rest, then they must again find food and finally find a roosting spot. Throughout the day the bird is interacting with its mate, siblings or flock members and has a whole environment which to explore, must be ever watchful against predators and must maintain contact with other flock members. At no time is the bird bored; indeed it can chew, inspect holes, chase insects and lizards, fly as far as it wishes and keep continuously focused on everything in the environment. It only devotes a fraction of its day to keeping the plumage tidy.
In a cage, a pet is confined to a small area, typically has limited flight space and, if given toys, a strange object to keep amused that can be present for weeks at a time. The daily change in its environment is gone. If the bird is lucky, its owner will spend quality time with it, breaking the monotony of cage life.
A breeder may have nothing but a perch, a nest and a mate in its immediate environment. It is expected to remain mentally acute and reproductively fit. If it is especially fortunate, it will have other birds of the same species nearby with which to interact. Many breeders provide no toys, feeling that they merely distract the birds from their role, which is to reproduce.
In many scenario that I see each month, the birds are bored. This is why enrichment is so important. Branches, pods, pinecones, split green coconuts, small sections of wood and more are important and need to be provided continuously. They will bring a bit of the environment into the cage, will allow the natural destructive habits of parrots to play out, and will keep them amused for a long period of time, this because the branches, coconuts, pods, etc are never the same. The enrichment can be supplemented with toys, which should be changed every few days to prevent monotony. Both pet and breeders should be moved around. There is no rule in either case that says the birds should be kept in the same spot for the rest of its lifetime.
Our pets at home are regularly moved around, from one porch to another or from inside the home to the yard. The same applies to the breeders; the suspended cages can be lifted and moved without much effort. In both cases the intention is to replicate nature, where many parrots move across vast territories as the seasons change. In captivity, this change often induces breeding in pairs that had stopped nesting. The change is also the first immediate step that should be taken when a bird begins to pluck: move the pet or pair to another area.
The next step is a complete medical exam, as some cases are caused by illness (skin fungus, metal poisoning, disease). This is followed by a review of the diet to correct any deficiencies (if they exist) and then to overwhelm the bird with enrichment, the intent being to focus its attention away from its feathers and towards the object being introduced into the cage. Acting immediately rather than later increases the likelihood of stopping the plucking: the behavior has not yet become fixed, the feather follicles have not been damaged to the point that feathers are no longer regrowing, the disease pathogen (if it is the cause) has not become pernicious, and the dietary deficiency (if it is the cause) can be corrected before the bird´s health has been affected beyond repair.
In the case of a pet bird, if the plucking is because its owner has passed away, no longer has the expendable time to provide the bird the attention that it was accustomed to because of changing lifestyles or is suffering from health issues, then perhaps finding the bird another owner is necessary. If this is the case, I always recommend that a friend or visitor to the home, which the bird has established a relationship with, be considered a temporary or permanent foster caretaker for the bird.
Modifying one´s behavior is also important, especially when involving pet birds. If a bird pulls it feathers and the owner admonishes it, paying it the attention that it may be seeking, then the behavior may become entrenched: the bored bird has found that by destroying its plumage it is receiving the attention that it seeks.
When a bird begins to pluck, immediately place yourself in its body and ask yourself why, seek veterinary help and then take prompt action to rectify the causal factor. Only by acting quickly can this vice be stopped.