Some time back, a person who could no longer own her Goffin´s Cockatoo approached me. She was looking for a home for her bird. She wanted to place it with me until I would find it the proper home. They had grown tired of the bird and could not longer provide it with the attention it required. I agreed to accept the cockatoo. Before bringing the bird over I was told that it was missing “a few feathers”.
When the bird arrived, my jaw dropped. It was housed in a tiny cage that had not been cleaned in weeks. The water bowl was black and the food bowl contained a few husks of the oil type sunflower seed sold for feeding wild birds. The bird had feathers only on its head—the remainder of the body was totally devoid of all feathers. I received the bird, a gentle individual who clung to me so that I could stroke it. As I reached for the bird, I was told to be careful because it was “vicious”. Nothing was further from the truth. Indeed the bird eventually fell in love with an elderly man who visited often. She now lives with him and they have become the best of friends. The bird never grew feathers, but it is well cared for and very happy.
As I queried the owner, I learned that the bird had belonged to a neighbor, who gave it away because it no longer looked pretty. The bird, cage and both current and previous owner were exactly what a pet owner should not be. Like the dogs that I have picked up from the streets, their owner had lost interest and no longer cared for them. In the case of the bird, the water bowl was topped off, cage was cleaned perhaps once a month and food… well that was provided when the screaming bird could not longer be tolerated. (The bird called because it was hungry.)
Pet ownership is analogous to adopting a child. The same decisions should be taken into consideration with one salvo: the bird will always remain a five child old child that will be dependent on its family for food, love and care. I always tell someone wanting a pet parrot to consider their current situation and try and foresee into the future. Will they still have the time necessary to provide the adequate care the bird will need into the future? Is their attention span focused or likely to direct itself elsewhere in the future after the novelty of acquiring the bird wanes? Do they have career security? Do they really understand that many parrots can live to be very old and that the demand for attention, expense in upkeep and work they require to be kept clean will not wane with the passing of years? The bird will need to be fed, kept clean, taken to the veterinarian, played with, bought toys and given enrichment? It will need a nursemaid when vacation time comes around. And allergies to dust and feathers can seriously implicate its owner’s health. Give the acquisition of a bird (or any pet for that matter) serious thought. Never, ever buy on impulse.
Those words ran through my head as the bird exchanged hands. Clearly not one of those principals had been followed. The other concerns revolved around the birds current state.
After a medical exam, the bird was found to be fairly healthy—a testament to a species that can be tenacious. It´s feathers had been plucked so many times that the follicle had been damaged. They would never grow back. Luckily it did not have skin fungus.
What can be done for a plucking parrot? Many reasons can induce feather plucking. In many cases, a skin fungus is to blame, but other medical conditions can also come into play. I have found that birds in homes where one or more person smokes or where incense and scented candles are constantly burned have a propensity to pluck. Persons who smoke outdoors but touch their pet with nicotine impregnated hands can also cause plucking. Neglect, boredom and the lost of a loved one can also start the bird on a plucking binge. The lack of bathing can also be a factor. (Parrots should be sprayed with water or allowed to bathe in a pan at least a few times a week, though ideally daily.)
Finding the first few chewed, stripped or plucked feathers on the cage bottom requires IMMEDIATE action. The bird should be taken to the veterinarian for a thorough examination, including a skin biopsy. Any medical condition should be treated without delay. The bird´s reasons for plucking should also be given tremendous thought. Ask yourself repeatedly: Why, why, why. Why is the bird focused on its feathers. Has there been a change in the household? The arrival or departure of a family member, perhaps one who spent time with the bird, can stimulate plucking, the bird feeling neglected. I know of an African Grey that started plucking after the room it was kept in was completely remodeled and a series of hunter´s trophies were placed in the room. Stress can certainly be the cause of plucking or feather mutilation. The diet should be examined. Changes in frequency of feeding, actual feed and even source should be considered. Does the bird have toys and receive enrichment, adequate attention and free time? Every possible factor will require review and dissection. Almost all birds pluck for a reason. Finding the answer can be frustrating, but success in many cases can be achieved if the person acts quickly. The longer the plucking is allowed to persist, the greater the chances that it will become irreversible.
Move the cage, change the toys very frequently and provide enrichment are the first three words emanating from my mouth when I receive a call from someone whose parrot has started to pluck. Parrots often prefer a branch with leaves, a handful of palm seeds, pinecones, or even acorns instead of traditional toys. The enrichment items need to come from a clean source and often provide a supplement to the diet. They can keep the bird occupied for many hours each day. Toys should be offered and should be rotated constantly, as many bore the birds after a few days. The best toys are those that the birds can destroy, are complex and can contain parts that cannot cause injury if swallowed. They should ideally contain an edible morsel. This is because in the wild parrots spend the majority of time destroying items that in the end contain a food resource.
Program your days so that you can provide more time to the bird. I always recommend unstructured play sessions, so that the bird does not come to expect a routine etched in stone; if it does and one day that routine is broken, the bird can become irritable. Training the bird to sit on a stand while the family watches television is highly recommended. I much prefer this to having the bird sitting on the hand or lap, where it is treated like a lapdog. The bird should be taught to play independently. It should never become an appendage of its owner, but rather a friend who understands when it can or cannot receive direct attention.
Before you apply a spray, ointment, salve or start adding tonics to the bird´s diet, talk to you veterinarian. Some of these products are harmless, but several can prove toxic. If curing plucking were that easy, all birds would be in perfect feather.
Finally, locate a behavioral consultant in your area and work with that person. Ask them for references and call to verify that they truly have experience and have produced results. Not everyone is qualified or has the knowledge to come to a home, make observations and then guide the owner and bird towards a happy outcome.
Bird ownership is not easy, but it can lead to a long-term relationship that is very rewarding for both the bird and owner. Seriously give bird ownership consideration and treat the acquisition the same as if you were adopting a child.