Posted By: Polly - Vet

Why Do Parrots Pluck? Uncovering the reasons why

Last Monday, I was delighted to see some old friends in the waiting room. Coco had come in for his regular nail and beak treatment, along with his lovely owners. 

Coco is a beautiful Amazon parrot. I first met him 13 years ago.  His owners brought him to see me back then because the plumage over his front looked thin and fluffy, not the sleek green contours that he should have been displaying. 

Feather problems are a very common presentation among pet parrots.  There may be a problem with how the feathers are growing, and common reasons might be an infection in the base of the feather itself, known as pulpitis; viral infections; or nutritional deficiencies. Alternatively, the parrot could be plucking out its own feathers, and, again, there are a myriad of reasons he could be doing this. These might include a female parrot plucking out her tummy feathers ready to brood a clutch of eggs, which is quite normal; to a very stressed bird plucking out feathers in the same way we might bite our nails or scratch ourselves raw when under duress.  Underlying pain might cause feather plucking, too. 

So, when I am faced with a parrot with a plumage problem, I must avoid jumping to conclusions and take a detailed and thorough approach. The initial consultation on its own can take an hour. This sometimes takes owners by surprise, and I often find myself explaining that there is no quick fix, we just must find the cause in every case. 

I start by taking a detailed history. Everything from what the bird eats, not just the ingredients but how it is packaged, as birds are extremely sensitive to microscopic moulds on food.  If things like nuts are not processed and packaged to the hygiene standards, we ourselves would expect, they can cause severe illness in parrots. Each parrot species has its own dietary requirements. Feeding an Amazon parrot what you might feed a parakeet, or a cockatoo could cause long term health problems. An inappropriate diet can cause abnormally coloured feathers, bars of black on coloured feathers, or brittle feathers that break easily, bend or curl as they emerge through the skin. Abnormal feathers can be very uncomfortable, so the parrot will pick at them and even pull them out in frustration.  

Daily routine is important, too, and I find it helpful to compare the daily life of a pet parrot to what that species’ life would be like in the wild. Take the African Grey Parrot.  Commonly kept as a solitary pet, African Greys live in flocks in the wild, up to a thousand strong. They form monogamous pairs for breeding, but also have many and varied relationships in the flock, and life is emotionally stimulating and very busy. The flocks are noisy and quite destructive as they search for food in their forest homes. They come from equatorial regions, and while they are busy during the day, they will sleep for up to 12 hours through the long night.  If we compare this to a modern-day British home, the same species might spend several hours a day on its own, with no noise, and no work to do. Owners are around over breakfast, but then go out to work, or work quietly from home. Come the evening, when the bird is starting to naturally wind down, we the owners have finished work and want to interact with their parrot, perhaps late into the evening. The television is blaring, electric lights are on, the family are together and chatting away, it’s more like daytime in the forest.  The bird might only get to rest in the dark from midnight until 6am, then it’s light again.  This alone can be enough to cause parrots chronic stress problems, and lead to feather plucking to deal with the lack of social interaction, mental stimulation, and quality sleep. 

So, keeping naturally gregarious birds alone is a problem, but what about households with more than one parrot? If they get on, great… but they may also intimidate each other at times. Having experienced Lockdown, many of us can sympathise with spending all our time with the same person, even if it is someone, we love…!  Newly introduced birds can be carrying infections that spread to existing pets, even after a period of quarantine.  So, if a parrot starts showing feather problems after a new bird is introduced, it could be a behavioural issue, it could be a new viral infection, or it could be signs of an old disease that had been latent but has come to the fore because the bird has experienced stress. Complicated, huh? 

Coco had a few different issues going on, and his owners were dedicated to diagnosing and treating him. With the help of blood tests, x-rays and CT scans, we found that Coco had a chronic liver problem.  We treated this with supplements and medication, but also by improving his diet to one with less seeds and more fruit, nuts and a high-quality prepared Parrot food.  He also struggled a bit with sleep, as his owners worked in the evenings and liked to interact with Coco late at night.  They changed their habits so Coco could sleep through the night in peace and have his quality time with his owners in the day. At his next moult, and several moults afterwards, Coco’s feathers grew back in much better condition, and he didn’t pull them out. 

Coco is now around 20 years old, about middle aged for a pet Amazon parrot. He has had a couple of hiccups along the way due to his chronic liver disease, but his owners’ ongoing care has kept him enjoying life. His plumage is not perfect, as we would expect for a bird with a chronic health condition, but he is still beautiful. He comes in every few months to have his nails trimmed. His beak is slightly Mal aligned, so we must trim that back into shape with a high-speed burr, too. Coco is happy for us to do this without sedation, as he is so used to being handled. Dare I say he enjoys the interaction, chatting away to himself as we work.  I hope we continue to see him for years to come. 

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