Bird Behavior – Discovering the Origin of Feather Picking

If you’re a bird owner, few things can be more discouraging than watching your once beautifully plumed bird look more and more like a plucked chicken. Once it has been determined by a veterinarian that there is no obvious organic problem requiring immediate attention, the REAL job of behavioral modification and improvement begins. In general, the more acute the problem, the better the odds of success. Therefore, the parrot that has been pulling its feathers for ten years is not likely to return to normal plumage. The real focus, in spite of the apparent and heartbreaking feather damage, needs to be on the behavior and the mind of the bird, NOT the plumage.

  • Take the time to ensure that your bird currently has perceived stability and security in its home environment. Fear of interacting with humans and fear of falling due to either inadequate perching materials or an inappropriate wing trim can lead to feather damaging behaviors due to discomfort with the environment. Before trying any other measures, you must first rule out and eliminate these types of factors should they be present.
  • Try to identify triggering events or sequences of events that have a role in the origin of the feather damaging behavior. A bird that only damages its feathers when you are present, when you are absent, or when other environmental changes occur is giving us clues that should be investigated. Should there be identifiable triggers, then the detective work begins as you look into questions such as: Why do these changes in environment cause such stress-related behavior? What can be done to teach the bird to accept some of these things? Should this bird learn to accept all of those triggering environmental events?
  • Fortify basic training. Deficits in the basics make it challenging to effectively enrich and guide more normal behaviors.
  • Enhance "normal" feather care through gentle misting, and also by providing other items that can be groomed in addition to your bird's feathers.
  • Enrich and enhance social interaction in a proper manner. Correct social interaction that is engaging, stimulating, and varied is essential for both your bird’s mental health and well-being.
  • Enrich and enhance foraging activities. Some of these activities can be combined with others in your presence, while different activities should be encouraged in your absence. For some activities, you will need to literally teach the bird how to do them. Assume nothing beyond the likelihood that your bird is unfamiliar or even afraid of these new things!
  • If there is a reproductively-pair bonded relationship present between you or another person and the bird, work to alter this towards a more normal social interaction. For every pair bond enrichment behavior you are working to decrease, there should be several new interactive behaviors that the bird is being taught to do that can fill the void. Leave no behavioral voids by removing activities or interaction without either effectively replacing them with others or enhancing existing behaviors!
  • Remember to keep your focus on the mind and lifestyle of your bird, not their feathers, as they are merely a distraction from what you really are working on! Your goal here is to stimulate your bird’s changing, expanding, and improving mind, and to find it different behavioral interactions to partake in with and without you present. Hopefully, the result in achieving that goal is a decrease in feather damaging behavior.
  • Work most aggressively on balancing your bird’s lifestyle by mainly focusing on social interaction and foraging behaviors.
  • Follow up. Regular communication and follow-up evaluations are essential, as behavior does not usually change perfectly (or permanently!) after one single action plan is set. As all things change, we need to change with them if we are to heighten our probability of success.