Unraveling the Truth of Feather Plucking

Greetings, friends!
Here at Garuda Aviary, we rescue parrots from adverse, even desperate conditions. So unsurprisingly, we see a lot of parrots exhibiting plumage destructive behavior, also known as “feather plucking”.
Feather plucking is probably the most common affliction faced by parrots in a domestic setting. So common is this problem. But also, so misunderstood. When visitors to our sanctuary see that some of our rescued parrots have bald spots, they often ask what terrible trauma they’ve endured to cause this unsightly behavior. That is when I have to blow their minds with the truth; stress and anxiety do not cause feather plucking.
Now I know all of you “parrot people” are screaming heresy! But it’s true. Anxiety, stress and depression in parrots is not the cause of feather plucking. While anxiety, stress and depression can exacerbate feather plucking, they do not cause feather plucking.

To understand plumage destructive behavior (a.k.a. plumage mutilation or feather plucking), we must first go back to basics. When a new parrot chick hatches, it is already starting to grow its first set of feathers. That helpless chick is incapable of managing its new plumage. It is the chick’s parents’ job to preen the chick’s new feathers. And when they do, this stimulation activates the production of pleasant endorphins (like oxytocin) in the chick’s body. For the first year or two, the young chick will enjoy this soothing, nurturing activity with its parents.
Once the new parrot’s chickhood wanes, it will “fledge” (leave the nest). As an adult, it will manage its own plumage the same way its parents initially did. Now, here is the important part! Every time this naturally raised parrot preens its feathers, it stimulates nerve endings in the feather follicles. That stimulation goes back to the brain and causes an endorphin recall. An endorphin recall is when a creature produces endorphins based upon past events. Happy memories that cause a state of pleasure. This endorphin recall response triggered by a parrot’s own preening makes the bird feel soothed and satisfied. This feeling of satisfaction is how the natural parrot knows when to stop preening. A healthy, natural parrot with its endorphin recall response intact will not damage its plumage, no matter what stress or trauma it endures.

So, who is doing all the plucking? I’m so glad you asked! The only healthy parrots that pluck out their feathers are parrots that are a product of domestic breeding, and here’s why. Parrot breeders (generally speaking) do not allow their breeding parrots to raise their own offspring. When a female produces a fertilized egg, the breeder takes the egg, and puts it into an incubator. That way, the female will go back into estrus, and the breeding pair will produce another fertilized egg in 5 or 6 months. If the breeder allows the breeding pair to raise their chick, the breeder will have to wait a year or two for them to produce another offspring. Incubating the fertilized egg and hand raising the chick is how breeders produce more young parrots, and make more profit. But this increased profit comes at the offspring’s expense. Since the hand raised parrot was not preened by its parents during its formative years, it does not have an endorphin recall response to preening. Unlike the naturally raised parrot, the hand raised parrot will not feel satisfied after normal preening. So, it will over-preen, and start developing bald spots (usually on the chest and tops of wings).
At this point, the domestic-bred parrot is starting to damage plumage. As the plumage mutilation continues, it will eventually pluck out feathers that aren’t ready to be shed. Pulling out a premature feather is painful. That pain triggers beta-endorphins. Once the parrot realizes that this is a consistent phenomenon, the plucking will get worse. Now, this bird has the avian version of trichotillomania.
I’ve been asked if there is a way to retroactively instill an endorphin recall response in an adult parrot. Unfortunately, there is not. An endorphin recall response can only be created during the bird’s formative years.
So, if your parrot begins to develop bald spots, you should first take it to your avian specialist and make sure it is healthy. If it is healthy, then it has the avian version of trichotillomania due to the lack of an endorphin recall response to preening. In which case, there is not much you can do to stop it.
It is extremely important that you do not attempt to interrupt preening. You cannot tell the difference between preening and plucking. The occasional feather will be shed during normal preening, so don’t freak out! If you express anxiety every time your bird preens itself, it will experience genuine anxiety because of your reaction. The best thing you can do is to love your parrot regardless of its appearance. ️ ❤️

—-  UPDATE  —-
Since publishing the post you just read, I have received some great questions. Below, you will read a question emailed to me from a psychologist, and my answer…
I am trying to relate your thoughts to my observations. Specifically, I see some parrots that don’t begin feather plucking until they are 10 or 15 years old and placed in situations that are uncomfortable for them. If it is initiated by the absence of parental preening, how do we explain the delayed behavior?
That is a good question. Thank you for writing in.
Feather plucking is an ever-present mystery in the world of parrot handling. What I am presenting is a combination of clues from avian specialists, plus the product of my 25yrs of experience.

First, remember that I said, “While anxiety, stress and depression can exacerbate feather plucking, they do not cause feather plucking.”

Secondly, I’m certain the excessive preening starts long before we notice it. I think we notice it when it exacerbates. The young parrot is over-preening already. But a young parrot’s robust feather growth is making up for the feather loss.

Trichotillomania in people is an excellent parallel for comparison. While the origins may be somewhat different, trichotillomania and feather plucking develop very similarly. Someone suffering from trichotillomania is inadvertently thinning their hair long before they notice a bald spot. Once they notice the bald spot, they look for a recent stress trigger, which may lead to an erroneous conclusion.

And like trichotillomania, every time a good feather is pulled out, it causes a little pain which is followed by beta-endorphins. The parrot’s addiction to beta-endorphins grows over time. So, the plucking gets worse as the years go by. And the older a parrot is, the less robust its feather growth becomes.

So, where the domestic-bred parrot is lacking an endorphin recall response to preening, it replaces that response with an addiction to beta-endorphins. Now it is using those beta endorphins as a way to self-medicate. If it feels anxious, it learns over time that it can over-preen to trigger pain coping beta-endorphins as a way to soothe itself. That’s what I mean when I say anxiety, stress and depression can exacerbate feather plucking, they do not cause feather plucking. The naturally raised parrot can preen itself normally to get all the endorphins it needs. The domestic-bred bred parrot must pull feathers out to get a different set of endorphins.

We have a Blue&Gold macaw named Odin that came to us with a lightly plucked chest. After a year, he had let those feathers grow back. But when we rebuilt the macaw habitats, he started plucking his chest again. After less than a year, he has let them grow back. So, like trichotillomania, stress and anxiety can exacerbate the condition. But if stress and anxiety caused trichotillomania, everyone would be missing hair. Similarly, if stress and anxiety caused feather plucking, then every parrot on the planet would be missing feathers because parrots are prey, and all prey have naturally elevated levels of anxiety so that they remain vigilant against predators.

That last bit is fairly subjective, so, here is some proof…

Healthy “wild caught” parrots do not mutilate their plumage. Think about that…

You know what a “wild caught” parrot is, right? A parrot that is captured from its natural environment and smuggled in some horrifying fashion. Half usually die on the way. And the ones that survive the trip are dysfunctional from PTSD like symptoms. But they don’t pluck their feathers. Wild caught parrots endure more stress and trauma than any other group of parrots. But they do not become feather pluckers. That is because they developed an endorphin recall response from their parents’ nest care before being captured.
Meanwhile, domestic bred parrots living generally normal lives in a domestic setting may start plumage mutilation.

15% of my sanctuary’s flock are wild caught, and not one of them over-preens. In 25yrs of parrot handling experience, the only healthy wild caught parrot I ever heard of that over-preened was owned by a South American woman that knew the bird was taken from the nest extremely early.

And I’m not saying that all domestic bred parrots will become feather pluckers. But I am saying that domestic bred parrots are the only healthy parrots that do pluck.

Animal rescue is essential
The introduction of the COVID-19 virus into our society has shifted our perspective on life. We are at a time when we are more focused on securing the resources necessary to keep ourselves and our loved ones healthy, safe and happy. But it is important that we do not loose sight of those that need us. Due to increased layoffs and shutdowns, the number of animals being abandoned has increased. At a time like this, animal rescue becomes even more vital. When an animal is abandoned, its life is essentially over. But animal rescue and sanctuaries give that deserving creature a second chance at life.

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