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 aviary see that some of our rescued parrots have mutilated plumage, 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. How do I know this? Observation. When you get to know a great many parrots, you eventually see some surprising patterns. Most of the parrots you will encounter in domestic settings are the product of domestic breeding. But around 15% of them have been captured from their natural wild habitats. “Wild caught” parrots brought into the U.S. after 1983 were illegally smuggled in. These parrots have endured a cruel and terrifying journey that so many parrots do not survive. If stress and anxiety cause parrots to pluck out their feathers, then the wild caught birds should look horrible. But they don’t. Their plumage is usually perfect and beautiful. They are often crippled by fear and dysfunctional with aggression. But they maintain their plumage beautifully. Stranger still, the parrots that do all of the feather plucking are the domestic-bred parrots. Parrots that are a product of domestic breeding often have sheltered, uneventful lives. Generally, the worst problem they face is boredom and a lack of stimulation.
Now, I know some of you are thinking “That’s it! Boredom causes feather plucking!” No… that’s not it either. But I’m glad you’re paying attention.
So, to recap; parrots born from domestic breeding, typically cared for with uneventful lives, are the ones that pluck out their feathers and destroy their plumage. Meanwhile, “wild caught” parrots, having been profoundly emotionally damaged by being violently stolen from their natural habitat, maintain beautiful plumage. That is one of the surprising patterns you see when you get to know a great many parrots. And it is the exact opposite of what you would expect to find if you believed that stress and anxiety cause feather plucking.
So why is it like that? To find out, I went looking for any new information on feather plucking. What I found was an emerging theory in avian science circles regarding “chickhood learning”.
The theory postulates that parrots teach their offspring vital skills in the first year or two of life before the fledgling leaves the nest. One of these skills is plumage management. And this lesson probably dovetails with anxiety management.
When a parrot chick starts to grow feathers, those feathers start as pointy little quills. The uneducated chick may want to pull those quills out because they are uncomfortable (similar to a human infant during teething). The parents, sensing the chick’s discomfort, stops the chick from pulling the quills out and instead demonstrates plumage management by grooming the chick. This ritual is probably soothing and comforting for the chick. Later in life whenever the adult offspring grooms itself, it experiences an “endorphin recall” wherein pleasant chickhood memories trigger calming endorphins.
In domestic parrot breeding, chicks rarely get to meet their parents. Usually the fertilized egg is removed from the parent’s care and placed in an incubator. The chick is hand raised and sold as soon as possible. These parrots never get the benefit of learning from their parents. So, they must figure out how to manage their plumage without instructions. At first, this seems to work. But once the parrot gets into its adult years, the problems start to emerge. As the domestic-bred parrot experiences the tiniest bit of commonplace anxiety, it starts grooming obsessively. Without the endorphin recall, this preening does not have the same calming benefit that it would for a parrot raised naturally. So, the domestic-bred parrot preens and preens, searching for relief that never comes. Until… they accidentally pull out a feather that wasn’t ready to be shed. Pulling out a growing feather is slightly painful. That pain triggers endorphins. Then in a very short time, the parrot learns that it can consistently manage its natural anxiety with the endorphins that follow plucking a feather out. This is the bird essentially self-medicating with the endorphins that follow pain. And then you have a self-taught behavior that looks exactly like trichotillomania in people. Trichotillomania is also a healthy grooming habit gone awry, where over-grooming becomes an obsessive/compulsive coping mechanism for anxiety.
Now maybe you’re thinking, “Hey, didn’t he just say anxiety is causing the feather plucking?”. No, I did not. What I’m saying is that feather plucking is symptomatic of a more fundamental problem. Stress and anxiety aren’t the root of the problem. A lack of chick-hood learning is the root of the problem. Stress and anxiety are triggering a presentation of the underlying problem.
Please note; we are assuming for this topic that all of our hypothetical parrots are otherwise perfectly healthy. So if a domestic-bred parrot begins to pluck out its feathers and an avian specialist veterinarian says it has no health issues causing the plucking (such as pathology or parasites), then we can assume the plucking is caused by the phenomenon I described. This phenomenon is not rare outside of the parrot-keeping world. For example, dogs and cats that were weaned too early or improperly have been known to present symptoms of obsessive/compulsive disfunction. What I have described is the parrot version of that.
Can feather plucking behavior be cured?
I honestly don’t think so. You can’t effectively replace information that needed to be learned at a formative time. So, if your parrot begins non-pathological feather plucking, please don’t get anxious about it. If you do, the bird will pick up on your anxiety, and become anxious itself. And please do not try to stop it from preening. That would only interrupt necessary hygiene. Just love your bird, and accept it for who it is, not how it looks.
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.