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. ️ ❤️
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.