I care for four ring-necked parakeets. One of our males started feather-picking and we tried a number of fixes to help him.
My Journey With a Feather-Plucking Parrot
I have four rose-ringed or ring-necked parakeets: Oscar, Ollie, Oren and Oriel (three boys and one female). Oren is the one that has become a feather-plucker. It has been an extremely stressful nine months since the behavior first started.
I went to feed the birds one morning, and I noticed that Oren had bare skin showing through on the back of his shoulders. I was shocked! The area looked very red and irritated, and I wasn’t sure what had happened to him. I took him straight to the veterinarian, and she told me that it looked as though he had plucked his feathers out. He looked perfectly fine the day before, so it must've happened overnight. The vet said it is one of the most frustrating and difficult conditions to deal with in companion birds as there can be so many causes or combinations of causes of the behaviour.
Common Causes of Feather-Plucking in Birds
I love all my birds dearly and was willing to do as many tests as I could afford in order to determine if the plucking was due to a medical condition. The total vet bill over the last 9 months has reached approximately $1,500. A blood test revealed that he had fatty liver disease, which has now been completely resolved through diet. The cause of his excessive preening and plucking could not be found medically and was determined to be psychological/behavioural. Common causes for the behaviour include:
- Tumours, liver or kidney disease
- Giardia (or other parasites, both internal or external)
- Bacterial, viral or fungal infections
- Hormonal imbalances
- Skin diseases
- Lead or zinc poisoning
- Beak and feather disease
- Allergies (to food or something in the surrounding environment)
- Inappropriate diet (leading to malnutrition)
- Sexual frustration
- Overcrowded conditions
- Lack of omega-3 and 6 (may cause dry, itchy skin)
- Not enough natural light/sunlight (make sure bird always has shade available)
- Not enough sleep (birds need 10-12 hours per night)
Analyzing Your Bird's Stress Level
Oren is a high-stress bird, and the vet thinks stress is most likely the cause of his feather-plucking. He is a fairly young bird (3–4 years old) with an unknown early history—he was given to me to care for by a neighbour who rescued him after he flew into a window and knocked himself out. Not knowing his early history makes it difficult to understand what may have caused his initial anxiety. I always try my best to make him feel comfortable and calm. My investigative work revealed:
- Oren has bonded with another male, Oscar (up until 4 months ago it had just been the three boys).
- Oscar and Oren would dance together and feed each other like a baby bird gets fed by its parents.
- Around the time that Oren started to pluck, this behaviour between them had stopped. I am not sure if the behaviour stopped before Oren started to pluck, and then he did so afterwards in response, or if it stopped after.
- I started to think that maybe it was like a breakup between them and Oren was lashing out at himself in order to deal with it.
I separated Oren from Ollie and Oscar, but I still hung his cage up on the aviary during the day so he could interact with them while I tried to help him get better. I spent hours and months researching the causes of feather-plucking and possible solutions. I am very cautious about using drugs, chemical sprays and products on my birds (as I believe they will cause more long-term damage than they are worth), so I was looking at more natural solutions. I started with diet.
Offer Your Birds a Nutrient-Rich Diet
I offer my birds a variety of fruits and vegetables as part of their daily diet. Before this diet improvement, the birds were eating pellets only; Oren has since been cured of his fatty liver disease.
For a while, I was adding about ¼ teaspoon of organic coconut oil to their diet (melted on some warm green peas). This really seemed to help Oren when his skin was red and irritated. He still plucked, but not as much, and some of his feathers grew out around his middle area.
I've included two feeding tables below. One table shows the amount of the staple food items I feed my birds daily, and the second table shows extra food items that I offer my birds on occasion.
Everyday Food Items
Vetafarm Maintenance Diet Parrot Pellets
1/8 cup of pellets each
2-3 florets each
1/2 carrot each over whole day
Organic snow peas
1-2 peas each
2 apples shared between birds per day
Organic shredded coconut
1 teaspoon each
UPDATE: I have recently changed the variety of pellets that I feed the birds to TOPS Organic Parrot Pellets that are now available for purchase within Australia.
Occasional Food Items
Organic sweet corn
1/4 corn cob each
twice per week
when in season
when in season
Organic kiwi fruit
1 shared between birds; skin removed
when in season
1 shared between birds
twice per week
Environmental Changes and Enrichment May Help Your Bird
- Toys and Foraging: I tried adding more toys and foraging opportunities for the birds. They love to destroy and chew toys made with wood (they are not so interested in plastic ones), and they really love natural branches made of grevillea and banksia. It is hard to keep a constant supply of toys with the four of them; toys aren’t cheap, and we only have a few grevillea/banksia trees in our backyard, so I am still working on improving this for them.
- Space: We bought the birds a bigger aviary to see if having more flight space might help them to get more exercise, and for Oren, reduce his stress. The birds definitely love having that extra space.
- Separation: Oren sometimes improves when he is by himself, and other times he improves when he is mingling.
- Mating Behavior: I read that some birds may pluck due to sexual frustration and that providing them with a mate could help to resolve this behaviour. This is how our bird Oriel came into the picture. It didn't work in Oren's case, but we still love Oriel dearly and welcome her to the family.
UPDATE: I would just like to mention here that one of my other birds, Oscar, had a reaction to the grevillea seed pods when they were given to him to chew on in an enclosed area. He had what appeared to be a slight seizure after chewing on them for a few minutes. The smell in the room became quite strong, and I feel that maybe it overwhelmed his body temporarily.
I have not provided him with them since, and it has not reoccurred. I would suggest that if you offer them to your bird, provide only a small amount each time and do so in a well-ventilated area (preferably outdoors).
Our Last Resort: A Bird Collar
In the early feather-plucking days, there were a few times when Oren pulled out his tail feathers and there was so much blood loss that I thought he was going to die. It was horrible! A few months ago, his condition got even worse as he began to self-mutilate. Out of fear that he might do severe damage, I took him to the vet and had a collar put on him. I felt like this was necessary as I couldn't watch him 24/7 due to work, and was worried that he might really hurt himself when I'm not there to help him.
He hated the collar at first, but he adapted quickly and wore it for approximately 5 weeks. On the way home from the vet after he'd had the collar removed, he plucked out about 8 of his newly grown shoulder feathers. Since then, however, he has hardly plucked a feather (only his tail, which he never seems to let grow through very far). The stress of visiting the vet that day may have caused him to pluck those feathers. He has been quite good since then. I am interested to see how he does next month in spring when his natural molt usually occurs.
How common is feather-plucking in companion birds?
Share Your Success Story
I hope to help others who may be going through a similar experience, so they know that they are not alone. It is an incredibly stressful and difficult situation to be in. Anyone who may have a solution that has worked for them and their bird—please post what you did in the comments section below. Thank you.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
Questions & Answers
Question: I have an African grey with plucking habit. I have been to countless vets. They all say it's her habit and we can't change it. Collar will be permanently fitted around the neck for life. Otherwise she will pluck twice as much as she does now if we take it off after a couple of months because african grey have really sharp memory. Any other solutions to it?
Answer: I have spent years trying to find a solution to this situation without any lasting or permanent resolution. I have realised after all this time that maybe the best way I can help is to completely accept that this is occurring and that it is okay (as by not doing so I am continually bringing a negative energy into the birds environment which may be exacerbating the plucking behaviour). They may be far more sensitive to our energies than we realise. How would we feel if everytime the person we spent most of our time with saw a problem with us, rather than showing us unconditional love regardless of the situation. I know you must absolutely unconditionally love your parrot and want to help more than anything so please don't take me the wrong way. I am just saying that the energy around the situation might be what he/she is picking up on.
This is something I am now working on in my situation with Oren. I am trying my best to keep a loving, happy and positive energy vibration when I am interacting with him, as well as trying to provide him with things that I know make him happiest. I can keep you updated on how this new approach goes if you would like. I know this answer is probably not what you were expecting but I hope it may still help you and your beautiful bird.
Question: Do you have an update?
Answer: It is December 2019 and approximately 5 years since all this began. Oren is much the same, though he has had a few periods of improvement. One thing I have really learned about him through all of this is just how amazingly strong he is. I have learned a lot and grown from this experience also. I will always continue to hope and aim for him to improve but love him unconditionally always and forever regardless of what happens.
Miranda Bain (author) from Australia on March 04, 2020:
Sounds like she is a he, as only the males have the line around their necks. It may take some time for him to feel comfortable in his new home. Changes can cause distress and it sounds like he may have come from a hectic place with lots of children. Time and patience are important for gaining trust and bonding. You could try and find a treat he likes (mine love almonds, but make sure they are just 100% plain raw almonds, not cooked or covered in salt etc.) and give him 1 or 2 each day. You might just have to put them in his bowl at first, but eventually he may start taking them from your hand as he gains more trust. If you would like more information on basic care, toys etc. then I suggest you visit my other blog here https://pethelpful.com/birds/Indian-Ringneck-parro...
Mia on February 26, 2020:
We got our Indian ringneck from a friend with lots of children we are not sure as to her age. But she doesn’t have a line round her neck. But she is very timid and is very scared of anyone that comes close to her cage I’m just wondering if u have any tips for maybe making her less afraid of people and maybe any purchases I should make like perches toys , etc.
Prenisha Rajagopal on December 18, 2019:
I have a ringneck and he plucking feathers very badly where by he is gerting bald at the back.
Annette on September 21, 2019:
Nothing helped my African grey until i tried Hemp Well. It was like a miracle. It’s now been over a month and she has stopped feather picking! We tried lupron shots, implant, soft collar, hard collar and nothing worked.
emily on July 15, 2018:
he mite need more attention
Miranda Bain (author) from Australia on February 12, 2017:
Hi again Elaine,
Just wanted to let you know that I have found something that is helping Oren significantly. I decided against ordering in the product from my previous comment as it was difficult to know if it would get here and if I could keep purchasing it regularly. I stumbled across this site: http://www.parrotproblemsolving101.com/, and the information here is so valuable. They also have a facebook group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/ParrotProblemSolvi... and are extremely helpful and happy to answer all your questions. So far Oren has improved significantly and I finally have an understanding of why this has happened to him and how I can fix it.
Miranda Bain (author) from Australia on January 13, 2017:
Hi Elaine, I'm sorry to hear that Smokey is still plucking but glad that he has been improving. Oren is unfortunately still plucking also. He has weeks where he improves but then he always seems to have a flare up or something and begins plucking again. His feathers don't appear to be fragile like Smokeys though, its more like he is irritated by them. Especially around his tail, he has absolutely no tail feathers. I came across an American company that have some very interesting information about why captive parrots pluck their feathers and a program that claims to have helped many improve and even fully recover. I have recently been in contact with Australian customs to see if I can import the food they suggest in the program (not sure if there may be risks associated with importing plant food products and need to be sure its safe), so have not yet tried it with Oren.
In the meantime I have tried to adopt some of the principles of her program and have had a slight improvement, but haven't been able to fully eradicate foods that may be a problem.
Here is a link if you are interested: http://www.thebestbirdfood.com/
If you scroll down the page to the food you will see "birdie brittle" (1st step for feather destroyers) and "better feathers" (2nd step for feather destroyers).
She also has more information about feather destruction in her blog.
Please do your own research about it though as I have not yet tried it so can't personally advocate that it works. Just thought I'd share :)
Please keep in touch regarding Smokeys condition, its nice to share stories.
Elaine Hilton on January 13, 2017:
Hello again. I was browsing my computer and came across this article. I would really like to know how Oren is. Smokey is still having problems plucking but he has regained feathers. I keep a collar on him 5 days a week and he has 2 days off so he can preen properly and bath properly. When some of his feathers grow, they are quite fragile which means they fall out and break very easily. It seems he is plucking but he's not. With each regrowth, the feathers seem to be getting stronger and he seems to pluck less. I have had periods where the collar has been off for several weeks, but he eventually starts plucking again. It seems to be working having the collar on and off.
I hope Oren has improved or even stopped and that he has successfully regrown his feathers.
Hope to hear back soon.
Miranda Bain (author) from Australia on September 19, 2015:
Thank you for commenting and sharing your story. I am so sorry to hear that you have been battling this for over 3 years now. I understand just how immensely stressful it can be, especially when all you want is for your bird to be healthy and happy. I am wondering if maybe you have considered using a sock jumper? If he allows you to handle him it could possibly help. Although you would have to be careful that he doesn't get caught up in it somehow, but it might help to reduce the plucking on his chest at least. It could also give him something else to chew on to distract him.
When Oren had his collar on he did have a couple of scabs on his neck where it was rubbing due to him trying to reach around to his tail. If you find a softer collar that works well I would love to know and find out more about it. Good luck with your search and please keep in touch on how smokeys going :)
Elaine on September 19, 2015:
Hi. My male ringneck, smokey, is a grey like yours. Oren is beautiful. I have been battling this for over 3 years now and have tried so many things but nothing has worked. I recently had a hormone chip put in him as his hormones didn't return to normal after last spring, it was full on 24/7 and he is a single bird bonded to me. While his behaviour has changed, he is still plucking. He plucks his upper body so his neck, chest and under wings are all gone, as well as the back of his neck. I have to be careful with collars because of where he plucks, they rub on his skin and make it worse. I am currently researching softer collars. Not much help to you or me, but it is nice to know we're not alone. Good luck