Why Is My Ring-Necked Parrot Feather-Plucking?
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 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.
After 3-4 months of eating a varied diet of fruits and vegetables, Oren’s liver values were tested and found to be normal, which was fantastic.
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
EDIT: 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.
EDIT: 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 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?
Does your companion bird feather pluck?
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.