It’s never been shown that birds in the wild self mutilate and feather pluck. Only domestic birds. Why is self mutilating parrots a captive bird problem? We don’t really know. Theories abound, but nobody has conclusively proved any of their theories.
What we do know is that having a beautiful Cockatoo or an African Grey attack his or her own feathers and skin is particularly stressful for the confused owner.
Apart from the stress of having a beautiful bird lose it’s looks, it’s also terrible to watch a loved companion descend into illness without an obvious way of solving it.
Why Do Birds Self Mutilate?
Sally Blanchard, a respected avian behaviorist, has proposed that feather picking, plucking and mutilation are perplexing symptoms that are maintained by a complex myriad of causes. And, Pamela Clark concurs. “Owners often look for the cause for the feather abuse. In reality, there are usually a few factors or problems that contribute to the behavior in any given case.” (This article originally appeared in the Holistic Bird Newsletter)
It is theorized that while one simple situation may cause the onset, feather picking tends to become a “habit” and is maintained through a mix of
- Improper reinforcement
- Psychological stressors
- Physiological stressors
Put simply, we don’t know what maintains self mutilation, but we think that your birds entire environment may work together to maintain the habit, once it has started.
This might be living in a household environment with inappropriate companionship, lack of exercise and enrichment, a sense of confinement and boredom and household contaminants. We also think that it might be because of bad training systems where the bird is trained by using incorrect reinforcement techniques that may work for children but not necessarily for birds that are just a few generations away from their wild cousins.
Looked at holistically we can deduce that the majority of the issues are caused in some ways by interaction with humans.
While your bird is a fantastic pet, he or she is also on one or two generations from the wild, and has not adapted yet to the human habitat with all of it’s noise, bacteria, chemicals or to the new social systems to which it must adjust.
IT’S UP TO YOU TO HELP YOUR BIRD!
Rule # 1: Be vigilant and proactive.
As soon as you pick up signs of feather picking pack your bird up and take him or her to an avian vet for a check up to rule out any viral, bacterial or fungal cause as well as physiological causes.
Your vet will also be able to check your bird for signs of stress or malnutrition and advise you on the best diet, supplements and enrichment.
Rule # 2: Start a log book.
You’re looking for patterns. The idea is to find out when and why your bird starts to pick at his or her feathers. Does the feather picking happen at certain times of the day? Do certain noises or sights trigger the behavior? A bird that sees hawks from the window or hears scary noises but can’t get away from them may resort to anxious self-mutilation.
A log book, kept meticulously, will be of great benefit in deducing why your bird is engaging in this behavior. Then you’ll learn some ways to alter the environment so your bird feels safe.
Your reaction to your bird’s feather plucking may well be a contributing factor, so look to make sure that your bird isn’t exhibiting this behavior as a way to get your attention.
A bored and lonely bird looking for attention is just as happy to get negative feedback as positive, and you don’t want your bird to associate any form of attention with feather picking.
A standard rule of thumb while training birds is to never give negative feedback, especially to a bird who is already feeling lonely and isolated.
Rule # 3: Ensure lots of rest, and minimal stress.
It’s important to remember that your bird is probably only one generation away from being a wild animal, and so cannot be considered to be truly domesticated.
Birds were not designed to live in cages, or in homes, and are not instinctualy programed to dealing with the daily stressors that a human habitat imposes. An exhausted bird can’t cope with that stress!
So you need to make sure that your bird gets lots of rest, and is allowed a suitable place that ensures a restful sleep each night. Vets recommend between 10-12 hours of uninterrupted sleep a night
A bird can be a great friend, and a fantastic companion animal, but never forget that it is only one step away from the wild, and its genetic make-up is designed to live in a large flock for safety purposes.
Rule # 4: Never put your bird in a cage that you wouldn’t be happy to live in yourself.
At the bare minimum your bird needs to be able to fully stretch his or her wings without touching the sides of the cage. However, a wild bird has freedom as far as it can fly. While cost is a factor, imagine if you had to live in a cage that was small, confining, and provided little or no stimulation.
The idea is to provide your bird with natural, safe housing that feels like home, not to put him or her in a prison.
As we’ll talk about a little later, it has been proven that certain species of birds have the mental capacity of a 5 – 6 year old human child, and so needs both freedom and entertainment to keep from being bored, lonely and stressed out.
Rule # 5: Ensure adequate nutrition.
Is your bird a “Seed Junkie?” Birds get sick from eating the wrong foods just like humans. They have specific nutritional requirements that are designed to keep them lightweight to fly but supply the energy needed to get to far away destinations. That said, pet birds are usually fed inferior, fattening diets and then suffer from obesity. A fat, malnourished bird feels sick all over</a>.
And just like humans, birds tend to love “junkie foods” and can become addicted to a fattening, seed diet that offers minimal nutrition. Learn Many birds are deficient in vitamin A, which birds need to fuel their immune system.This is more often than not caused an all seed diet, that your bird will love, but that is full of fat and is nutritionally deficient.
It’s important to feed your bird properly, and don’t let him or her convince you that the only food worth eating is a dish of fatty seeds.
You should be looking at whole ‘live’ foods including fresh vegetables and fruit as well as sprouted seeds.
Rule # 6: Air quality is a killer.
Birds are incredibly sensitive to the air that they breathe, and can very quickly become ill or die if certain toxins are present.
These include household cleaning chemicals, paraffin heaters or lamps, smoke from cigarettes – including handling your bird with nicotine on your hands – mold, and possibly the most deadly of all, Teflon coated pots and pans.
Make sure that your bird gets plenty of fresh air and is not exposed to any household odors that could do him or her harm. If you are concerned that air quality is contributing to your birds self mutilation, you may wish to explore purchasing a high quality air filter.
Rule # 7: Look out for metal toxicity.
Check cages, feeder and toys for signs of unsafe metals, rust, and especially for signs that your bird has been clawing or stripping the plastic coating of objects that have metal underneath.
Zinc and lead are generally believed to be the major culprits although any sort of metal has the potential to harm.
Especially look at chains that are attached to toys, as well as bells, ladders, perches, in fact, check everything in the cage!
Rule # 8: Mold and Aspergillus.
Aspergillus and mold can cause respiratory infections and are very rapid killers of birds. But, they may well contribute to feather plucking behaviors for the duration of the illness.
Malnourished, seed junkie birds are more prone to respiratory infections. Over time, being vitamin A deficient can cause an abnormal epithelium in the respiratory tract which will make it easier for bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites to invade your bird and take hold.
Rule # 9: Play with your bird!!
Birds are very intelligent and can engage in feather destructive behavior out of sheer boredom.
Birds are highly social animals with active minds and a high need for activity. Research has shown that parrots have the intellectual capacity and activity level of a five to six year old child, and as such need plenty of love and attention to keep them occupied.
You should plan on spending a minimum 30 minutes per day directly interacting with your bird. It’s best that you do this at around the same time each day so that your bird can form a routine in his or her mind.
This interaction time can be spent playing, learning and practicing new tricks using positive reinforcement, cuddling or horsing around. But it must be direct personal attention.
Apart from the 30 minutes of direct attention each day, it’s important that your bird have daily out of cage time where he or she is able to interact with the family. A bird stand is perfect for this, and allows your bird to occupy him or herself while still being part of the family unit.
Don’t underestimate the recuperative power that interacting and loving your bird has.
All in all, feather picking is a complex issue for bird owners for which there is no easy fix.
Many bird lovers have successfully kicked a nasty feather picking habit with the assistance of their veterinarian, improved nutrition, skin care, calming supplements and by slowly modifying their bird’s environment to one that suits it’s needs and temperament.
Do you have some other insights into picking and self-mutilation? Add your comments.