Feather-plucking, feather damaging behavior or mutilation is a behavioral disorder sometimes seen in captive parrots, companion parrots which chew, bite, snip or pluck their own feathers, resulting in damage to the feathers, feather follicles and occasionally the skin. It is especially common among, African Greys and Cockatoo’s.
The areas of the body that are mainly plucked are the more accessible regions of their body such as the neck, chest, upper back, inner thigh, tail and wing area..
The most common reasons for feather plucking are: cage size is often too small and restricts the parrot’s movements; the cage design and lack of toys to stimulate them, and solitary housing, which fails to meet the high social needs of the parrot, illness and lastly poor diet.
Social and environmental factors
Feather-plucking is often attributed to a variety of social causes that may include poor socialization, absence of parents during the rearing period and because of this, the young parrot subsequently expressing the disorder fails to learn appropriate preening behavior.
In captivity, companion parrots are often kept isolated from ‘their’ own kind, whereas in the wild they would form stable, large flocks. Deprivation of a social or sexual partner may lead to 'separation anxiety', ‘loneliness’, ‘boredom’, sexual ‘frustration’ and/or ‘attention-seeking’ behavior’. These factors may all contribute to feather-plucking.
Increasing their environment with suitable toys, foraging toys etcetera can sometimes reduce feather-plucking.
Parrots in captivity are usually given energy-dense, readily available food that is consumed rapidly, whereas in the wild they would have to spend many hours foraging to find this.
Feather-plucking can also be because of stress, loneliness, boredom, induced by inappropriate social or environmental factors. It has also been suggested that long day-lengths can cause feather-plucking; presumably this could relate to birds becoming overly tired and therefore stressed.
Medical and physical factors
Many medical causes underlying the development of feather-plucking have been proposed including allergies, skin irritation (e.g. by toxic substances, low humidity levels), obesity, pain, reproductive disease, systemic illness (in particular liver and renal disease), hypocalcaemia, psittacine beak and feather disease (PBFD), psittacosis, airsacculitis, heavy metal toxicosis, bacterial or fungal folliculitis, genetic feather abnormalities, nutritional deficiencies (in particular vitamin A and Calcium)
Some parrots exhibiting feather damaging behavior have been diagnosed as having inflammatory skin disease based on paired skin and feather biopsies. The, parrots try to relieve itching by grooming their feathers, but this often leads to over-grooming and eventually feather-plucking.
Veterinary treatment and an improved and more stimulating environment may help birds suffering from feather-plucking. There are organic bitter sprays that are sold in pet stores and online for parrots to discourage plucking, although we don’t recommend this since it doesn't address the real reason why the parrot is plucking feathers and shouldn’t be used unless you are told to use it by an avian vet.