Cockatoo Heaven

Cockatoo Characteristics

Feather Mutilation
Carol Highfill

Although there are a number of species of birds which mutilate their feathers, this behavior is most common among African Greys and Cockatoos. There are those who feel that these two families of birds are more intelligent and thus more susceptible to stress and boredom. Whatever the reason, a bird who feather mutilates has a problem and is also a continuing cause of concern to his loving owner.

Plucking can vary in severity, from breaking off parts of the feathers, to pulling out feathers, to actually damaging the skin and causing wounds. Repeated pulling of feathers can cause damage to the feather follicles so that feathers will no longer grow. Damage to the skin can result in infections and become life threatening.

Some birds continuously pluck their feathers, while others do so only under certain conditions or at certain times of the year. In some cases birds start plucking for a valid reason, but when the cause is eliminated, continue to pluck out of habit (similar to biting ones nails).

All causes of feather mutilation in birds are not yet known. However, they fall into two broad categories: Medical and Stress Related. Medical reasons for plucking are easier to deal with. Those that are stress related may be hard to identify or correct.

A bird who is plucking his feathers, needs to have the situation addressed and the cause found and eliminated, if possible. If there is an underlying medical reason, treatment may be necessary for the bird's health. Once medical causes are ruled out, the situation is less life threatening unless the bird is wounding itself. In that case preventative measures must be taken.

Eliminating feather mutilation is not easy and in many cases unsuccessful. After eliminating medical causes, many owners have tried every remedy and approach they can discover, all to no avail, and have finally given up. Learning to accept and live with a feather plucking bird may be a necessity. Many of these birds are wonderful pets.

When a bird begins to feather pluck, question yourself if anything has changed in the birds' environment which may have created stress and brought on this behavior. If something different has occurred, try to eliminate the change or provide assurance to the bird that all is well. If this doesn't seem to help, perhaps these obvious changes are not the real cause. There may be an underlying medical or physical reason for the plucking.

The bird should be taken to a qualified vet for a checkup. Medical causes can include problems such as:

  • Giarda
  • Tapeworms
  • Zinc Poisoning
  • Dry skin (various causes, including low humidity)
  • Infections (bacterial and other)
  • Dietary Deficiencies (Vitamin A and others)
  • Other diseases

Physical Problems
  • Dry Skin - Dry air in the winter due to furnaces or other dry air conditions lead to low humidity. This can create discomfort and itchy skin. Scratching and then feather plucking may result.
  • Wing Clips - Poor wing clipping can leave ragged ends or shafts of a bad length which irritate or scrape parts of the body
  • Molting and the growth of new feathers - Sensitive new blood feathers and sensitive skin can cause a bird to play with and pull out offending feathers

Once medical and physical causes have been eliminated, stress related causes can be further investigated.
  • Changes in the Environment - Something in the environment may have changed, causing the bird to feel stressed. New people, absence of people, moving the cage, changes in the cage or bird's room, change in the owners' dress or appearance, alterations in diet or daily schedules are all possibilities.
  • Emotions - Birds are very sensitive to human emotions. Tension, arguing, yelling, depression or other emotions can and will be picked up by a bird. Some can react by plucking feathers. In this situation, the incidences of plucking may be seen to occur at the same times as the distressing emotional behavior in the humans and disappear when harmony returns.
  • Boredom - Lack of attention, too little out of cage time, isolation from the rest of the family or lack of toys and things to keep the bird entertained and busy.
  • Jealousy - A new bird, other pet, family member or love interest can create jealousy. A reduction of attention given to your bird and an increase of attention to other partie(s) can create a jealous and stressed bird.
  • Lack of Attention - Tiring of your new pet after a while, new concerns in your life which take your time and attention away, too little out of cage time.
  • Sexual Maturity and Frustration - As a bird reaches sexual maturity, there is a change in hormones. A bird may communicate his/her need for a mate or a nest by plucking feathers. This can appear or worsen during breeding season. In the wild, some birds have been known to pluck some chest feathers to use as nesting materials.
  • Habit - Some birds, once they have begun to pluck for another reason, will continue to do so out of habit, once the original cause is removed. Something akin to biting one's nails or smoking.

Cockatoo breeder and pet owner Anne Johnson has had success in identifying and overcoming feather plucking in a number of birds. She explains her methods and approaches in an article she's written for the online magazine, Winged Wisdom. It can be found at

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