NOTE: This article is a departure from my usual writing in that it is predominantly my opinion and lacks a lot of scientific evidence to back it up.
Feather plucking is something I’ve always been curious about. There isn’t much research into it and no magic bullets. But if you search the internet for it, you’ll find dozens of proposed remedies, none of which have any scientific backing.
With one exception. Here’s one study that finds a modest decrease in plucking by using environmental enrichment.
In the present study, environmental enrichment increased behavioral diversity of birds, although they continued showing feather plucking behavior. […] sometimes environmental enrichment techniques cannot completely but just reduce the display of abnormal behaviors, as such behaviors can be persistent […]Effects of environmental enrichment in a captive pair of Golden Parakeet (Guaruba guarouba, Psittacidae) with abnormal behaviors—Ornithology Research—Sep 2015
If you’ve ever worked in a shelter or with a bird rescue in recent years, the incidence of feather plucking appears to be quite high, especially with cockatoos, macaws, and african grey parrots. Sometimes they are even surrendered by their owners because of it. Go to any adoption event run by a bird rescue and you’ll see.
I grew up in the 1980s raising cockatiels as a teenager and my Mom raised dozens of african grey parrots. We had 13 pairs of greys and cockatiels in total that we purchased as breeding pairs. None of them ever showed any plucking behavior, despite being in . As far as we know, the hundreds of juveniles we raised did not start plucking later in life.
Note that this is based only on what our customers shared with us, but we did keep up relationships with many of them as we always made ourselves available as a resource to them. There wasn’t much information in those days. There was one book on cockatiels.
Bird breeding was a huge thing back then and we were connected to many breeders, zoos, and bird owners. I don’t recall ever seeing a plucked macaw, grey, or cockatoo. Maybe they were there and I missed it but I think I would have remembered.
Why is that?
Is feather plucking on the rise over the past few decades?
Unfortunately, I was unable to find data on the incidence of plucking other than anecdotally from other bird keepers in that era who are still bird keepers today.
Certainly we knew a lot less about birds then and cared for them very differently than we do today. Shouldn’t that mean we would see less plucking today? As the research paper above notes, foraging appears to have a modest affect on plucking, but the importance of foraging wasn’t well known four decades ago.
I can only provide my observations on changes in bird care I’ve seen since then and wonder if any of them might be responsible. If anyone has a long history with birds like me wants to drop me a line, I’d love to have more insight.
My own theory is that enrichment really is the key to feather plucking, I’m coining the phrase “accidental enrichment” to describe the notion that maybe, back in the early days, we were providing birds with an extremely enriching experience just by winging it, so to speak.
I’ll lean here on Robin Shewokis, a recognized expert on parrot enrichment. I wrote an article about her awhile back. I think it’s one of the most important articles you can read on this site.
Even though we didn’t do many of the things Robin suggested back in the 1980s, I think we unintentionally did things very differently than we do today, which provided enrichment that modern birds don’t get.
Our breeding pairs of african greys and cockatiels were all in the same room, albeit in cages. It was a very noisy environment as you can imagine. This is what Robin might label as auditory enrichment.
We also had 5 pet cockatiels and a sun conure that shared a cage right next to african greys in a cage. They were let out to roam the house freely together. Birds of different shapes and sizes live near each other in the wild and with enough space, don’t have a reason to harm each other. They are, with few exceptions, not meat eaters.
Today, if you search the web for bird compatibility the answer almost always will be to never mix two species together, inside or outside a cage. I feel this not only takes away social stimulus. Also, according to Robin, playing sounds of predators is auditory enrichment, so being in proximity to fear is suprisingly considered enriching.
If you assume that the cockatiels felt the african greys were predators, their sounds would serve as auditory enrichment. Perhaps sense of living in a scary world could provide some benefit. I’m reminded of how anxiety is a natural response to real fears, but becomes a problem when real fears aren’t even present.
Note that I’m not saying you shouldn’t be careful when introducing birds of different species, but don’t avoid trying it just out of fear. Sure, there are (very rare) stories of one species attacking another, but you have to weigh an unlikely event against the enrichment of your birds.
Also keep in mind that birds even of the same species will bicker, so it’s important to learn what’s normal challenging of other birds from the desire of a bird to hurt another bird. It’s like the difference between play biting, which can look vicious, to actual biting.
Next time you are at the vet, ask them how many times they have treated a bird that was viciously attacked by another bird. Then ask how many feather pluckers they are treating.
In the present day, birds are coddled. They are treated as profoundly fragile beings that need climate control, no dust, and no drafts. Their cages need to be cleaned daily. Most toys are deadly and you must choose from a small subset of them. Same goes with food, but I’ll get to diet later.
Birds were clipped much less often and could escape dangers on their own. Other than teflon and lead paint in old houses, there was little that was worried about and common sense was typically enough. Again, having raised hundreds of birds and being well connected in the bird community, we rarely heard of disasters striking.
Having a bird in the kitchen while you cook is considered completely forbidden. But with proper precautions and a skilled, flighted bird, think of the opportunities for sights, smells, and sounds. Training a bird to station (i.e. stay) on a perch is one way they could be with you in the kitchen.
Today, the result of a web search for “should I expose my birds to X” is a resounding NO by default. So many things are considered toxic and poisonous, while offering no scientific proof. I fed birds avocado as a kid and none did as much as throw up, much less die.
Avoiding zinc leaves out a wide variety of actual toys or things that could be turned into toys. But birds have to actually EAT flakes of zinc to potentially be affected and zinc plating is pretty rugged. One exception is zinc plated hardware cloth which most birds can just go to town eating zinc chunks.
I’ve long believed that seed diets are more enriching to birds. Even Lafeber, one of the largest manufactures of pelleted/processed food agrees.
Seed-based diets promote normal behaviors such as beak and tongue manipulation of the various foods, sensation of textures for brain stimulation and foraging behaviors.Nutritional Strategies for the Companion Parrot—LafeberVet—Dec 10, 2008
He denigrates seed in the same article, but recognizes its foraging value.
Table food can provide a lot of fun and variety for birds, but like with other things, there is paranoia about fatty foods, salty foods, even brocolli and other specific food items. I’ve written about avian diets in great detail:
- Scientific study of parrot diets falls flat
- The real reasons the “all seed” diet is bad
- The mythical “all seed” diet
- Animal research applied to parrot diets
That’s just 4 out of 14 articles I’ve written on parrot diets.
Back in the 1980s, we didn’t really worry about any specific foods, except things known to be bad for other animals, like chocolate is for dogs. It’s not that we didn’t care, it’s that we weren’t aware that some things could be considered bad by some people.
Again, I always invite people to ask their vets. Ask them how often they see birds that were sickened or killed by table food.
Table food provides amazing variety compared to what a seed mix might have or especially a pelleted/processed food diet. Even if we try to vary the food our birds eat, it’s just never going to be as varied as what we eat ourselves.
In the 1980s, wing clipping was most often done as a way to tame birds. Back then, many birds were wild caught and sold at auction and not the hand-raised birds you get from breeders or pet stores today. It was felt that clipping wings kept a bird from getting away from you and so was more easily tamed.
But once the taming happened, the feathers would be allowed to grow out. I don’t have data to support this, but I feel that clipping used to be rare back then and is very common today, although the tide seems to be turning.
Flying has to be the most enriching thing a bird can do. We can theorize that birds get happiness from flying because they do it in cases where it’s entirely optional. Depriving them of that can potentially contribute to the boredom they already feel from other types of enrichment being off limits.
This is somewhat related to the mixing species section above. The takeaways from Robin on flock time are two-fold:
- If you have only one bird, get at least one more so they have a flock
- Let your birds have alone time with their flocks
Birds behave differently with humans present. I explored that in my article on using remote cameras with your birds. By giving them time to be only with each other allows them to explore a whole new set of behaviors that are potentially enriching to them.
Feather plucking is almost an epidemic today and it’s worth exploring how that may have changed over the decades. If it’s gotten worse or better, what has changed. When something is as prevalent and unsolvable as feather plucking, sometimes it’s a good idea to take a big step back and look at history.
Maybe the unintentional enrichment from the earlier days of bird keeping holds some useful information.