If I were to compile a list of parrots that are prone to plucking, I would list cockatoos, African Greys Psittacus erithacus, Quaker Parakeets Myiopsitta monachus, Eclectus (especially Eclectus roratus vosmaeri), macaws and Amazons as the species in which this problem is most commonly reported. Many other species can pluck, but in my opinion these species are most prone to do so. When these parrots are examined as a group for a causal factor, five key characteristics come to mind: 1) they are highly intelligent, 2) they have a complex social structure that is not easily replicated in captivity, 3) they are prone to deficiencies, either dietary or environmentally based, 4) they are naturally sexually active and this arousal may contribute to a degree of frustration, that results in feather pulling, or 5) they may be prone to suffer from some illness, often skin fungus, which predisposes them to removing their feathers.
Let me dissect these five points:
1) Parrots are extremely intelligent creatures, but some clearly exceed others in their acumen. As an example, the intelligence of an African Grey cannot be compared to that of an Eclectus Parrot. The former observe and record in their mind every event in the household, are emotionally sensitive, and display a level of reasoning not understood by those unfamiliar with them. They can suffer from sudden neglect, such as when its owner starts a relationship that results in it being given less attention; or when a child is born to the household and center of that home´s universe shifts to an infant; or when its environment suddenly becomes so boring because of a change in family structure (perhaps the person that paid it the most attention has left) that the bird will pluck it feathers in order to stay amused. Many Greys will start pulling their feathers as an attention getting vice. The owner will rush forward and start talking to the bird, paying it the attention that it craves and that it probably received when first acquired. So what does the bird do? It plucks more feathers to continue receiving the same attention. The bird has trained its owner to respond to its self destruction.
Grey Parrots like a household that is tranquil. They dislike sudden changes, loud noises or being moved around. In the wild they spend considerable time interacting with other flocks members; never have I seen wild birds interact with other birds like I have macaws, conures and amazons. The Greys also devote considerable time to foraging. These two characteristics that are ingrained in their DNA are not possible in captivity, where the food is available and where contact with their owner is limited to a few minutes or at most a few hours each day. Keeping the bird mentally challenge during feeding is important. This means creating games where the food is hidden insides balls of newspaper, in a cardboard box, inside a toy that the bird must manipulate, or anywhere else. I have a friend that adopted a bird that had plucked all but its head feathers; it could not remove those because they were beyond his reach. The damage had occurred recently and the feather follicles had not yet been damaged.
When the nearly naked Grey Parrot was brought home, the owners asked me about my observations of these parrots in the wild. We talked at length. They felt that becoming part of its flock and keeping it busy for hours feeding were important. Today the fully feathered bird spends several hours daily finding its food, which can be hidden inside a phone book, packed inside an empty tissue box or inserted into a vegetable such as an egg plant or zucchini, small wooden box which is moved around the room where it is hidden behind a piece of furniture, small towel, sheets of newspaper, etc. In all they have developed 23 means of making the food difficult to find. The bird loves the challenge. Its energy is focused on finding its food and not on despoiling its appearance. When it is done eating, it is part of a flock that includes two dogs and its owners, an elderly couple. The bird is placed on a stand when they eat, watch television or read. It is part of its immediate family—not an outcast who is relegated to another room and paid attention only infrequently.
Keeping the intelligent parrot mentally occupied is key to deterring plucking. With all plucking birds, the immediate step should be to move it to another location and then overwhelming it with enrichment—branches, split coconuts, pine cones, etc.—and keeping it occupied foraging for food. These steps often stops the behavior.
2) When one simply looks at an Eclectus Parrot or Quaker Parakeet, one does not realize how complex their lives are in the wild. Eclectus females are attended by multiple males, who must provide food, protection and expand energy in courting the hen in order to mate. Quaker Parakeets build their own nests, which they must then maintain and expand. The pair and later offspring will contribute to insuring that repairs are continuously made. The chicks when they initially fledge are placed in a crèche system, whereby they learn close association, interaction, predator avoidance, the topography of the general area and mate selection. Single pets of either species are deprived of this behavior. This can be a reason why they pluck.
With both Quakers and Eclectus I have seen cases where plucking ceased immediately when the birds were placed in a group. I also know of a solution where the birds are allowed to interact with others of their kind that are also pets. Some individuals readily accept another bird as long as the introduction is in neutral ground and this can have a palliative effect.
If group association is not possible, moving the bird to different rooms each day, taking it outside wearing a harness or after its wings have been clipped, letting them climb short trees or forage on the ground (a natural behavior of Quakers) and playing with it may make a significant difference.
3) Though parrots have been kept as pets since before the advent of Christianity, we really know very little about their dietary needs. This is because until about thirty years ago, no one had really looked at conducting detailed studies of wild parrots’ dietary intake; most feed manufacturers have been complacent about investigating the subject, arguing that most parrots thrive on existing diets, though this is more because of their tenacity than to the diets truly meeting their nutritional needs; and because data on poultry has been readily available, even though parrots are vastly different than poultry: they have a longer life, are primarily arboreal (chickens are terrestrial) and many parrots are specialists (poultry are generalists) when it comes to diet. Commercial diets may be based on grains that can cause allergic reactions in the birds, causing a general itchiness that results in the feathers being plucked, or they may be deficient in key elements. We suspect that wild parrots consume clay to bind it with toxic alkaloids naturally present in the foods they consume; parrots in the wild tend to eat immature seeds, pods and fruits but plants often load these with toxic elements to deter them being predated upon; if the parrots waited for the foods to mature and ripen, they would then have to fiercely compete with other birds and mammals for the same resource. But clay eating may also involve the assimilation of key trace elements or minerals. The eating of bark also to bind alkaloids but it exposes the birds to other key elements. The diet may also be varied throughout the year, this to obtain key necessary nutrients.
In captivity, even the best intentioned person can barely provide 10% of what the birds consume in the wild.
By feeding a diet of seeds or pellets supplements with nuts, greens, fruits and vegetables, we may also not be meeting specific dietary needs and this could be the cause of plucking. As an example I recently acquired three young Scarlet Macaws Ara macao from a friends. They were fed a pelleted diet only. The pellets proved monotonous to the young macaws, which are naturally playful, curious and prone to pulling each other’s feathers in play.
Before purchasing the birds, they could only eat the pellets and perch. On acquiring them, they were introduced to copious amounts of enrichment and a diet richer in fat, which is supplied by nuts, whole grain bread liberally smeared with nut butters and palm seeds. They immediately stopped plucking. The improved diet along with the enrichment obviously had the necessary effect.
Plucked birds should therefore not only have their diet carefully analyzed and then compared to their wild diet but should also have access to enrichment, which can provide many nutrients not otherwise available.
4) Plucking may also be hormonally induced. Improperly stroking a male parrot along the back, vent and under the wings may stimulate it sexually. The deprived bird may start plucking. Females whose ventral side, back and tail are touched may likewise become sexually active. The problem may exacerbate during the natural breeding season of the bird. Understanding that certain behaviors or giving access to a dark area (under the couch, a cardboard box, etc) may sexually arouse the bird is important, as both can bring out feather despoilment.
With extremely sexually active birds, hormones may be necessary to quench the hormone surges. Without these, the bird may not stop its habit of pulling feathers.
5) Illness is often a factor in plucking. This can range from a bacterial infection, to heavy metal toxicity to skin fungus. The causal factor can only be identified by a veterinarian after subjecting the bird to a series of tests. Often the cause can be identified and corrected. As an example, a species from a humid tropical forest that lives in an apartment that is hot and dry in winter may well develop abnormal skin conditions, which causes the feathers to be plucked. The reverse is also possible: a desert or dry area parrot being forced to live in a humid environment may be predisposed to plucking. Only through a physical exam can the cause de identified.
Plucking is a problem that affects all species, but as indicated above it is most commonly seen in certain groups of parrots. Addressing the plucking the minute feathers start appearing on the cage floor is key to controlling and possibly stopping the pattern. The longer the owner of a plucker waits, the greater the risk that the condition may never be cured.
When confronted with a plucker, immediately review your husbandry protocol, housing and the environment. Start by moving the bird to another area to temporarily distract it while help is obtained. Then observe every behavioral change. Consult your veterinarian and if necessary a behavioral consultant. Not all plucking cases can be corrected, but many can be stopped or reversed with diligent action.