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What Is Feather Plucking?

Drue Tibbits
Drue Tibbits

Feather plucking is a behavioral disorder of birds most often occurring in captive psittacine, or parrot, species. Affected birds methodically and compulsively pull out their own feathers. This self-mutilation is usually the result of psychological or medical issues, although sometimes the propensity for self-plucking is inherited. This destructive behavior can develop into a lifelong habit that permanently damages feather follicles, leaving a bird unable to replace the missing feathers.

It is not unusual to see a bird pull out one of its own feathers. During preening, a bird runs its feathers through its beak to remove keratin and other debris. Occasionally, a feather that is ready to shed comes loose during the preening process, making it look as though the bird has pulled out the feather. Feather plucking is distinct from routine grooming, however, and leaves large areas of bare skin as the bird removes healthy feathers. Birds affected with the disorder have bare skin in areas where their beaks can reach, such as the chest, under the wings, and on the thighs.

When birds compulsively pull out their own feathers, it is referred to as feather plucking.
When birds compulsively pull out their own feathers, it is referred to as feather plucking.

The main causes of feather plucking are lack of sensory stimulation, disease, and stress. In their natural environment, birds spend much of their time socializing, flying, and foraging for food. Captive birds, especially solitary specimens, do not have as much opportunity for these activities. These birds may resort to plucking their own feathers as a result of being bored. A 2007 study showed a direct relationship between the amounts of time spent foraging for food and the tendency to pluck feathers.

A variety of medical conditions can cause this disorder. In 2008, a study of birds that pulled out their own feathers showed that half of them had an inflammatory skin disease. The feather plucking can also be a reaction to any skin irritation including parasites, dry skin, or allergies. Nutritional deficiencies or illness can cause itchy skin and the resulting destructive behavior as well.

Bird owners can try to prevent or reverse their birds' self-mutilation with proper care and sensory-rich environments. Any bird that pulls out its feathers should first be seen by a veterinarian to rule out disease. Cages should be large and equipped with colorful toys and interactive playthings. Many birdcage accessories encourage birds to use their beaks both as a form of exercise and to procure their food. Solitary birds need frequent interaction with their owners as loneliness is not only a cause of boredom but is stressful to them too.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is feather plucking in birds?

Feather plucking is a behavioral disorder often observed in captive birds, where they repeatedly pull out their own feathers. This self-destructive behavior can lead to bald patches and can be indicative of underlying health issues, stress, or environmental factors that are not meeting the bird's psychological or physical needs.

What causes a bird to start plucking its feathers?

Feather plucking can be triggered by various factors, including psychological stress, boredom, dietary deficiencies, skin infections, allergies, or hormonal imbalances. Environmental stressors such as inadequate space, lack of social interaction, or changes in routine can also contribute to this behavior.

Is feather plucking a sign of illness in birds?

Yes, feather plucking can be a sign of illness. It may indicate physical health issues like parasitic infections, liver disease, or nutritional deficiencies. Consulting an avian veterinarian is crucial to rule out medical causes and to receive appropriate treatment for the bird's condition.

Can feather plucking in birds be treated?

Treatment for feather plucking depends on the underlying cause. If health issues are identified, appropriate medical treatment can be administered. For behavioral causes, environmental enrichment, dietary changes, and behavioral modification techniques may be recommended. In some cases, anti-anxiety medications may be prescribed by a veterinarian.

How can I prevent my bird from feather plucking?

Preventing feather plucking involves providing a stimulating environment with plenty of toys and activities, ensuring a balanced diet, maintaining a consistent routine, and offering social interaction. Regular health check-ups are also essential to detect and address any medical issues promptly.

Are certain bird species more prone to feather plucking than others?

Some bird species, particularly those that are highly intelligent and social, such as African Greys, Cockatoos, and Macaws, are more prone to feather plucking. These species require extensive mental stimulation and social interaction, which, if not provided, can lead to the development of this behavior.

Discussion Comments


Yeah, feather plucking can be very, very serious. My neighbor had a rescue parrot who did it and she finally had to have the bird put to sleep. It was so pitiful. She tried everything. That bird had home-cooked food, free run of the house, attention all day long, toys, other bird companions -- you name it. Apparently, whatever that poor thing had suffered in the past was too much for it.

She was so upset, but the vet told her that bird had the best six months of its life with her, that she had done absolutely everything possible, and that at least, the bird had love and affection for the last part of its life. Gosh, but it was so sad.


I know from bird owning friends that cockatoos are really, really prone to feather-plucking. Apparently, they require a huge amount of attention and enrichment and if you don't provide it, and don't provide a really varied diet, they will pluck feathers.

One friend took in a smaller cockatoo and had to get this little, well, pinafore, is the best way I can describe it. It straps on to the bird's chest and prevents it from plucking chest feathers. The darn thing is made out of kevlar! It's the only thing the parrot's beak can't tear! But she had to have it because the poor bird was self-mutilating. It was very sad.

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    • When birds compulsively pull out their own feathers, it is referred to as feather plucking.
      By: gavran333
      When birds compulsively pull out their own feathers, it is referred to as feather plucking.