Pet birds can lose feathers for a number of reasons. Common problems include moulting (either normal or abnormal), stress (many causes), feather destructive behaviour, excessive preening by a parent or cage mate and viral or bacterial infections.
All normal birds go through a moult around once a year, but this can vary, especially for birds kept indoors where day light hours are irregular. If feathers are almost ready to moult and the bird is frightened or stressed, feathers can fall out precipitously leaving bare patches before new feathers get a chance to grow in. In these cases, just being patient and ensuring your bird is getting good nutrition and vitamins may be all that is needed to resolve the feather loss.
Stress can also lead to feather destructive behaviour where the bird itself starts plucking feathers that may, or may not, be ready to moult. This can happen, for example, where a dominant bird is intimidating a cage mate or sometimes it can be deliberate ‘payback’. One African Grey Parrot that came into a clinic pulled all of his body feathers out in 24 hours when a new boyfriend moved in with his owner. They gradually grew back in once the bird became adjusted to the new status quo.
Ideally it is best to work out what is causing the stress and to change the environmental circumstances to minimise it. This can be challenging. Often it can be the relationship between the owner and the bird that is the source of stress triggering feather plucking. Parrots, especially, can pair bond with their owners and become frustrated when their ‘mate’ doesn’t want to mate, nest or lay eggs. These birds will typically feather pick across their chest, but it could be anywhere. It’s best to avoid stroking your parrot on the back as this can trigger sex hormone release and can exacerbate the problem. Remember, ‘best friend, not mate’.
Parent birds will sometimes over-preen their youngsters, especially if they are keen to lay a second clutch of eggs. These babies will have bare patches on their back and neck where the parents can easily reach. Birds can also over-preen their partners, usually on the back of the head or neck. Separating the birds will solve the problem.
Viruses and Bacteria
Viruses and bacteria can cause feather loss in some pet birds. Circovirus, which can cause loss of feathers on the head as well as elsewhere on the body and wings, is common in wild cockatoos. It is the same virus that causes ‘runner’ budgies and feather damage in a range of other species. Polyomavirus is another virus sometimes associated with feather loss. Skin infections from bacteria or yeasts can also lead to feather damage and bare patches on birds’ skin.
Whatever the initial cause, if there is permanent damage to the feather follicle, birds may not regrow feathers even though the initial reason for the feather damage has passed. To ensure the best chance for feather regrowth, it is always a good idea to have pet birds with feather loss checked by a veterinarian as soon as the problem is noticed. While there are many different causes for the problem, only some of which have been mentioned here and not all are treatable, early intervention will provide the best chance for resolution of the problem.
Your local Greencross Vets can check for a broad range of viral, bacterial and fungal infections that may be behind your bird’s plucking habit.