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Why Some Birds Feather Pluck

Those of us that are bird lovers hate to see our birds with poor feathers. Nothing is more noticeable than a bird with a feather condition – why is it that the worst looking bird always sits at the front of the aviary?

Of the cases that are presented to Avian Veterinarians, the single biggest complaint is a problem with the bird's feathers. Many of these feather conditions are preventable while others are quite difficult to fix.

Different species are prone to different causes of feather and skin conditions. Knowing the common conditions in the species of bird you keep can be a great help in managing your birds.

Allergies, poor nutrition, psychological problems and viral infections are some of the causes of feather conditions in birds. In this article we will examine some of the common causes of problem in a few of the most popular pet birds.


Cockatiels   Top
Pet Cockatiels have become very popular since the boom in hand rearing. These little birds are a delight to own, are very hardy and have great personalities. The do, however, suffer from a few conditions that you should know about.

Allergies are a recently recognised problem in birds. Allergies are not restricted to Cockatiels but we do see them commonly in this species.

Allergies may develop at any time, the age of the bird does not matter. Often the allergy is related to something new in the bird's environment. The trick is to recognise that it is an allergy and then find the source of the allergy.

Recently I had a young hand raised cockatiel bought to me because he appeared 'itchy'. The little bird would be sitting quietly on his perch and then suddenly start dancing around, picking at his flanks and screaming. This would last for several minutes then he would settle down. When I looked at his skin it appeared OK, no scabs, not dry and flaky and no lice. His major feathers were normal but he had been pulling out his down feathers.

When I looked at his seed mix it was a pretty typical parrot mix (not great but acceptable ). A little questioning of the owners bought up an interesting point. The itchiness had started after a new seed mix was introduced. It appeared that the old mix did not contain oats but the new one did! Time to test the allergy theory. We decided to put this little bird on an oat only diet for 24 hours. The owners rang back that afternoon to say the bird was really picking at himself and couldn't get comfortable. An immediate switch was made to a diet without oats. I rang the owners 2 days later - the bird had not picked himself once and was back to his old cheeky ways.

The use of extruded diets (extrusion is the way good quality pellets are made) greatly reduces the risk of allergies as most of the proteins are denatured and don't act as triggers for the allergy.

Internal disease may cause a bird to feather pick. This is a strange phenomenon - but we do see it, particularly in Cockatiels. Things like intestinal parasites (worms and protozoa) and air sac infections may cause the bird to pick at its skin and feathers. These are difficult to sort out and need an avian veterinarian for correct diagnosis and treatment. Generally these birds have other symptoms apart from the feather picking, such as weight loss, diarrhoea or breathing difficulties.

Poor Nutrition is a common factor in birds with bad feathers and itchy skin. Many of the seed mixes available are 'death diets'. They lack essential nutrients and like any poor diet lead to trouble. As the skin is the biggest organ in the body it will obviously be affected by bad nutrition.

Typical symptoms of a bad diet are a dry flaky skin and pink shiny patches on the soles of the feet of the bird. If your bird has either of these symptoms you need good nutritional advice (not just a change of seed mix!).

Budgerigars   Top
Another hardy little bird that will always be a popular pet. These guys have few feather problems if given a decent diet and some attention.

An interesting condition has been seen in older female budgies that has a horrible name but causes the bird to become itchy and pull out down feathers.

Polyfolliculitis is the name coined for a condition where multiple feathers try and grow from the one feather follicle. Often these growing feathers do not come through the skin, if they do they are severely misshapen. I recently saw a three year old female pet budgie with this condition. The young lady who owned it said the bird had only just started to pick at its flanks but otherwise was quite normal. When we examined the skin over the flanks of the bird we could see many sites where several feathers were trying to grow from one follicle.

Unfortunately, we know very little about this condition. Where it comes from, what it does to the feather follicle and how to treat it are still a mystery. In this case we opted to gently remove as many of the deformed feathers as possible, increase the greens in the diet and reassess the bird in 2 months.

Galahs   Top
Although still a common pet bird, their popularity has decreased due to the problems associated with Beak and Feather Disease. Feather conditions are relatively common in these birds and difficult to treat.

Psychogenic Feather Picking is the name given to a disease where an upset in the birds mental health causes it to feather pick. Just like people who compulsively scratch, or chew their nails, birds have similar conditions. The medical term is Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and it can be quite devastating to both bird and owner.

In Galahs there is a particular syndrome that is related to how the young Galah was raised.

Galahs are a very social bird. In the wild, breeding pairs congregate in particular areas with good nesting trees. Many pairs will share a suitable area. When the young are fledged (leave the nest) they stay in groups in the trees (forming 'creches' of young birds) while the adults go out to forage. As the young become stronger they gradually move out from the creches to feed for themselves. It is during the period in the creches that the young birds are socialised and learn the etiquette of being a Galah.

Hand reared baby Galahs, on the other hand, miss out on this socialisation and it may cause problems later on.

Every year I see several galahs aged about 10 - 15 months of age that have suddenly changed personality and began severe feather chewing (often to the point of self mutilation). The affected birds are often very good talkers and have been great pets, but suddenly they become antisocial, aggressive and severe feather chewers. These birds are suffering the result of an abnormal upbringing (some human parallels here!).

Treatment for these birds is to stop the self-mutilation by applying a collar, give them a large outdoor aviary with plenty of places to hide and try and introduce another older tame Galah to the cage. You will need patience with these birds - gently, gently is the rule. If you try and force the bird to do what you want it will only make them worse - give them a large outdoor aviary with plenty of places to hide and try and introduce another older tame Galah to the cage. It is wise to speak to an Avian veterinarian about these birds so they can give you advice regarding your particular bird, they do not all respond to the same treatment. There are some newer medicines available now that are showing promise for these birds. Each case needs to be assessed separately but the results so far are very encouraging.

Birds may also start feather plucking when their hormonal levels change, either with puberty or changes in the breeding cycle. Generally the timing and the pattern of plucking gives a clue – if the bird is an aviary breeding bird then we generally leave them alone and they will come right with time (may do the same thing next season). If the bird is a pet bird then a different approach is necessary – a visit to your bird vet is the best option.

The key to sorting out feather problems in birds is observation - take a little time and get the bird to tell you what its problem is. Make sure the nutrition is as good as it can be and have an environment for the bird that is 'bird friendly'.
 

Dr Tony Gestier BVSc MACVSc BMSc
Avian Veterinarian



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