One of the most frustrating and disconcerting conditions of caged birds is feather picking. Moreover, feather disorders rank as some of the most difficult and challenging conditions to diagnose and treat in avian veterinary practice. Bird owners frequently scrutinize their pets, and feather problems are usually readily detected.
Other clinical conditions of caged birds are much less obvious and are, therefore, less frequently detected. Most people purchase pet birds because of their physical attraction to the bird, its general appearance, feather color(s), vocal abilities or its personality. When birds pick, pull out or mutilate their feathers, their physical appearance and overall attractiveness are diminished, causing great consternation on the part of its owner. Some of the bird owner's frustration results from a lack of understanding of what motivates the bird to behave in this destructive manner and not knowing what can be done to stop the behavior.
Feathers have a variety of functions: flight, temperature regulation, protection against environmental and climatic extremes, and courtship displays (colorful feathers, selective erection of certain feathers, etc.). Without feathers, wild birds could not survive. Therefore, careful and regular attention to the feathers and their condition is vital. The process by which a bird grooms itself is called "preening." It will use its beak to condition and waterproof its feathers and to meticulously remove the sheaths through which all new contour and flight feathers emerge. Birds use their feet and claws to perform this latter function on contour feathers located on the head. Furthermore, it is not uncommon for birds to rub against various objects in their immediate environment to perform this function. Mutual preening is common among cage mates. Normal preening behavior must be distinguished from feather picking and feather mutilation.
Feather Picking: Feather picking is an obsessive, destructive behavior pattern of birds during which all or part of their feathers are methodically pulled out, amputated, frayed, or in some other way damaged. This behavior often prevents normal feather growth and emergence. Molting is the normal physiologic process by which old, worn feathers are lost and subsequently replaced by new ones. The frequency of this event varies with the species and the individual, as well as with climatic and geographic factors. In warm areas, most caged birds drop a small number of feathers in-termittently throughout the year and have 1-2 heavy molts each year. The process of molting must be distinguished from feather picking. Feather picking is not difficult to diagnose. Affected birds look very much the same. Regardless of the pattern of feather loss, damage and/or mutilation, and exposed bare skin below the neck, the head feathers are spared and always appear perfect and untouched. This is, of course, because the bird cannot reach its head feathers. The one notable exception to this is the bird whose feathers are picked by a cage mate. As mentioned, birds caged together often engage in mutual preening. This behavior can become obsessive and destructive, resulting in feather picking. In these cases the head feathers of the "victim" are not spared.
Popular Remedies May Not Work: There are certain popular remedies for feather picking. Foul tasting sprays applied to the feathers (Bitter Apple, Listerine, etc.), grinding or notching of the lower beak to make destruction of the feathers more difficult, and use of tranquilizers have all been recommended over the years to treat the chronic feather picker. Unfortunately, none of these is truly effective. They merely treat the symptom (feather picking) but do not treat the causes of feather picking. Under certain circumstances, however, some of these remedies may provide some help or relief.
One suggestion that should be given serious consideration is not clipping the wings of birds that mutilate their feathers, especially the flight feathers. The rationale for this recommendation is that feather picking birds need no "excuse" to be destructive to their feathers; this procedure usually provides one. Though wing trimming is not disfiguring, it does involve trimming of the largest and longest of the bird's .feathers. Feather pickers or birds prone to this vice can discover these altered feathers and begin to methodically and obsessively chew and split that part of the quill that remains of the clipped feathers. The result of this mutilation is a series of frayed feather quills that rarely drop out during the next molt and . to be retained indefinitely. If you elect not to clip your bird's wings because this consideration, you must be willing to accept the liabilities of a fully fighted bird in the home. Make the decision carefully. In cases of chronic feather picking, close scrutiny of the bird and its interactions with its environment can help establish a program of behavioral modification. A qualified avian behaviorist should be enlisted this remedy is to be pursued. Behavioral modification may be of tremendous value in reducing stress, treating stress-induced problems of caged birds, and treating obnoxious behavioral problems. Some cases of severe chronic feather picking may not respond to any kind of treatment. Damage to or destruction of the feather follicles from repeated trauma to the skin may result in permanent feather loss or growth of abnormal feathers. These pet birds tend also to be unmanageable and very difficult to handle. Placing these birds in a breeding or avicultural situation may be the most practical alternative. Unfortunately, this is never an easy decision for a devoted bird owner.