Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Max's feather plucking odyssey

I have mentioned briefly before about Max being a recovering feather picker. It's evident in some of her pictures, specifically those from last year. This post will attempt to chronicle her feather picking and what we did about it, in the hopes that it might help someone in a similar situation.

We purchased Max as a baby and had always heard that timnehs were less prone to feather plucking than congos (although I doubt that, given my experiences at the bird rescue where we volunteer -- surrendered timnehs seems just as likely to feather destruct as surrendered congos). Since we don't neglect or abuse Max, we always assumed that feather destruction was not an issue we'd have to deal with.

But we were wrong!

In early January 2006, we returned home and found over 20 feathers on the bottom of Max's cage, and a spot on her lower belly with missing feathers. We hoped it was a one-time thing; perhaps something had scared her outside. Over the next few days, she continued to bite her feathers off at the shaft, leaving only down feathers. Pretty soon she had removed all of the outside feathers on her chest, legs, and back, leaving only her wings and head untouched.

Unfortunately, I don't have many good pictures from this time as our camera was barely working. But here is a picture of Max from Feb 2006. You can see the down feathers on her upper chest showing where they should be hidden by feathers. That's what her whole body looked like!
As I tend to be a perfectionist anyway and of course want to provide the best care possible for my animals, I was devastated. How could Max be so unhappy? We were providing her with a wonderful life, n'est-ce pas? I started doing immense amounts of research into what we could do to improve her situation, and we experimented with many different things. Since we tried so many different things at once, I can't say for sure what stopped her picking, but I have a pretty good idea.

Another component to her picking is that she didn't pluck feathers out -- she bit them off at the shaft at skin level. When a feather is plucked, a new feather will start growing in place. In Max's case, her body didn't know to start growing a new feather because the shaft was still there. So we had to wait until the shaft molted naturally for a new feather to grow. In my mind, there are positive and negative aspects to her style of plucking. It was bad because it took longer for her feathers to regrow, and made it more difficult for us to pinpoint what made her improve. But it was good because she wasn't damaging the feather follicle and could easily regrow the feather. Also, when I saw feathers on the bottom of her cage, I could tell whether she had resumed plucking (no shaft) or was just molting (shaft).

She was examined by a vet and no physical reason could be found for the plucking. Let the experimenting begin!

Here is Max in March 2006, a few months after the picking started:
Among the many articles I read, I found this one, by Pamela Clark, to be the most helpful. Here is a partial list of things we did:
  • Installed a 75-gallon aquarium, in the hopes that it would add moisture to the living room and provide Max with entertainment.
  • Switched Max from fruity Zupreem pellets to Harrison's High Potency Coarse which is mostly organic and does not contain artificial colors.
  • Began clicker training to keep her mind active.
  • Allowed her flight feathers to grow in and encourage flying to keep her body active.
  • Added Bach flower essences to her drinking water.
  • Removed her food dish so that she had to forage for pellets hidden around her cage.
  • Stopped worrying about her because parrots pick up on our emotions (this is much easier said than done!)
  • Got her DNA-tested, in which we were shocked to find out she was female!
  • Installed an in-room humidifier when the aquarium failed to provide adequate moisture.
  • Increased the frequency of baths she received.
  • Brought her into the bathroom during showers at least 7 times per week.
  • Increased the quantity of destructible toys in her cage to keep her busy destroying toys and not herself.

I'm sure there are other things I'm forgetting right now. I think the hardest thing for me was to come to the realization that I wasn't a bad bird owner because I had a plucker. Parrots are wild animals!

Here's a picture of Max from April 2007, still a bit plucked:For about the past month, I'd say that Max has been fully feathered again. What was the cause of her plucking? I'm pretty sure it relates to the humidity in our home. I had read that birds who bite their feathers off at the shaft (as opposed to plucking the entire feather) often do so due to lack of humidity. It's after reading that article that we added the humidifier in the living room. We saw an improvement after that, and she'd start to pick again when we stopped using the humidifier, so it will be in constant operation in our house.

Her plucking started about 6 weeks after we started using the furnace in the home we recently moved into, which lends support to my theory -- our old house wasn't so dry, perhaps.

In any case, I think her picking may have been a blessing in disguise. Although it caused me stress and some sleepless nights, it also propelled me to research ways in which I could improve her life and, by extension, the lives of the other parrots living with us. Had this not happened, would they be clicker trained, flying, and on a better diet? While I like to think the answer would be yes, I really don't know whether it would be!


Stephanie said...

When I started reading this post I was really hoping you were going to say "humidity". Of all the feather plucking theories out there I think it is the one that makes sense - after all think of the humidity levels where a Grey comes from naturally. Sounds like you did a great job in figuring out what to do for Max.

DweezelJazz said...

We're having a problem with Jazzy scratching. There are a lot of chemicals used in the neighboring apartments and it gets into ours. When my breathing worsens I notice Jazzy scratches more, with the result that she's bare around her neck and spreading whenever the air quality is worse.

We do almost everything you mentioned in your list and it's not at all dry in our house, we monitor it with a humidity meter.

Her scratching stops when the air quality is good and she recovers her feathers quickly. Unfortunately the air quality is gradually worsening around us as people use more and more concentrated products. We take as many precautions as we can to make the air in the apartment the best possible. I also take her out on walks with me at least 4 times a week. She has improved since we increased how often she gets out of the apartment into better air, where she hardly ever scratches. If someone comes up to her travel cage to greet her and is wearing perfume Jazzy starts to scratch again.

We aren't able to move and it pains us greatly to not be able to do better for her. I worry about her long-term health, though for now she plays, is highly intelligent and appears very happy. I wonder how many other parrots have a hard time with human house chemicals.

Mary said...

Stephanie -- I'm pretty sure that's what it was, but may never know for sure!

Dweezeljazz -- So sorry to hear about Jazz's scratching. I may write something about this in the future (and probably link to your blog since you've written so much good stuff about it) but I think that also plays a large role. I know parrots that have been killed from air fresheners in the house and with their sensitive respiratory systems, it stands to reason that the chemicals that affect you would affect her as well. I read a National Geographic article a year or so ago that just shocked me as to how many chemicals we have in our systems. I, too, am worried about the long-term effects.

Jazzy is lucky to have such a conscientious owner!

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Mary said...


Thanks for the compliment. Hopefully no one will find themselves in this situation, and sometimes you just can't find a reason for the plucking, but there are definitely things to try :)