Monday, September 27, 2010

Feather destruction question

I received a question in the comments on this post from Becky W., which I will reprint here:
I love reading about Steve and his progress. Your tips of grey behavior are very helpful to me. I was wondering if could pose a question here, as I have seen other people do.We have a sweet CAG that we adopted about 1.5 years ago. She is about 8 years old, and there was no suspected abuse from the home she came from. She was quite mutilated when we got her---picked her tail completely off, and one wing had no long feathers left on it. She has grown to be very affectionate with us, and is the sweetest creature I've ever encountered. We adore her so much. She loves my husband, and will run over to him to get his affection any chance she can. I thought the new home would help her feather destruction, but it has not. She has plenty of toys to chew and destroy, which she does every day. However, if we are home and not giving her our undivided attention, she picks herself, chewing off more feathers. This happens more when my husband his home, and she seems calmer when it is just me. But, if he is walking about the house, just getting home from work, just getting up out of bed to head out the door to work, etc...she will hang upside down from the top of her cage, contort her body so that she can reach a feather to chew on, and pull part of it out. The only way we have found to stop this is to pick her up and give her attention. We just got back from vacation, and I was worried our absence would have made her feather chewing worse. But, I was shocked when we got home, and she had two large tail feathers fully grown in, and a few feathers on both wings that have started to open and grow. We have been home for two days, one of the tail feathers is gone, and she is continuing to chew on her wing. I feel terrible that it seems our presence is making his problem worse. Do you have any advice? Should we not pick her up when she starts to do this? It is so hard for me to watch, but I realize that I'm probably re-enforcing her behavior by giving her attention. Thanks for any input you may have, and thanks for a great blog.
Hi Becky, and thanks for the question! I am a bit unclear if she is actually mutilating (i.e. causing to bleed) herself or if it's just feather destruction. It kind of sounds like the latter, though it really doesn't matter as my advice would be the same.

First, I'd recommend that she go to the avian vet for a full check to make sure that there isn't a physical reason for her mutilation. I've seen birds with a yeast infection, for example, which causes them to pick their feathers in an attempt to relieve the itching. Once treated, the feather destruction clears up.

However, given the fact that she allowed her feathers to grow in while you were on vacation makes me suspect that this might be behavioral.

Parrots are extremely empathetic and in my (probably biased) opinion, greys seem to be more in tune with their owners' emotions than other parrots. It is really important that you try to get to a point where you don't care if she feather destructs. Believe me, I know this is hard to do!

I believe that some parrots are less able to handle captivity than other parrots. I have seen parrots come out of horribly neglectful and abusive homes in perfect feather, and I have seen parrots come out of very loving homes who feather destruct. Her feathers (or lack thereof) are not a reflection on you as a bird owner. They are not even necessarily a commentary on her happiness. Stella, my CAG, plucks, and she is one of the happiest captive parrots I've seen!

You are exactly right in that the solution that you found to stop her from plucking (pick her up when she starts to destruct) is making the problem worse. If she wants attention, all she has to do is pull out some feathers and she gets what she wants!

The problem is that now that this has been reinforced (plucking = attention), it will take some work and willpower on your part to break the cycle. It may get worse before it gets better. Since plucking = attention, when you first start to ignore the plucking, she may escalate, plucking even more ("this has always worked in the past -- maybe if I pull out more feathers, it will work again! I just have to pull out more so they notice!") You really need to not react, even if it gets worse, or the problem will just get even worse, as you will have raised the bar for attention-getting: now she knows she needs to pull more feathers to get attention.

The trick is that not only do you want to teach her that plucking no longer equals attention; you want to give her a tool, a communication method, that she can use when she does want attention, that she can learn to use instead of plucking to get what she wants.

Since every bird is an individual, you may have to try different things before finding a solution that works for your family. I have so many thoughts swirling around in my head; I hope this makes some sense, but please let me know if it doesn't!

1. Is there any sort of pattern to her plucking? It may help to keep a journal. You mention that it frequently seems to happen when your husband is around but not paying attention to her. Try to figure out if there are situations that set her off, or if she does something before she plucks.

a. If you can figure out situations, you can rearrange things to not have those situations occur. For example, if she starts plucking 5 minutes after your husband comes home, perhaps the first thing he does upon arriving home is get her out of her cage, smother her with 3 minutes of attention, and give her a cashew to eat while he changes out of his work clothes. Try to figure out ways to distract her and keep her busy by being proactive. Maybe he needs to tell her something before he leaves ("I'll be back!") so that she doesn't think she's abandoned. Or, if he's going into another room for a quick errand, maybe he takes her with him.

b. If she does something most of the time before she plucks, you can try to be proactive and give her the attention then -- before it escalates to plucking. In this post, I talk about how we did that with Rocky and screaming. For example, if your grey frequently plucks after she does a loop around the top of her cage, when you see her doing the loop, run over and give her attention then -- before she plucks. She will learn that doing a loop gets her attention but plucking no longer does.

2. When Max, my TAG, started plucking, I did a lot of research and did as much as I could to enrich her environment. My thoughts were two-fold: I wanted to make Max's environment as conducive as I could to her keeping her feathers and I wanted to assuage my guilt -- if I were doing everything I could to keep her happy and she still plucked, I wouldn't feel guilty and pass my feelings off on her. For example:

a. What kind of diet does she have? I'm a big fan of Harrison's High Potency for greys, supplemented with small amounts of a high-quality seed mix and fresh vegetables for their main diet.

b. What kind of exercise does she get? In the wild, parrots get tons of exercise flying around. In captivity, far too many birds are far too sedentary, which leads to physical health and behavioral problems. They wind up with too much energy that they channel into screaming, aggression, or self-destruction. Can you get her panting and flapping several times a day? Maybe right before when she typically feather destructs, as she may then be too tired out to pluck.

c. What kind of bathing does she like, and how frequently? Frequent baths can help with feather regrowth. Also, maybe right before she typically feather destructs (like your husband could bathe her before he leaves for work) as then she can preen her feathers instead of pluck them.

d. What kind of mental stimulation does she have? You mention toy destruction -- which is fantastic! Does she have to work for any of her food? As you probably know if you've read this blog, I'm a big fan of making them forage for food, and also of clicker training.

e. Does she have a place where she can go in her cage to feel safe and not be on display? They are prey animals, and some like to hide behind a large toy. Not having a safe place can make them feel exposed and vulnerable, leading to plucking.

Feather destruction is a very complex thing. There are no easy answers. We've had Stella for over two years. She flies, has a stimulating environment, good diet, loves us both, appears to be happy...and she still plucks. We've gotten to the point where we truly don't care. You say that your grey is very sweet and affectionate -- congratulations! Focus on her inner beauty. Maximize her environment and provide her the best captive life you can, but don't get too hung up on outer appearances (especially if it's just plucking and there are no open wounds -- those can be a bit more serious as they can lead to infection.)

Greys feed off of our emotions. They are amazing flock animals and pick up on body language that is so subtle we don't even realize the signals we're giving them. If you're upset about her plucking, she knows you're upset. She might not know why you're upset, but you are. You're in her flock, so she instinctively is upset. One way she manifests this emotion is by plucking -- turning this into a vicious cycle, as you just get more upset by this, so she plucks more, etc.

Believe me, I know how hard it is to get over this. I tend to be a perfectionist and felt like a major failure when Max started plucking. I obsessed about it for weeks. But my worrying was only making things worse.

You guys sound like great owners, and she sounds like an amazing grey. Enjoy her!


Becky W said...

Thanks for the great feedback! I will try your tips. To answer some of your questions, we have had her vet checked, and she is fine as far as not having any fungal infections. She did have a growth on her wing about six months ago. It was about 4-5 ingrown feathers that developed into some sort of large lump. It had to be surgically debrided and removed. We worry that the plucking/chewing caused this to happen, but the vet wasn't sure that was the case. Sometimes she will chew on a blood feather, and bleed. This has happened probably 3-4 times so far. These two things are why I am concerned about her chewing. She truly is a beautiful creature, and we love her so much. But, we worry about the health effects. I do feed her the Harrison's high potency pellets, and she loves her veggies and some fruits. She goes crazy for nuts, so I will try to see if my husband can get her attention before the plucking starts, and occupy her with a nut. I will also work on bathing her more. She does occasionally go crazy in her water bowl, and jump around (so cute), and I have showered with her before. As a follow up is starting to get cold here in the fall/winter. Do I need to worry about her being very wet during the colder months? Do you also think a humidifier would be of benefit in the winter time?

Thanks again for all your advice!

Mary said...

Hi Becky,

Thanks for the additional information!

I hope I didn't make it sound as though you shouldn't be concerned about her plucking! I just meant to try not to let it get you too upset as that won't change anything anyway and might just make it worse if she feeds on that.

As for bathing, we try to not let our birds go to bed wet. So we bathe them during the winter time, but make sure it's in the morning or very early afternoon so they are completely dry before bed.

A humidifier in winter made a huge difference for our TAG and her plucking. I think it's a great idea, and we use one as soon as the heat goes on in our house.

She sounds absolutely adorable and is very lucky to have landed with someone who cares so much about her!