Feathers are made up of the same material as fingernails. They help birds regulate their temperature, allow them to fly, facilitate communication, and can indicate the overall health of a bird.
Aside from wing clipping, feathers require no extra maintenance on your part. Like cats, birds keep their own feathers clean. They will spend hours a day preening their feathers to keep them in good shape. Preening involves gathering oil from the uropygial gland, located at the base of the tail, and spreading it over the feathers. Each feather is individually run through the beak and straightened.
A few species- cockatoos, cockatiels, and African greys- have specialized down feathers that dissolve into a fine keratin powder. This powder performs the same function as the oil from the uropygial gland. However, it makes these species extremely “dusty.” If you keep these birds indoors you may need a good air filter. If a powder species doesn’t seem to be producing any powder, take it as a sign of illness. PBFD is one possible cause.
You can help your bird keep itself clean by allowing it access to a shallow dish for daily bathing, or by spray misting it. I do not recommend applying any kind of product to a bird’s feathers. There is no need. Birds produce their own oil/powder naturally and do not need any special “conditioner.”
Twice a year your bird will molt. Molting is the process of losing feathers and replacing them with new ones, not unlike a dog shedding. It is done gradually, so while you may find lots of excess feathers in your bird’s cage, your bird will not appear to have lost anything. New feathers grow in encapsulated by a waxy sheath. You will see these pinfeathers start to dot the top of your bird’s head where it cannot reach. Pinfeathers can be itchy and if your bird allows head scratches you can help release the new feathers by gently rubbing them between your fingers. Normally this is done by flock mates.
Blood feathers are pinfeathers which are still being fed by a blood supply. Flight feathers grow in as blood feathers and can bleed profusely if broken open while they are still growing in. If a bird has a broken blood feather you can attempt to stop the bleeding by putting flour on it. If that doesn’t work, grasp the feather at the base of the skin with needle nose pliers and swiftly yank it out in the direction it is growing. Only yank as a last resort as you can cause damage to the follicle.
If you’re finding lines across your bird’s feathers then you have a problem. Stress and malnutrition during a molt can both cause new feathers to emerge with stress bars.
Plucking & Feather Loss
The first thing to do is determine why a bird is losing feathers. Not all feather loss is caused by plucking, and not all plucking is the result of neglect. Giardia can cause intense itching, which can then lead to plucking. Thankfully, it can be treated. PBFD causes severe feather loss and compromises the immune system. There is no cure for PBFD. If your bird is losing feathers it is best to take it to a qualified avian veterinarian first to rule out any medical causes. Make sure your bird is receiving a good diet and that the humidity isn’t too high or low. Many of our pets come from tropical climates, so if you live in an exceptionally dry area this could be exacerbating any problems.
It’s usually quite easy to tell if a bird is plucking itself. Birds can only pluck the areas they can reach, so a bird that is plucking itself will be losing feathers on the chest and back but never the head.
Feather plucking is a difficult habit to break once it’s begun, so swift intervention is always best. A bird could be picking for any number of reasons: poor health, parasites, stress, or boredom. Birds without anything to do rapidly turn to destructive behaviors like plucking and even self-mutilation. Make sure your bird has plenty of toys/activities AND companionship.
If you adopt a feather plucker, a proper home will go a long way towards halting the plucking, but it can still remain a habit. If this is the case, make sure your bird has plenty else to do. Foraging toys, chew toys, exercise, etc. will all help. You can also get a special vest to help protect the chest.
Some birds are plucked by their mates. This is actually quite common and not a cause for concern, so long as it does not progress to something worse. When a mate is doing the plucking, feather loss is usually restricted to the head because this is where they mutually preen.
Injury is another source of feather loss. If a bird is severely injured then the feather follicles may be damaged beyond repair, preventing any new feathers from growing.
Copyright © 2001 by Karen Trinkaus unless otherwise noted and may not be reprinted or used in any way without the author’s permission.