I participated in a parrot enrichment workshop over a year ago at my local bird club. During the workshop I was helping a woman with ideas for toy making and she shared with me that her parrot had started plucking and she was looking for ways to keep him busy. She was concerned she might be doing something wrong. That she wasn’t providing the right toys or giving him enough foraging opportunities or proper nutrition. She wondered if she should get a collar or sweater for him so he couldn’t pluck. I was familiar with that emotional roller coaster ride of a guilt trip and I shared with her that I have birds who feather pick. Some are older parrots who came to me as parrots with various feather destructive behaviors. But I also have a parrot I got as a young bird and he stated feather picking when he was about 6 years old. That parrot is Ditto.
Her reaction was an audible sigh. She smiled, touched my shoulder and said, “I’m so glad to hear this”. She went on to clarify that she wasn’t happy to hear my bird started feather picking, but she was glad to know that even I had parrots who plucked. That piece of information seemed to somehow alleviate some of the guilt she was carrying around that she felt responsible or at fault for her bird’s feather destructive behavior (FDB). It was at that moment I thought I really should write a blog post about my experience with the same feelings of inadequacy and guilt followed by rationalizations with regards to Ditto’s FDB.
Over a year has gone by and I haven’t written the blog post. I have also continued to avoid posting photos and videos of Ditto playing with toys. That is until yesterday. Ditto’s FDB became most noticeable about 2 years ago and yesterday was the first time I felt brave enough to let the public see him in an enrichment video. And it became clear to me that I need to write this post.
First and foremost, this is not a blog post about finding solutions to FDB. This post is personal. It is about my sharing my particular experience with the community of companion parrot owners in the hopes it helps other parrot owners like me and the woman who was somehow relieved to know that I too had parrots who pluck.
Ditto isn’t the only parrot I have who plucks his feathers. Zorba plucks the feathers around his crop. Irving plucks his chest, wings, back and he pulls out his tail feathers twice a year, usually in the fall and again in early spring. Over the winter months Irving will grow most of them out and only pluck his chest area. Elvis chews the feathers on his left wing. But I never experienced the feelings of guilt or embarrassment with them that I have with Ditto.
Ditto was about 7 months old when we got him. Ditto’s breeder had allowed him to learn to fly (fledged him) before giving him a wing clip that still allowed him to glide gracefully to the ground and have some horizontal flight. She had introduced him to lots of different toys and he was on a good diet. So I know Ditto’s complete history and he has been in my care for most of his life. We chose not to clip his wings and he has had the experience of being a flighted parrot most of his life. He has had toys and been offered opportunities to forage and engage in enrichment activities on a daily basis. He enjoys regular baths. We have always had an outdoor aviary (even when we lived in Alaska) so, weather permitting, he has had opportunity to be outside exposed to sunshine and fresh air. He eats a nutritious diet of sprouted grains, legumes, fresh fruits and vegetables with limited junk food or carbohydrate loaded snacks. And he eats Harrison’s pellets.
Let me stop here a minute because I can hear the noise and opinions about the pellets as I type this. I know there are a lot of testimonials floating around about pellets being bad for Eclectus parrots. But let me be clear. It isn’t the pellets that are the cause of or contributing to Ditto’s FDB. I know this for a fact because I omitted pellets from his diet for a few months and not because of advice from my avian veterinarian or based on any credible science based reporting that pellets were a potential cause of FDB in Eclectus parrots. It was a knee jerk reaction to seeing his bald chest. My decision to remove pellets from Ditto’s diet did not involve critical thinking on my part as all I was going on was information on the internet in testimonial form. It was not science based or credibly sourced. I discovered omitting pellets didn’t make a difference in his FDB. Ditto still plucked. What did happen though was Ditto quit flying and he started staying in the back corner of his cage not coming out to play. I took him to the vet. Blood work showed abnormalities where previous lab reports going back several years were all within normal ranges. The only thing I had changed was omitting pellets from his diet. I started giving Ditto Harrison’s pellets again and he improved. I didn’t keep a diary to know exactly how long it took, but within a very short period he started coming out of his cage, flying and participating in enrichment activities again. Subsequent labs on blood work were within normal ranges in all categories. So it wasn’t the pellets. I’m not writing to debate or entertain comments on whether pellets are good or bad for Eclectus parrots. I am saying that in the case of this one Eclectus parrot, specifically Ditto, Harrison’s pellets are not the cause of his FDB and I am confident Ditto benefits from having them in his diet.
So back to where we were, as I stated earlier, I didn’t experience the same feelings of finding fault with myself or shy away from publishing photos of my other parrots who plucked. I think it was because they were already engaged in FDB when they came to live with me. But with Ditto I’m embarrassed to admit that I have. His FDB developed entirely on my watch. And it didn’t happen until he was about 6 years old. It happened very slowly and took years to get to where he is now. I remember it started with barbering the feathers on his shoulders and slowly progressed to under his wings and then his legs. It was a few years (I’m thinking 3 or 4) before he started plucking his chest. He has had several vet visits to rule out medical reasons. Pamela Clark is a good friend of mine and I’ve had several conversations with her to see if I’m missing something.
Logic tells me it isn’t my fault but emotionally I still experience waves of guilt where Ditto is concerned and have been reluctant to publish pictures of him. That is until yesterday. And it dawned on me. I should share this blog post and I should share photos of Ditto because he plucks and more importantly because of what I’ve learned. That feather destructive behavior in a parrot doesn’t always mean the parrot owner has failed in some way. I suspect many of us experience the same feelings I did. That it is somehow our fault. But it isn’t always your fault. FDB is complicated and there can be many reasons a parrot damages his feathers. I suspect Ditto’s is hormonal, but I don’t really know for sure why.
Yes Ditto plucks. Yes it bothers me and every time I see a photo of Ditto in full feather I mourn the beautiful parrot he once was. But I’ve grown more accustomed to seeing him now with all his bald spots. Other than looking different he hasn’t changed much. His FDB hasn’t progressed to self mutilation. He is still and excellent flyer and it is a joy to watch him fly all over the house and out in the aviary. He is still inquisitive and I smile when I realize he found the bread I left on the counter and has torn through the wrapper, made a huge mess and I have to buy an new loaf of bread. He appears to enjoy life. And so I rationalize a way to come to terms with his FDB. That Ditto plucks but he is still active and happy. And then I jump back to wondering what I’m missing. Am I doing something wrong?
Ditto looks different and I’m getting comfortable with that. Yesterday I realized I should stop beating myself up. I should stop being reluctant to publish photos of Ditto as he looks today. This was a hard post for me to write and a long time coming. I write and publish this because there must be many more parrot owners just like me who are trying to come to terms with FDB in some form. I also want to emphasize that while you shouldn’t feel like it is your fault or you are responsible for FDB in your parrot, you still need to act responsibly. Not every case of FDB can be resolved, but many can. FDB is a sign something is wrong with your bird and you do need to take some steps to see if you can find what is wrong. There can be so many reasons for FDB, and many of them are medical. There are also environmental reasons. Diet and nutrition should be examined along with behavior modification and enrichment practices. It is complicated and I’m finding it isn’t always just one thing. There can be a number of contributing factors to why a parrot engages in feather destructive behavior.
Many of the possible causes are physiological so I would tell you, from what I’ve learned, you should start with a visit to your avian veterinarian. Be prepared to pay for diagnostics. And here I’d like to add what I discovered. Granted diagnostics are expensive. But any avian veterinarian worth seeing will want to run some basic labs which includes blood work, fecal tests, etc. And I know the idea of shelling out a couple hundred dollars or more for tests only to have them come back as inconclusive or normal might seem like you didn’t get anything for your money. But here’s the key, it isn’t so much about finding out the exact cause of the FDB. It is more about ruling out what isn’t the cause. Before you start working on behavior modification, you need to know it isn’t low calcium, infection, giardia, etc. You need to rule out a medical cause first.
Next is behavior modification. Here is where it is helpful to enlist the services of a reputable parrot behavior consultant. How do you find a good one in today’s internet world of experts where anybody can look like an expert? Do your research and look for people who have credibility. The International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants has a parrot division, https://iaabc.org/parrot with a “Find A Consultant” tab at the top. I can personally recommend,
- Pamela Clark, http://www.PamelaClarkOnline.com . You can contact Pam by email, firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone, 971-301-5997.
- Kelly Ballance, http://ballancebehavior.com . Follow Kelly on Facebook, https://www.facebook.com/BallanceBehavior or contact her by phone, 503-939-7825. Kelly also has a newsletter that you can sign up for on her Facebook page.
Also read and research. Look for articles that are science based and credibly sourced. Don’t do what I did and read a bunch of posts from other parrot owners like “pellets are bad for Eclectus” and act on that information. And there is no magic potion or instant solution like putting on a sweater or collar that’s going to stop FDB.
I would say you could benefit from joining an online support group like the Facebook group, The Parrot’s Feather or other online forums where you will find support and useful information and maybe a test you hadn’t thought of to ask your vet about. But don’t rely solely on sources on the internet to resolve FDB. Trust me on this. It is highly unlikely you are going to find the answer to fixing your bird’s feather destructive behavior in a bird group or online forum. And as was my experience, you might do your parrot more harm than good.
If you too are struggling with FDB in your own parrot, and if after you have done as much as you can think of to try and resolve FDB, and your bird still plucks, don’t beat yourself up or blame yourself. I hope it helps to know you are not alone. Another parrot owner has struggled with FDB and experienced the same frustrations and felt inadequate and guilty and blamed themselves. That someone is me. And I wanted to share my personal story with you in hopes it might make a difference for you and help you be kinder to yourself.
Ditto as he looks today. Kind of cute, isn’t he?