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Parrot Health Concerns: Feather Plucking or Self Mutilation

Feather plucking is one of the most serious and commonly encountered parrot care concerns. Failure to provide parrots with a stimulating and socially appropriate environment will lead to a host of problems, including feather plucking.

Medical Aspects

The first step when confronted by a self-mutilating parrot is to rule out a medical disorder. Digestive system parasites, Psittacine Beak and Feather Disease and other ailments can lead a parrot to pluck its feathers.

A poor diet may also be at the root of the problem. Be sure to provide your veterinarian with a detailed description of the food consumed by your pet.

Social and Environmental Aspects

Knowing your pet’s history is vital, as the events that triggered feather plucking may have occurred in the distant past.

It is important to bear in mind that treating feather plucking is somewhat unlike curing a disease. Even with the best of care, parrots that have acquired this behavior may not relinquish it, and may resume plucking for no apparent reason. The care of such a bird requires a great deal of dedication and the input of an experienced veterinarian.

Sleep and Light

A common problem is sleep duration and quality. Most parrots hail regions where nights typically average 12 hours in length, yet a sleep period of such length is often difficult to provide in captivity. Consider where and for how long your parrot sleeps, and whether it is disturbed by noise or lights.

The quality of daytime light is also vital to your parrot’s well-being. Be sure to use a UVA /UVB bulb over your pet’s cage.

Activity Levels

When I first began to observe parrots in the wild, I was struck by how active and engaged they remain throughout the day. Parrots suffer greatly when confined in bare cages, especially if a mate is not available. Foraging toys, large cages, or outdoor aviaries and a companion will help to prevent self-mutilation.


Hormonal secretions, associated with seasonal changes and the onset of sexual maturity, may also stimulate feather plucking. This is especially likely if the bird is exposed to a light and temperature cycle that frequently changes, or is at odds with what the bird would experience in its natural habitat.

Parrots that are kept alone may also be stimulated to express mating behavior if stroked above the hips and under the wings by their owners. The stress of being unable to engage in normal mating behavior may bring on feather plucking.

Environmental Changes

Parrots are keenly attuned to their environments, and often respond negatively to change. New people, pets, noises, scents or similar factors may all play a role in your parrot’s behavior.

Parrots are noisy by nature…yelling at your bird when it feather plucks may actually encourage the behavior. Striking the cage or squirting water will only raise the bird’s stress level.

A Reader’s Experience

Blog reader Nicole was kind enough to write in recently concerning her Goffin’s cockatoo. A confirmed feather-plucker, the bird responded favorably when given the opportunity to bathe frequently. Nicole’s experience highlights the importance of experimentation and research when dealing with this troublesome issue.

Further Reading

A number of articles on our blog address parrot husbandry. For further information, please check out Providing the Proper Light to Pet Birds and Behavioral Enrichment for Parrots.


Lumps, Abscesses, Tumors and Swellings on Budgerigars and other Birds – Part 2

Please see Part I of this article for information on related health concerns.

Feather Cysts

Feather cysts form when feathers growing below the bird’s skin fail to emerge properly. They then curl back and continue to grow, forming elongated lumps at the base of one or several feathers. Secondary bacterial infection may set in, exacerbating the problem.

Feather cysts usually form at the base of the primary wing feathers, and are most commonly seen in budgerigars, canaries and macaws. They should be surgically removed by a veterinarian.

Swellings near the Cloaca

A swollen area just above the cloaca (the common opening for the digestive and respiratory systems in birds) is often indicative of a hernia. Usually related to stomach muscle atrophy, hernias are difficult to treat and require veterinary intervention.

Swellings below the cloaca may also indicate a hernia or, more commonly, a tumor. Egg-bound hen budgerigars and other birds will also appear swollen in this area, and may strain in an attempt to dispel the egg. Immediate veterinary attention is necessary.

Further Reading

Please check out the book Parakeets: a Complete Pet Owner’s Manuel for more information on parakeet care.

Image referenced from morguefile and originally posted by eviljeff.

Vitamin A Deficiency and Swollen Eyes in Parrots, Finches and other Cage Birds

Swollen eyes (Periorbital Abscess) are a frequently reported affliction of budgerigars, African gray, various Amazon and nearly all other parrots, but are also seen in canaries and other finches, mynas, toucans, bulbuls and a host of lesser-known pet species.  In most cases, a Vitamin A deficiency is at the root of the problem.  Less commonly, cysts, trapped foreign objects, trauma and bacterial infection may be implicated.

Initial Symptoms (Periobital Abscess)

Swellings usually develop slowly, beginning as puffy areas in front of and possibly above the eyes, and may be quite subtle.  This underlies the importance of knowing your bird well, and of performing a close daily inspection – especially for those who keep smaller birds, or any bird in a large, outdoor aviary.  Eventually, the swollen area will spread, encircling the eye and forcing it closed.  Treatment may involve surgery and/or Vitamin A injections, followed by dietary changes.

Origin of Vitamin A Deficiencies

Vitamin A deficiencies are typical of parrots fed upon a seed-only diet, and are especially common in species and individuals that tend to feed upon 1-2 types of seed to the exclusion of all others.  As always, sunflower seeds are the main culprit.  Parrots are notoriously troublesome in this regard, but other groups have their share of offenders as well.

In softbills and other non-seed eaters, this or other deficiencies can arise in birds that feed upon a few favored food items, such as the Pekin robin that takes only mealworms or the toucan that fills up on the bananas in its salad.

Aviary and Group-Housing Concerns

While working in large, mixed-species zoo exhibits, I began to notice that the dominant birds in the exhibit were often the individuals most likely to develop vitamin/mineral deficiencies.  While this at first did not make sense, upon reflection I came to realize that it is precisely these birds that arrived at the feeding stations first and filled up on crickets, grubs, blueberries, hard-boiled egg and other favorites.

Left with only prepared softbill diets and pellets upon which to subsist, the subordinate birds actually consumed a more healthful diet than did the exhibit tyrants.  Those keeping groups of birds in outdoor aviaries would do well to remain aware of this phenomenon.

Balancing the Diet: Pellets and Prepared Foods

For parrot keepers, the answer lies in switching your birds to a pellet-based diet …a task much easier said than done where many are concerned.  Lafeber Nutriberries can be an invaluable ally in your battle.  Nutriberries present pellets in a very well-accepted form, mixing in seeds and tasty treats and greatly simplifying the ordeal.

Likewise, pellets can be put to good use in finch diets, and softbill pellets  should form the basis of the food taken by toucans, barbets, mynas and similar birds.

Other Steps to Take

Please be sure also to take a look at our extensive selection of bird care books, as there are small details affecting the nutritional health of all species.  A high quality vitamin/mineral supplement should also be used as part of a balanced diet for your pets.

Further Reading

For more information on the role of pellets in bird diets, please see my article Avian Nutrition: Pellet-Based Diets.


Lumps, Abscesses, Tumors and Swellings on Budgerigars and other Birds (Part I)


Swollen areas and assorted growths are regularly seen on the otherwise hearty budgerigars (parakeets) and, less commonly, on other parrots, finches and softbills. Ranging from harmless to quite serious, these typically arise from trauma, abscesses, tumors, ruptured air sacs, hernias, cysts or egg-binding, but other -less obvious maladies may also be at work.

A Caution

The following remarks, while written with budgerigars in mind, are applicable to all types of birds. Please note that they are provided as guidelines, to help you understand what might be happening… only a veterinarian can accurately diagnose your bird’s medical problems.

Even benign growths, if accompanied by shivering, loss of appetite, breathing difficulties or similar symptoms, are cause for concern and necessitate an immediate visit to your veterinarian.

Ruptured Air Sacs

Budgerigars and other birds may rupture air sacs by flying into windows or other obstacles during their time out of the cage. Bird-proofing flight rooms and gradually adjusting your pet to such will go a long way in alleviating this problem. Less commonly, air sacs may be damaged when startled birds crash into cage bars or walls.

A swollen area along the breast, which emits a characteristic “crackling” sound when gently touched, is a sure sign of a ruptured air sac. Unless involving a huge area, air sac damage usually resolves quickly on its own.


Trauma-related injuries that do not involve air sacs may result in hematomas…swollen, blood-filled injuries below the skin (in people, such are often called “black-and-blues”, but skin color change will not usually be evident in a bird).

Resulting from broken blood vessels, the pooled blood typical of hematomas is usually re-absorbed by the bird without incident.



Avian abscesses present as swollen, painful, reddish areas that are warm to the touch. The swollen area, or abscess, is filled with white blood cells and other blood borne compounds produced by the bird to battle infection. The abscess usually also contains dead tissue and living and dead bacteria or other pathogens. Budgerigars often exhibit abscesses below the eye, but they may also occur on the feet, in the mouth and at other locations.

As a defense measure, the abscess has been walled off from the rest of the bird’s body, but the toxins and bacteria contained therein can escape and spread via the blood to vital organs. This can happen very quickly, and usually has fatal results. Therefore, all abscesses should be treated promptly by a veterinarian.

Gout, a disease that takes hold when uric acid is stored in the joints and internal organs, sometimes produces abscess-like growths on the feet of budgerigars. Known as tophi, these growths will bleed extensively if impacted or cut, and should be addressed by a veterinarian.


Tumors are often difficult to identify specifically, and may arise from a wide variety of diseases and conditions. Fatty tumors are usually benign and require monitoring but no other treatment, while others may be malignant.

Any unusual growth or swelling that you notice should be examined by a veterinarian. A biopsy may be used to confirm the doctor’s diagnosis if there is any doubt as to the nature of the problem.

Next time we’ll complete our review of noxious bird bumps with a look at feather cysts and cloacal swellings. Until then, please write in with your questions and comments.

Further Reading

You can access a detailed article concerning the types of tumors that afflict budgerigars here.


Parrot Health – Addressing the Psychological, Environmental and Medical Aspects

I recently received a very insightful comment from Yvonne, one of our readers, concerning parrot medicine and nutrition. Yvonne raised an important point that sometimes compromises the medical attention given to parrots and other animals, and so I’d like to address her concerns in this article.

Identifying the Concern…”Red Herrings”
Yvonne mentioned that, while psychological factors are critical to the health of captive parrots, excessive attention to such may cause people to overlook underlying problems that are purely medical in nature. For example, stress-related behaviors, while serious in and of themselves, may mask medical problems, and lead both bird owners and veterinarians to an inappropriate plan of action (the “red herring” concept in human medicine). In Yvonne’s example, treating feather-plucking as a completely psychological concern caused a severe medical condition to go un-noticed, leading to a cockatoo’s untimely death.

In my experience, the interplay of psychological and medical aspects in parrot care is a vital yet easily misunderstood concept. Both factors are critical and each affects the other. I do agree that there is a tendency for people to emphasis the psychological when it comes to parrots…I have seen the same among professional zookeepers, curators and veterinarians dealing with parrots, primates, marine mammals and other intelligent, charismatic animals as well.

Medical and Non-Medical Considerations
Where people are concerned, Western medicine has only recently begun to give ample consideration to the non-medical aspects of disease treatment. We can now measure the output of hormones which, excreted during times of stress, compromise the immune system, proving that both mind and body must be addressed.

The same applies to birds. I often cite an example from my zoo years…birds which easily tolerate normal environmental levels of Aspergillosus can be killed by the same levels of the fungi when stressed by, for example, a move to a new exhibit.

That being said, a secure environment and proper social grouping, etc. can only go so far – medical intervention is needed where appropriate. The key is finding that fine line.

As regards reptiles, amphibians and invertebrates – creatures for which medical care is less-well advanced than for birds – environmental and social factors are, in effect, considered to be “medical treatment”. Often the best we can do is to provide them with appropriate habitats, and hope that this is enough to keep medical troubles at bay. The same holds true to a large extent for birds, especially the poorly-studied species – proper environment is the key to good health. Fortunately, however, we also have significant medical resources to assist our avian friends.

Avian Nutrition…Learning More
Yvonne also laments the lack of information on what constitutes a healthy diet for many species. In this area we do indeed have much to learn, and many surprises await us. As a starting point, I always go back to sources that cite field observations – Forshaw’s classic Parrots of the World (TFH: 1997), for example.

Unfortunately, published observations of free-living parrots (i.e. what parrots eat, seasonal variations in diet) are not easy to come by, and are given far less importance today than in years past. I have access to people and journals which may be of use to those of you who are interested in such research…please write in if you need further information.

Further Reading
The degree of research that goes into zoo avian diets is well-illustrated by article abstracts posted by the European Zoo Nutrition Center


Image referenced from Morguefile.

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