Pecking is arguably one of the most difficult problems to deal with in parrots. Several years ago, as soon as a parrot plucked its feathers or harmed itself, many believed it was suffering from psychological disorders. So we tried to give him more toys and attention, often to no avail. This easy diagnosis therefore deprived the birds of seeing the veterinarian and obtaining medical treatment in order to resolve their problem.
Let it be said once and for all, it is not always “bugs” in the head that push a parrot to damage its plumage.
The list of possible causes of pecking is very long! So, if you see your vet because your bird has started to pluck its feathers, be aware that they may need to take some tests and try a few treatments before their condition improves. Each vet has their own diagnostic protocol to establish what causes your parrot to pluck its feathers. The appearance of the skin, the way the feather is mutilated (torn vs cut at its base), the presence or not of regrowth and the plucked region (whole body vs a well defined area) already directs the veterinarian on the causes most likely of the problem. It then remains to do the necessary tests to confirm the diagnosis.
So let’s review some possible causes of bad plumage or pecking in birds.
Mites and lice cause itching and discomfort. Some are microscopic (example: Knemidocoptes responsible among other things for parakeet beak gall) and others are visible to the naked eye in the form of tiny red or black dots. Very often the parasite is not observed directly on the bird. We notice either the sequelae of its presence (hyperkeratosis of the beak and / or legs caused by the knemidocoptes) or we find them in the cage (red lice). Either way, we can never say beyond any doubt that a parrot does not have parasites. This little problem happens in the best families! So, it is wise to treat any parrot that has a pecking problem preventively with ivermectin.
The presence of the protozoan Giardia in the intestine causes itchy skin under the wings and on the legs. Characteristically, parrots remove all the feathers in these places and do not touch the others. However, when the parasite is left untreated, the condition often escalates and it is not uncommon for the bird to spread its pecking throughout the body. The Giardia parasite is difficult to observe under a microscope. So, if your parrot exhibits this type of pecking, your vet will likely suggest treatment for Giardia even if he didn’t see it during the stool test.
NB Cockatiels are particularly affected by this problem.
Bacterial and / or fungal dermatitis
Whatever the cause of your parrot’s itch, it often happens that by scratching, its skin becomes infected secondarily. Infected skin normally becomes thicker and takes on a yellowish tinge. It is also not impossible that a primary infection is responsible for triggering the pecking behavior. Treatment with antibiotics and / or antifungals is often initiated in parrots that tear their feathers.
Certain toxins, including cigarette smoke and nicotine, cause the parrot to have a skin reaction resembling a contact allergy. It is not uncommon to see birds living in the presence of smokers scratching abnormally. In addition, the nicotine residues present on the fingers of smokers are easily transferred to the feet of the birds that roost there. Some more sensitive individuals react strongly to nicotine and self-injure their feet with blood. In macaws, dermatitis of the sensitive skin of their cheeks may be secondary to exposure to nicotine. The only effective treatment is to keep the bird in an environment free of smoke and nicotine residue. Pecking is also sometimes observed in parrots poisoned by zinc.
Polyoma virus and beak and feather virus (PBFD) are well known and affect the plumage of birds. Reliable screening tests exist. When the plumage is damaged all over the body, including tail feathers, flight feathers and those that the parrot cannot reach on the head, the test should be done quickly. However, not all parrots develop the characteristic feather lesions. In lovebirds, the virus instead causes itching around the tail and neck and sometimes causes them to self-harm. It is therefore wise to test any parrot suffering from pecking for these viruses. These viruses are incurable, but an affected bird can still have a good life, as long as it is strictly isolated from all other birds. Healthy carrier birds exist. Have any new birds tested before putting them in contact with yours.
Hypothyroidism was more often diagnosed when birds did not have access to a balanced diet. The classic case was that of the obese parakeet which tore off its feathers around its neck. The poor functioning of the thyroid was caused by a lack of iodine in the diet, and adding an iodine supplement easily solved the problem. However, sometimes the thyroid can slow down for other reasons that are difficult to determine. The parrot that has a marked delay in moulting, that has sparse plumage and whose new feathers are abnormal (feathers without barbs, retained in their keratin envelopes) may be suffering from hypothyroidism. However, the diagnosis is not always easy to establish.
Parrots fed mainly on seeds (lack of vitamin A) and never exposed to sunlight are more likely to have poor plumage quality.
Localized pain or discomfort
Some parrots tear off their feathers at the precise place where an internal organ is sick or painful: examples: Amazon which tears its feathers on its abdomen just where the liver is located (its liver enzymes were found to be very high on the blood test) , pionus who pecks in the neck (he had a bacterial infection in his crop), macaw who removed all of his feathers on his right hip (an x-ray showed arthritis lesions).
Parrots with diseased livers are occasionally noticed that they are bothered by abnormal itching.
Some parrots carrying the bacteria Chlamydophila psittaci peck.
Generalized inflammatory skin disease
Some birds experience discomfort and itchy skin because their skin is infiltrated by inflammatory cells. The inflammation is either the result of skin hypersensitivity secondary to an allergy (allergen in the environment or food) or the skin manifestation of a generalized inflammatory disease (PDD – proventricular dilation disease). So, if all of the possible causes of pecking have been ruled out in your parrot without showing any results, it would be wise for them to have a paired skin biopsy. A small piece of skin including a growing feather is taken from a place where the bird stings itself and another piece is taken on the head or behind the neck (a place inaccessible to the beak).
If so, the parrot should be checked for symptoms of PDD. If there is no evidence of this disease, it is highly likely that your parrot has an allergy. Unfortunately, skin allergy tests used in humans and mammals have been tried in birds with little success. It is therefore almost impossible to determine with certainty which allergen a bird reacts to. Allergies in birds can be seasonal or last year round. They cannot be cured, but certain measures aim to control them. So, if your parrot has tested positive on the paired skin biopsy and has symptoms associated with generalized inflammatory skin disease (itching, pecking, destruction of plumage,
- Administer antihistamines as prescribed by your veterinarian.
- Eliminate allergens if possible.
- Give a hypoallergenic feed made from rice and flax seeds (Kaytee Product, HA Prescription diet) if possible.
- Give an omega3 and omega6 supplement as prescribed by your veterinarian.
- Baths in cool water (avoid any other product on the plumage) and dry the bird in the sun.
After everything we have just seen, this category does exist! A parrot can tear off its feathers out of frustration, anxiety, stress, lack of sleep, boredom, etc. However, before jumping to the conclusion that your bird is upset, make sure that there is no medical cause that can explain the cause of his pecking.
Parrot behavior consultations with a qualified professional can resolve most problems. Antipsychotic drugs (haloperidol) are also sometimes used.
This last category is the most frustrating of all. It means that despite all the tests done and all the treatments tried, the cause of Coco Pecking remains a mystery. So it sometimes happens that it is impossible to fully control a parrot that is pecking.