Feather plucking is a behavioral disorder of birds most often occurring in captive psittacine, or parrot, species. Affected birds methodically and compulsively pull out their own feathers. This self-mutilation is usually the result of psychological or medical issues, although sometimes the propensity for self-plucking is inherited. This destructive behavior can develop into a lifelong habit that permanently damages feather follicles, leaving a bird unable to replace the missing feathers.
It is not unusual to see a bird pull out one of its own feathers. During preening, a bird runs its feathers through its beak to remove keratin and other debris. Occasionally, a feather that is ready to shed comes loose during the preening process, making it look as though the bird has pulled out the feather. Feather plucking is distinct from routine grooming, however, and leaves large areas of bare skin as the bird removes healthy feathers. Birds affected with the disorder have bare skin in areas where their beaks can reach, such as the chest, under the wings, and on the thighs.
The main causes of feather plucking are lack of sensory stimulation, disease, and stress. In their natural environment, birds spend much of their time socializing, flying, and foraging for food. Captive birds, especially solitary specimens, do not have as much opportunity for these activities. These birds may resort to plucking their own feathers as a result of being bored. A 2007 study showed a direct relationship between the amounts of time spent foraging for food and the tendency to pluck feathers.
A variety of medical conditions can cause this disorder. In 2008, a study of birds that pulled out their own feathers showed that half of them had an inflammatory skin disease. The feather plucking can also be a reaction to any skin irritation including parasites, dry skin, or allergies. Nutritional deficiencies or illness can cause itchy skin and the resulting destructive behavior as well.
Bird owners can try to prevent or reverse their birds' self-mutilation with proper care and sensory-rich environments. Any bird that pulls out its feathers should first be seen by a veterinarian to rule out disease. Cages should be large and equipped with colorful toys and interactive playthings. Many birdcage accessories encourage birds to use their beaks both as a form of exercise and to procure their food. Solitary birds need frequent interaction with their owners as loneliness is not only a cause of boredom but is stressful to them too.