The Feather Detective by Lynda Lewis


I will try to give you steps to follow when your bird starts plucking. Please remember I am not a vet nor do I consider myself an expert. I am just someone who has had bird in my life for over a decade. I do quite a bit of reading in books and on the internet and attend educational symposium whenever I can. My birds means so much to me that I want to be as educated as I possibly can be. Some of this has come from first hand experience. Opinions expressed are strictly mine and not in any way related to FWCAS or the board members or officers of FWCAS.

One of the most heartbreaking and frustrating things a parrot owner can go through is having their pet bird start plucking. You see your beautiful baby go from beautifully feathered to featherless sometimes in days sometimes in months. But either way it is scary and can be baffling. The first thing we will look at is what to do when your bird starts plucking.

1. A well bird checkup is in order. Yes it is expensive, but how much does your bird mean to you?

Many underlying physical illness can cause episodes of plucking. If discovered early and treated you can stop the bird from plucking. If not diagnosed quickly the plucking that was caused by an illness will continue after the bird is cured because it has become a habit much like smoking and nail biting in humans.

Skin problems can include infections on skin including bacterial, fungus and yeast. It can also be feather mites and other parasite problems. Eczema, dry skin and other skin disorders have been shown to cause plucking. The test to diagnosis this is a skin scraping. The vet scrapes off a little skin and looks at it under a microscope. If skin proves to have no problems then you must do other testing.

System infections including yeast, bacterial and parasite can cause a bird to be so miserable that they start pulling out their feathers. This is your birds cry for help! To diagnosis the vet will thoroughly examine your bird. Then they do Xrays, CBC ( complete blood count), A chemistry panel , gram stains and disease testing.

The Xrays show the liver, the heart and other functions within the birds body. It shows if the bird is eating and arterial buildups along with tumors, and spots on the lung. It can show if the liver is to small or enlarged, the same with the heart. This is a basic to diagnosis and should be done. It scares many bird owners since most birds need to be sedated to be xrayed. Sedation in birds is not as dangerous as it was twenty years ago. It is generally considered quite safe in our day and age.

A complete Blood Count shows the ratio of white and red blood cells. If the vet finds an increase in white blood cells this can show infection or disease is present. A decrease in red blood cells can show internal bleeding or something else causing anemia in your bird. It will show the vet which direction he should take in trying to diagnose your bird.

A chemical panel will show if organs are functioning properly. If not the vet can further investigate the bird by looking into organ failure such as cirrhosis or fatty liver disease. It can show protein deficiency along with other deficiency within your birds chemical structure that has come from malnutrition among other things There are so many things that can go wrong in a bird that i can’t list all possible diagnose that chem pan can show.

Gram stains will show the presence of yeast, positive and negative bacteria

Once the vet exam is complete there can be many diagnosis. Sometimes the vet can help. Sometimes the vet will be as puzzled as you are. This is when you become the detective. This is my first example. In this case I was successful in solving the mystery and stopped the plucking. The following are my notes and observances on Diego that I noted during her plucking episode.

Diego is our nanday conure, age unknown but estimated to be 11 plus years old. We have had her six years. She is caged with another nanday named Zorro. She is flighted and allowed to fly the house in the evening. I first noticed a patch of feathers missing under her wing on a Saturday night. By Sunday morning half her body feathers were gone. I observed no feather plucking during the daylight hours nor when she was with me. I did observe that her grip seemed weaker than was normal. Sunday night I sat in the darkened room and observed her behavior. She was agitated and pacing the bottom of the cage, sometimes climbing up to ring her bell. By Monday he whole body was naked and she was not perching at all. I made an appointment with the vet.

I had a well bird check done including xrays. Xrays showed no food in the digestive tract. CBC and chem panel showed a healthy bird with no infections. The diagnosis was extreme trauma or a scare that caused her to stop eating and rip out her feathers. This is when i had to take the role of feather detective. I had to stop the plucking before it became a habit. I started to note her personality changes. Zorro seemed to be ignoring her. Instead of hanging out with the other birds, Diego clung to me like a burr. I handfed her pellets and seed and she began to eat well on her own again. I trust the vet but wanted to make sure his diagnosis was correct . My two biggest suspicions were a food allergy or that the other nanday was either plucking her or picking on her. I placed a divider in there very long cage and started Diego on harrison’s pellets to rule out an allergy to fungus on seeds or artificial colors.

In two weeks I had observed no new plucking and her feathers were growing back in beautifully. I was starting to think that either the food allergy or separating the nandays was working. Then one night I noticed that she again seemed agitated. She was pacing the bottom of the cage. The next morning almost all of her body feathers were gone again. This ruled out trauma from the other bird or food allergies. The next night I tucked myself into a corner of the bird room and watched her rip out the few feathers she had left. In-between the plucking she paced the cage and rung her bell. I tossed and turned that night because I could hear her pacing and ringing the bell. I also became concerned she was keeping the other birds up at night. I found a small cage and started placing Diego in the small cage in my room to sleep at night. At first she balked at the strange cage and did not want to go in. But I persuaded her. After a few nights she started to fly into my room and put herself to bed when ready. I think she enjoys the security of the small cage and when she wakes during the night she can see me. The sense of security was what she needed. It has been almost six months and she has not plucked at all. She has all her feathers back and is again a beautiful vibrant bird. Is she cured? I have no idea if she will ever start to pluck again. But I will continue the sleep cage regime in hopes this will prevent future episodes.

In Diego’s case; I consulted the vet, I investigated her surroundings and behavior. Changed things to see the results and found a solution. Every bird is different but the main idea is

1. Observe when the bird is plucking

2. Observe factors that may cause the plucking. This includes changes in behavior, changes in eating habits, interaction with other birds, interaction with humans it is bonded to and changes within the environment that may have caused the plucking to begin with. Keep your eyes , ears and mind open. Make changes slowly seeing how the bird responds to change. It may help you and the vet to keep notes in a notebook observing changes and what you have done to stop the plucking.

If all else fails just remember that fine feathers do not make a fine bird. It is the personality that matters. Two of my most beloved birds are plucked and could be considered ” ugly” but they have beautiful souls and I would not trade them for the world!

by Lynda Lewis

2 thoughts to “The Feather Detective by Lynda Lewis”

  1. What a great informative article! My grey has plucked all chest and leg feathers since she was five years old. She is now thirty. Before retirement I worked for many years in a Veterinary Hospital,so all possible diagnostics were done. The problem began when our Moluccan Cockatoo left our household . Gretchen began some feather picking a month later. After awhile,it was a daily habit and has not stopped. Since it’s a purely a developed habit now,we understand and love her as she is. Most everything discussed in this article was tried to no avail. Thank you for detailing all the valuable information available,to help in some way, bird owners with this all so common problem.

    1. Hi Christa, I am so happy you are such an understanding person and love your baby even though she plucks. They are truly beautiful on the inside aren’t they.

      Here is some info. from Don Scott of the Chloe Sanctuary though he mainly deals with Cockatoos….

      We have had 100% success with feather destructive behavior and mutilation using antipsychotic drugs. Dr. Jenkins of the Avian and Exotic Animal Hospital in San Diego has been helping rescues and sanctuaries as well as the public with the use of Haldol. Let me say frankly that anecdotal remedies do not work. Few birds survive the progress of this disease without drug intervention.

      Many avian vets are unaware of the use of Haloperidol for FDB or do not believe that the general public can properly administer it. So finding a support vet might be an issue for you if you choose to use this medical remedy.

      I am not a veterinarian and cannot recommend, approve or prescribe veterinary drugs or protocols. This information is provided for education purposes only. There are risks with any medical remedy.

      You can see one of our mutilators who is now out of danger and in feather here:

      We have 8 birds who have been given a new lease on life with Haldol: Roman, Chloe, Snoball, Lauralei, Coco, Simone, Cozzi, and Sugar.

      Here is more info:

      This is a common problem with cockatoos: self-mutilation and feather destructive behavior. I can’t tell you what to do but I can tell you what I have done. I have had success by using a combination of medicine and, temporarily, collars. The collar is an immediate fix for the problem. The bird can no longer reach its body.

      From all of the research that I have done and one of our avian veterinarians concurs, the problem stems from being hand-raised by humans. Parrots and cockatoos have an extended juvenile dependency period much like humans. Most of their behavior is absorbed from their parents, their siblings and their flock. When raised by humans they usually become functionally autistic or psychotic. Imagine a human raised by chimpanzees. It’s worse than that because at least chimps are mammals. Birds are wildly different than us.

      Cockatoos mate for life. If you give up your cockatoo to try to help her it may work just the other way around. It is been very difficult with Sugar, our most recent mutilator, to make her feel loved and wanted again. I work at it hard. You never know how hard someone else will work at it.

      Back to the main point. Many people find the fact that I use medicine, psychiatric medicine, unacceptable. They say they don’t want to see their bird on drugs. But frankly, the most common outcome of mutilation in the long run according to every veterinary manual I have is death. Haloperidol, Haldol, has worked on every cockatoo that I have used it on. If a bird has had this problem for more than a year it will probably need to remain on it for the rest of its life.

      I have found that most birds actually enjoy their lives much more once they are on this drug. One of the reasons is that is serves as an anti-anxiety medicine. The problem is that you have to adjust the drug on a daily basis. You have to observe and change the level of the drug till you reach a point where they don’t mutilate and they’re acting normally. I generally adjust the drug every two days either up or down based on behavior, this is, in fact, the recommended protocol. I didn’t pull this out of a hat. Most veterinarians will recommend an initial level of the drug but they won’t recommend adjusting on a daily basis. This doesn’t work. Evidence shows that this does not work.

      Most birds become more active but some birds become more docile for a short time on the drug. They may appear sleepy and might lose appetite for a few days to a week.

      It’s not expensive, . A years supply for you would run about $50. If they try to charge you more than this you need to find a different vet. A 4 ounce bottle is about $50. You would need to find an avian vet to prescribe it because it is a prescription medicine. It can be mixed with something like peanut butter but it’s best to just use a syringe and squirt it into the beak. It is important to get the exact dosage into the bird. One person told me their vet said to mix it in their water. That would be useless. There is no way to give an exact dosage if it is mixed in this way.

      Haldol concentrate is a liquid 2mg/ml solution. Can be given with a syringe orally or mixed with almond butter or equal. It is colorless and tasteless.

      I can’t tell you what dosages to use but I can tell you what I do. I do a test to see if there will be unusual issues by giving one dose at 0.08ml the first time (for large cockatoos, lower for small ones). Then, for a Moluccan mutilator I start with 0.2ml twice a day around 7am and 4 pm. For an umbrella I use 0.16ml as a starting dose. If the problem continues for 2 days I increase the dose by 0.01ml. I repeat the increase 2 days later if the problem persists.

      I buy the full 4oz bottle rather than have the vet dispense a lower quantity because the cost is so low anyway. The markup on small bottles has been extreme. Some vets water the mixture down to 1mg/ml and it seems that this causes the solution to weaken faster. It also weakens if exposed to UV (daylight).

      If I see stereotypic behavior, slow foot movements, or dazed eyes in the first few days I keep an eye on them but it usually passes. As long as breathing is okay I don’t worry. Sometimes it takes a week or two for them to adapt. Mutilators require the drug for the rest of their lives (see The Manual of Parrot Behavior). Pluckers who are just starting can usually be weaned off if you watch closely when mating season is due. Mating season generally starts the behavior again. After a few seasons they can be taken off, usually. This info is from Dr. Jenkins at the Avian and Exotic Animal Hospital in San Diego and the book: The Manual of Parrot Behavior by Leuscher (a scientific compendium).

      Appetite depression is normal for 48 hours. I check the bird’s weight daily and hand feed by syringe if needed.

      Always work with your Avian veterinarian. It might not hurt to bring The Manual of Parrot Behavior along to show them the article on Haldol in the drug section. Avian vets are usually the top vets but some may not know of this information.


      Don Scott
      Executive Director
      The Chloe Sanctuary for Parrots and Cockatoos

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