Why Is My Parrot Pulling Its Feathers Out?
Ron Hines DVM PhD
This is a story about Pancho. He is a 28 year old, hand-raised Harlequin Macaw living in a loving home in Loxahatchee in South Florida. He’s the one on the right. Pancho’s case is not at all unique – domestic parrots of all sizes face the same underlying issue all over the world.
About three years ago, Pancho began to act strange. Out of the blue, he began to pluck pin feathers from his chest. First he just nibbled and preened at them more than before. But soon the concerned owners found pinfeathers lying on the cage floor. The feathers kept trying to grow back. But just before they could mature, Pancho pulled them out again.
The owners were very upset. They had been feeding Pancho the most expensive parrot diet sold in the United States and they were very well-informed and knowledgeable about birds. These parrots were their life. So they took Pancho to a veterinary avian specialist. The specialist ran many tests. But all were inconclusive. He prescribed this and that but the problem continued and Pancho was beginning to look more like a supermarket chicken than an exquisite parrot. So they took Pancho to another avian specialists, she re-ran all the tests. They brought in a team of consultants to advise the avian specialists. They were finally told that the problem was probably “multifactorial” – a professor’s way of saying “its probably do to a lot of things – but we don’t know what”. During those three years, little Pancho was given a vast array of powerful drugs for one supposed problem or another. He was given:
Butorphanol for possible itchiness
Ibuprofen for possible inflammation
Valium for possible anxiety
Lupron injections for possible sex-steroid over production
Deslorelin , a more powerful anti-sex steroid when the Lupron had no effect
Periodic Human Chorionic Gonadotropin (HCG) injections when neither Lupron or Deslorelin stopped the plucking
Aspirin for possible atherosclerosis
Purchase of an Oxygen generator for possible “decreased lung function”
A change from super-premium diet to premium diet in case bird was allergic to an ingredient in the prior diet
Separate rooms for macaws, parrots and cockatoos in case one bird had become allergic to the other birds.
Itraconazole because bird showed a weak positive aspergillus antibody titer
Voriconazole when the Itraconazole did nothing
Clotrimazole nebulization when nether Itraconazole or Voriconazole helped
I looked over Pancho’s extensive list of tests and examinations, asked more questions and ,after some thought, wrote the lady this letter:
Dear Ms. L.,
I apologize for not getting back to you sooner.
I have looked over all the lab work you sent me. It is very thorough and I do not think they neglected to do anything. As your vets have said, there is really no indication what Pancho’s problem is. Thank you for the photos as well. I have a better feel for Pancho now.
We talked about possibility of allergies. I see that his immunoglobulins and differential white blood cell counts were run on several occasions and that they were all normal. So I do not think that Pancho has become allergic to your cockatoos or to any food ingredients.
After looking closely at his plumage and the new pinfeathers, I do not believe that Pancho has a thyroid problem or any other hormonal problem that affects feather growth. There are absolutely no stress bars on his feathers or indications in his blood work that he has any form of infectious disease and I do not feel that the subtle changes seen in his lung fields have anything to do with his feather problem.
Looking at his cere, nares and unfeathered skin, there is no evidence that he has a vitamin deficiency or a protein deficiency. His uric acid levels are too low for me to suspect visceral gout and there is no evidence of liver problems. I do not believe this is a tumor problem because his weight has not dropped and no masses or organ displacement were seen on the x-rays.
I believe you said that his cage is constructed of stainless steel. If it should contain any factory-fresh galvanized mesh or chain link, the unlikely possibility of zinc toxicity exits. Particularly if you use cleaning products that are acidic. But none of his blood work indicates a problem like that and I don’t see any galvanized wire in the photos you sent. I just mention it in passing.
I was trying to determine the type of wood used to construct some of the wooden flights in your photos. If they are constructed of green, pressure-treated lumber, some brands contained arsenic (Pressure Treated Chromated Copper Arsenate) . Exposure to that type of lumber – particularly if the birds gnawed or licked it, would not be good. If your home was built before 1978, I would be sure the birds do not have access to the lead in paint. But the problems we see with that, usually involve the nervous system and blood – not the feather system so neither of these are likely to be the cause.
I do not think this is a sex hormone excess because none of the compounds given to him to turn off those hormones had much effect on him.
I think that the real reason the tests have all been relatively normal is that Pancho does not have a medical problem and never did have one.
I believe his problem had a number of simple psychological and nutritional components combined with a lack of flight space, exercise and boredom.
I think that at this point, you have already intuitively made a lot of the lifestyle changes that matter. But parrots that begin to over-preen are very, very hard to break of the habit even when the initial cause has been eliminated.
So I think it is a very good idea to use the Elizabethan collar. I have no experience using them with the cone pointed toward their chest, but if your vet uses them that way successfully, fine. I do want to be sure it does not injure Pancho’s delicate skin at the ring that is on his neck and I think it will need additional padding there. We talked about that on the phone. I want to be sure his weight remains steady so I know he is having no problem eating or drinking. His food and water dishes will need to be higher. If you can do that now, I think all his feathers will grow back just fine.
But when the collar comes off, there will have to be a lot of changes in his life. And if he cannot adjust to wearing his collar, those changes need to come now. Many owners cannot bear to see their pets in them. You just have to try to be strong.
Here is what I think Pancho needs:
An environmental makeover. Bigger cage, cage that is very long but does not have to be very wide. One wide enough that when he flies or flaps, both wing tips have a minimum of 12 inches space between the sides of the cage.
Freshly cut perches of orchard wood with the leaves and everything left on. Cut from some trees that produce edible fruit. He will spend his days pealing them himself – macaws love to do that – and chewing on the leaves and it will take his mind from his plucking. He is not helping to raise chicks or flying over the jungle foraging and his days go by slowly. When the branches are all peeled, get him new ones. Be sure the orchard did not spray for pests.
Provide lots of environmental enrichment tricks and mental stimulation – the things they do at progressive zoos. There are plenty of ideas online. Make him work hard for his food – just like he would in the wild. Provide him with a water spray area to play in. Water mist makes them so happy and content !
Give Pancho little or no pelleted food and few if any sugary, cultivated fruits from the supermarket. I have the same problem with my clients with monkeys – the fruit, seeds and nuts that macaws and monkeys eat in the wild are much lower in sugar and carbohydrates than supermarket fruits and vegetables. Jungle fruit and seeds are full of fiber as well. So instead of the sweet cultivated stuff, feed the tough, woody fruit portions and vegetable stems that humans tend to throw away – big, hard carrots, the lower portions of asparagus, the tops of turnips, pineapples, etc. all the things restaurants discard. Just wash them well in light bleach solution and then several rinses of fresh water. There is no need for any vitamin supplements. Birds are creatures of habit that do not make diet changes readily or easily. So do everything very gradually, mixing the old with the new, and monitor his weight closely. He can loose a few grams – but I don’t want him loosing more than 10% of his current body weight during the transition. He is not a fat bird.
Cut back on the nuts and peanuts and no sunflower or Safflower seeds. No wild macaw ever ate them. They are too caloric and oily and some of them are too high in aflatoxins as well. Feed variety, variety, and variety. If you give him corn, make it fresh corn on the cob with the husks still on and don’t overdo it. I do not know what is available in the Miami area. If you have friends with big parrots or macaws that are as old as Pancho; look for the friends whose parrots and macaws have the brightest, most vibrant feathers and the least dings and divots in their plumage (signs of over grooming or slow feather re growth) and copy as many elements of their lifestyle as you can.
I always kept my personal macaws flighted. They seemed happier that way. But I know you show your birds and flighted birds can fly off or get into other trouble. When I had Hyacinths at Sea World, I would occasionally have to get our fire truck to blast them out of tall trees when they refused to come down – and we lost a few big parrots and cockatoos. So I do not want to suggest that if there is the slightest chance you will loose Pancho. Some birds just have a bad day and split.
I do not know if it was your camera or the sunlight when you took those photographs. But everyone’s colors look washed out. I photoshopped in two other macaws below yours, and posted them at the top of this article. The hyacinth is a wild one in the Mato Groso area of Brazil, shot through a telephoto lens. The greenwing is one of the hundreds that fly down to the clay licks at Tambopata, Peru. I would like you to make those colors your goal. Your rarely see them in macaws living on pelleted or seed diets. Even the caged hyacinths in the Mato Grosso and the caged greenwings at Tambopata that they keep there for the tourists to photograph don’t have those vibrant colors. That’s because the display birds are fed no differently than most parrots in the United States. Left to their own in selecting a nutritious diet, parrots and children make lousy choices – that’s what made Frito-Lay and Mars rich.
Years ago, I used to chew the fat with Dr. Ted Lefeber of Niles Illinois. We would talk about his tough cases of plucking parrots similar to Pancho. He had quite a few come in to his clinic with that problem. And some where like Pancho – very hard to cure. He also owned a place in South Florida where he had a big flight cage. He told me that when all his treatments failed, he found that a lot of those birds would re-grow their feathers if he turned them loose in his Florida flight. If nothing else works for Pancho, I want you to find someone with a similar big flight cage in the Miami/Homestead area and see if they would accept Pancho for a while. But lets just see how he does in the collar and with some dietary and environmental changes. If you have to go for group home living, remember that a well-adjusted group of macaws does not take kindly to new arrivals. Particularly when space is limited or there is an active breeding pair in the group.The introduction and first few weeks will have to be closely supervised.