Neil A. Forbes, BVetMed, DECZM (Avian) FRCVS, RCVS, EU Recognised Specialist (Avian Medicine)
Whilst there are over 30 suggested causes of feather plucking in pet parrots, it is true to say that not all species of parrot which are kept as pets, are afflicted by this condition. In broad terms we divide causes into 'systemic illness', 'husbandry or management issues' and 'psychological problems'. However, as certain species are over represented (e.g., African grey parrots, cockatoos), moreover these species do not suffer the relevant systemic diseases any more frequently than other less commonly affected species, one can conclude that either these species are kept or managed incorrectly, or that they suffer psychological problems more commonly. Inevitably, one has to conclude that at least some, if not all, individuals of these species are less well able to cope with life in captivity as a single pet bird, for one or other reason. The species that are most commonly effected are highly intelligent and live naturally within complex social groups in multi-bird colonies, enjoying multiple interactions with co-specifics.
In a natural situation, mature middle and senior ranking colony members will pair, find a nest site, build a nest, go through courtship, copulate, lay and incubate eggs and rear young. The chicks will remain with the parents for up to 18 months and are 'parented'. Once the young leave the immediate company of their parents, they become junior ranking members of the larger colony to which their parents belong. After several years, as they rise within the flock social ranking, they will make courtship advances to a lower ranked individual in the hope of forming a 'pair relationship,' and so the process goes on. In the captive-bred scenario, the market prefers the production of 'hand-reared soppy tame' baby parrots. This involves the removal of either eggs or chicks from the parent birds, for incubation and/or hand rearing. It is postulated that hand-reared parrot chicks, (as orphan reared primates), suffer a permanent, irreversible change to their hypothalamic axis, such that they are less able to cope with stress in later life, than a parent-reared parrot youngster would do. So, the hand reared chick is reared to weaning age and is sold into the pet trade, or direct to a new home. In the typical household, the cute and tame youngster and its needs are poorly understood. Just as a child or puppy benefits from parental guidance, so does the young parrot. If not parented, the parrot chick will naturally take up the 'dominant position' in their new found flock (family). A dominant parrot will present exactly the same complications in a household as a dominant dog; however, the poor parrot has a major additional complication. Having been hand reared, the young parrot is 'imprinted' onto its rearer; i.e., the bird actually genuinely believes it is a human. So we now have a young parrot coming to live in a new family, who believes he/she is human, and is managed in a way such that it becomes the flock leader (dominant member). Once that youngster reaches sexually maturity (at 6–18 months of age), it will naturally expect to develop a breeding relationship with one lucky, chosen human from the household. At this time, it will display courtship activity, such as allo-preening, regurgitating, head down and wing beating, or tail up and cloaca presenting, to the intended mate, whilst it simultaneously demonstrates aggression to any other family members who pose a threat to that desired breeding relationship. One has to understand that in biological terms, this young parrot was placed on this earth with the express purpose of procreating more little parrots. So, by coming into the breeding condition, making advances to an owner but having these advances rejected, the bird suffers the whole 'unrequited love thing'; but worst of all, it just goes on and on. In ways, similar to an athlete, under starters orders at the start of a race, with repeated false starts, and a race which never commences. The bird then starts to suffer from what the author refers to as 'breeder frustration', resulting in a high level of stress. Inevitably, the bird has to develop a 'coping mechanism'. Whilst the polar bear or tiger may demonstrate stereotypic behaviour, as do some cockatoos, such as pacing, in psittacines self-mutilation is common (as do primates in a similar stress situation); i.e., feather destructive behaviour as their 'coping mechanism'. This is one, and in the author's opinion the most important, fundamental welfare problem for pet parrots, the other important one being deprivation of the colony life style. Being part of a colony provides constant stimulation and entertainment from other colony members, but it also provides security. Each colony has 'look outs,' and safety is created in numbers. The average colony resident bird is said to spend 50% of the day flying to feed and feeding, 30% of the day playing with its co-specifics and 20% of the day resting and preening. So, for the single pet bird, we have hand reared it, deprived it of natural parenting, invited it into a new colony (family), then, as often as not, the rest of the flock goes off to school or work, abandoning the young parrot to enforced solitary confinement in a cage. The bird's food is provided in front of it, it has nowhere to fly to, for much of the day it has no one to play with, and no one to provide entertainment or security. There is little left for the bird to do but to be bored and develop unpleasant behavioural (coping) behaviours. What have we done, and what can we now advise and recommend in order to resolve these issues? In the author's opinion, young parrots should be parent reared, new owners should have a proper understanding of parrot behaviour and training (and the profession should help in sharing the correct information with new owners); social birds should not be kept singly; and certainly when owners are absent, birds should be placed in aviaries, rather than being confined to small cages. This profession can and should make a difference to the welfare of pet parrots.
In managing a plucking parrot, the author uses a lengthy questionnaire and information booklet, which, once annotated with the bird's history, is given to the owner for reference. All aspects of origin; species; management; nutrition; environmental enrichment; household group dynamics; day length, heat, humidity; position in the house; behaviour; what season did the plucking first start, seasonality of plucking, whether plucking is linked with any other behavioural changes; what part of the plumage is plucked, is it localised or generalised; what is the current plumage condition; when did the bird last moult, etc., are all recorded and considered. A full physical examination is required, to include mouth, eyes, ears, neck, condition score, all areas of skin and plumage, all long bones and joints, preen gland, choana and cloaca, nails and beak. A full haematology, biochemistry and Chlamydia (if indicated, Borna virus) serologies are carried out, lateral and DV x-rays. In some cases, the history and behavioural assessment between bird and owner is sufficient to focus on a small number of 'most likely causes', which may be worked up in greater detail, rather than testing everything. Whilst it is tempting to test everything on initial presentation, the cost implications may prevent the bird from every being represented. Once a diagnosis is made, or at least the differential list narrowed down to a small number of likely causes, then resolution for these may be implemented. At the same time, husbandry and management (including nutrition and all aspects of environmental enrichment), and the psychological welfare needs of the birds should be optimised. Regular follow up and continued support for bird and owner are essential. The main take home message is that we have created the circumstances in which this problem has arisen. Just because pet parrots have always been kept this way, is not a reason not to reinvent and improve this wheel. We have to accept that if ten parrots are housed together in a well-designed extensive aviary, there is little chance of parrots plucking. These are highly intelligent, gregarious birds; they are not designed to cope with single-caged pet ownership, nor should they have to.