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Feather Picking

Expert Question

We have two African Grey parrots. Peaches is three years old and Vincent is 11 months old. Both birds have their own cages and a quiet room to sleep in, away from the family. They have an average of 10-12 hours sleep each night. Their diet is a mixture of pellets, seed, fresh fruit, vegetables, the occasional treat and a supplement of palm nut oil. They are showered once a week and sprayed every other day. Both have free flight time when we are home and are out of their cages with the family for a minimum of 5 hours, but usually longer, as I only work part time so often the out of cage time is approx eight hours.

Peaches is healthy, happy and well adjusted. Unfortunately, Vincent started plucking his breast feathers when he was 8 months old. We visited the vet, who advised it was not medical. We have checked all the environmental and diet associated things, his feathers are starting to grow back but occasionally he appears to pluck these out, usually when I go out! So I guess I know it's likely to be abandonment stress but how do I overcome this. I have tried to give him treats or toys before I go out, we leave a radio on for both birds who are both in the same room for company but in different cages.

Also I have noticed he appears to be rather possessive and often objects when I hold Peaches or anyone come close to me. We have tried to discourage this by asking the family to interact more and he will go to them but often only for a few minutes then flies to me. Is this an age thing as he is still a baby?

Please help as we feel so responsible and want Vincent to be as happy and well adjusted as Peaches is.
Submitted By: Jo

Expert Answer

G'day Jo,

Without a doubt, trying to manage feather picking behaviour is the most challenging of the behavioural issues we unfortunately encounter in captive parrots. It is very difficult for me to cover all bases within the constraints of a Q&A format for an issue as potentially complex as feather picking. As a consultant with extensive first hand experience with this particular issue, not being able to actually see the environment, and being unable to observe Peaches, really will limit my response to generalisations. Nevertheless, we can certainly cover some food for thought from the insights you have shared. Hopefully, from what I can offer, you might be able to develop some strategies that will help to minimise the potential for the feather picking to occur.

Firstly, you've done the right thing by consulting a veterinarian first. My advice to clients managing any problems involving poor feathering or feather damage in their parrots is to seek veterinary advice first. All the behavioural intervention in the world won't help a parrot that is physically ill. As you have sought veterinary advice and have been advised that the problem is behavioural, let's focus on the key general areas that you can start considering.

Diet Management & Foraging Opportunity:
Scientific studies have demonstrated a significant disparity in the time spent actively engaging in foraging and feeding behaviours of wild parrots compared to captive parrots. Reduced active foraging can be considered a precursor to `boredom' or lack of activity. This `activity deficit' has been linked to excessive amounts of time spent preening by captive parrots, which of course has been linked to improper care of feathers over time. The more dynamic, variable and creative the captive parrot owner can be in terms of food allocation, presentation, and access, the longer the time period the parrot will need to spend engaging in feeding activity. This strategy has been used for decades in the zoo industry to reduce stereotypical behaviours, in a range of animal species, and the relevance for our companion parrots should be obvious.

Diet management involves more that just withholding favoured foods for training treats. Creative diet management for parrots is concerned with a range of goals. Initially, it is beneficial to establish a formulated diet as the daily `base' for food consumption, and then supplementing this with a range of other food types, including fruit, vegetables, seeds, natural foliages and even livefoods such as mealworms. The composition ratio of each of these supplements should be considered at a species-specific level. Not only will a diet based on a formulated food offer a sound level of nutrition, whilst minimising fat intake, it will also enhance the motivation level of the parrot to engage in foraging activity for items of higher palatability value, such as nuts and seeds. You have described a good diet for your African Greys. However, we often stop at ensuring all nutritional bases are covered, without taking the next step and considering the `when' and `how' of delivering the food so that time spent feeding, and essentially engaging in behaviour that is incompatible with sitting around picking at feathers, is maximised. This may be particularly important at times when we are not in the environment to provide the alternative stimuli needed to redirect feather picking behaviour.

Diet management therefore extends to catering for food allocation at various times of the day. Most parrot species do not feed for only an hour in the morning and an hour in the afternoon as some articles claim. Feeding durations of up to 8 hours have been observed in the wild, and at all times of the day, so therefore we sometimes need to consider catering for the natural tendency to forage outside of an established captive feeding regime. From your description, you may have the luxury of being able to manage the delivery of food for Peaches and Vincent around those times when you leave the house. By doing this you are rearranging the environment by introducing a stimulus that is likely to offer a highly motivating alternative to feather picking when you are absent.

In my experience, creative food delivery still has limitations in the remediation of feather picking. Best results for providing alternatives to chewing on feathers are usually derived from the provision of natural foraging `browse'. This is where a species-specific understanding of parrots is required and an appreciation of the huge variability in foraging behaviours and foraging preferences of wild parrots. What works as a foraging motivator for one species, or even one individual, may not work for another. In any case, if the daily food intake is staggered for a companion parrot then it is important that natural foraging opportunities are provided outside of those times to reduce boredom, possible stress and anxiety due to separation, and relieve pressures associated with behavioural feather picking.

The biggest problem for a large proportion of parrot owners is the unavailability of suitable, natural foraging items. In these cases, we need to reflect on the suitability of the artificial enrichment and toys being provided. A lot of the traditional parrot toys lack functional relevance for the birds they are provided for. With the increase in the availability of toys and artificial enrichment products specifically designed as `foraging' items, where our parrots engage with them with the goal of procuring hidden food treats, we can now provide these items as an alternative to natural browse. If your parrot lacks interest in the toys and artificial enrichment on offer, it's time for a change. The WPT Store is now stocking some cool toys for pet parrots that are worth a look!

Enclosure Variability & Suitability:
A dynamic and creative approach to food management needs to extend to providing a captive enclosure that facilitates `normal' behaviours. In my experience, most pet parrots are maintained in enclosures far too small, and for too long, to maintain optimum behavioural health. Larger enclosures obviously facilitate the provision of a wider range of materials, substrates, perching and food positioning options. If small enclosures are used then it may be beneficial to maintain a regular schedule of variability and change in terms of enclosure furnishings. Care should be taken with sensitive individuals with a history of aversive reactions to changes. Such individuals should be catered for via gradual desensitisation to enrichment items, and even new perches in extreme cases. Parrot owners also often `over provide' enrichment items such as toys and inadvertently create a cluttered environment that reduces healthy movement within the enclosure. Providing excessive amounts of artificial enrichment may also result in a lack of interest in such items, so a rotation schedule, with a minimum number of artificial enrichment items being provided for no more than a week at a time, may be far more beneficial than a `saturation' approach. This is often particularly relevant for young parrots. When we consider enclosure suitability we also may need to consider the position of the enclosure. Incompatibility stress with other animals in the environment might be a potential contributor to feather problems.  This therefore prompts reflection and careful observation of any parrot that is damaging its own feathers and is housed with or around other birds and animals and appropriate modifications made if necessary. The ideal, in my opinion, is to provide companion parrots with access to an outdoor aviary. This facilitates enhanced provision of natural browse and exposes the bird to a huge variety of natural stimuli, particularly visual and aural stimuli, that is rarely achieved indoors.

Bathing Schedules:
Skin and feather health may be dependent to varying degrees on humidity and access to bathing opportunities. Owners of companion parrots kept indoors, particularly in air-conditioned environments, may need to reassess the bathing schedule of their bird if behavioural feather picking is diagnosed. I have consulted with a number of feather picking birds that were rarely, if ever, bathed or provided with opportunities to self-bathe. This is very important for keepers of neo-tropical species whose natural range is within areas of high annual rainfall. Proper access to bathing promotes natural preening behaviours and can often be a significant component of successful recovery. In the case of Peaches and Vincent, the bathing schedule you have described should be more than adequate.

Balanced Social Interaction:
It's great to see that we have an environment here with two African Greys and not just one. Companion parrots are often deprived of natural physical interactions with conspecifics (same species). When we consider that mutual preening is an integral part of natural pair bond behaviour for a range of species commonly kept as pets, the lack of access to such interactions can be considered contributory to some cases of excessive preening leading to feather damage. Aside from the physical aspect, balancing social interaction for pet parrots encompasses the behavioural and cognitive side as well. Most parrot species (the kakapo is one exception) are highly social and often form strong pair bonds. It is extremely unnatural for most parrots to be alone for most of the day, as many pet parrots often are. I firmly believe that many parrots fail to cope with the inconsistencies of the human-parrot bond and as a result we often see behavioural abnormalities arise. Obviously there are exceptions, but there is little arguing that captive parrots that are kept alone and without the stimulation of other parrots in their environment or without regular human interactions will benefit from being provided with another parrot, preferably of the same species, in their environment. A whole suite of behaviours can be observed between parrots, even in different enclosures, housed in the same environment that would otherwise be absent in a solitary individual. Such stimulation can equate to increased activity and engagement in enrichment items and less time spent damaging feathers. The key to this strategy is achieving compatibility and minimising incompatibility stress.

Jo, you have covered this consideration as well as any companion parrot owner can by having two African Greys in the environment. We're still short of the ideal for avoiding feather picking by not having a truly compatible partnership, but Vincent is still very young. Over time, hopefully the level and quality of interactions between Peaches and Vincent will improve and provide both of them with a stronger diversion from picking in your absence.

Finally, considering Jo's question about whether Vincent flying to her and not staying with other family members or visitors for long durations is `age' related behaviour. Whilst a young parrot at 11 months of age will certainly still tend to gravitate towards whomever it has a well-established parental association with, it's perhaps best to consider this behaviour purely from a reinforcement schedule perspective. It's likely that the behaviour of flying back to you is reinforced with more consistency, and better contiguity, than the reinforcement on offer from others wanting to handle him. It's also likely that the interactions Vincent has with you are more positively reinforcing in general and that he has established a stronger association with you as someone who is predictable, and offers rewards on a more consistent schedule than others. Try making your goals more achievable for Vincent by setting up a reinforcement schedule from other people that you would like to handle him that is more consistent and less variable than is perhaps presently being delivered.

Jo, managing feather picking is an on-going process of reflection, careful evaluation of the functional interaction and relationship between the behaviour and the environment, and a dedicated approach to creating alternatives to feather chewing. If the problem persists then I would recommend seeking out some professional advice and support on-site from a consultant or veterinarian who may be able to work with you on some strategies specific to your environment.

Kind Regards from `Down Under',
Jim McKendry
Parrot Behaviour & Enrichment Consultations

Jim McKendry
About Jim McKendry

Jim McKendry BTeach BAppSc (Wildlife Biology)

Jim provides consultancy services on parrot behaviour through Parrot Behaviour & Enrichment Consultations ( He holds Bachelor’s degrees in Teaching (ACU) and Applied Science (UQ) and is a Senior Biology and Environmental Sciences teacher. Jim’s approach to education on parrot behaviour aims to connect the behaviours we see amongst psittacines in the wild with those we observe in captivity to best inform environmental arrangement for behavioural success. An Applied Behaviour Analysis approach to assessing behaviour is the foundation of his consultancy assessments on individual parrot clients.

He has worked professionally as an Avian Trainer and Presentations Keeper at Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary and since 2005 has delivered a series of annual workshops at the Sanctuary on progressive approaches to companion parrot behaviour and enrichment. From 2009 to 2011 Jim worked as the resident consultant on parrot behaviour and enrichment at Brisbane Bird and Exotics Veterinary Services. He is a professional member of the International Association of Avian Trainers and Educators ( and a member of the World Parrot Trust’s Expert Panel of educators.  Jim writes a regular column, Pet Parrot Pointers, for Australian Birdkeeper Magazine and is an editorial consultant on parrot behaviour for this publication.

Visit Jim’s site on the web at