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Scarlet macaws with feather damaging behaviors directed towards their moulted feathers

Expert Question

Dear Dr. Speer and Staff; Thank you for taking time to consider my question. We have two adopted wild-trapped scarlet macaws, both of whom are nearing fifty years of age at least. The second one we took in, a hen, became close companion to the male within a week of her arrival here; and the two spent much of this autumn “playing house” in Romeo’s nighttime sleeping barrel (he is arthritic). To our surprise, Aura actually laid three strong eggs—fortunately infertile, but thoroughly protected and set upon for a month or so by the loving pair. My question is this: a few weeks after the incubation and nesting urge was abandoned by the macaws, one or both of them began eating the shafts of all their molted feathers, especially the large ones. Is there something in feather quills which can provide nutrition for psittacines? I have seen this in other parrots, but only those who feather pluck and I assumed it was for chewing diversion. The macaws are on a super diet of fresh raw foods, cooked and sprouted grains, nuts, organic seed and extruded pellets, plus they got calcium mineral supplement four times a week when it was discovered they were in a nesting mode. Thanks again for your time and consideration.

Expert Answer

Dear Eb - In short, it should be doubted if there is a nutritional need that is driving this feather damaging behavior of this pair. Other “purposes” for this behavior should be considered, including but not limited to a displacement activity to perceived stressors. Sometimes, such a behavior may be related to the perceived “stress” of an unhatched clutch and the removal of those eggs, and limited other activities with which to let it off with. One consideration, presuming this to be at least in part involved here, would be to enrich the nesting and flight site with materials that can be chewed, frayed and functionally mulched that may have equal if not greater value to the birds over chewing their own moulted feathers.

Brian Speer, DVM
About Brian Speer, DVM

Avian veterinarian Dr. Brian Speer was raised in a small town on California’s coast. He received his BS in Biology from California Polytechnic State University in 1978, and his DVM degree from the University of California at Davis in 1983.

An active member of the Association of Avian Veterinarians (AAV), Dr. Speer is a much sought after guest speaker and has presented at numerous conferences in the avicultural and zoological communities both within the United States and abroad. He is well published in the AAV annual proceedings, has served as guest editor for the journal Seminars in Avian and Exotic Pet Medicine, the Veterinary Clinics of North America, and authored chapters in several recent veterinary medical texts on pet bird, avicultural and ratite medical topics. In 1995 he co-authored the extensive avicultural reference, The Large Macaws, and helped to co-author Birds for Dummies in 1999.

Since 1989, Dr, Speer has run a “bird’s only” practice in the San Francisco Bay area and is the President and Director of The Medical Center for Birds. He is a consultant for The Veterinary Information Network (Avian Medical Boards) and the Maui Animal Rescue and Sanctuary. In 2003 he was the recipient of the Lafeber award for excellence in private practice of avian medicine and surgery and in 2006, was named Speaker of the Year for the North American Veterinary Conference.