Risk Factors for Feather Damaging Behavior

I had the honor last summer of listening to Dr. Susan G. Friedman give a lecture on control. What she had to say blew my mind and I continue to be as excited today by the ideas presented then – not only because what I heard was new, but because they reverberated within me as truth.  

Susan with my dog Rika

To paraphrase what Dr. Friedman had to say:

Behavior is the way that we control outcomes. When we behave, we move the environment in such a way that we are able to access reinforcers (things we value) and escape aversives (things we want to avoid).

When we, or any animal, performs a behavior, it is like tossing a stone into a river. A ripple is created. There is no way not to create a ripple when tossing the stone, just like there is no way not to influence the environment when we behave.

Learning is what we were born to do and the ability to learn is a product of natural selection. It is in our nature to control our outcomes. Therefore, the need for control is a part of our biology. There is a biological need for control. Therefore, control is a primary reinforcer, as vital to our parrot’s quality of life as food or water.

Control is a Biological Need

We know that all animals exercise control by making choices. I have argued for years that by increasing the number of choices that our parrots are able to make, we are increasing their quality of life.

Lauren A. Leotti and her co-authors expand upon this idea by saying, “Belief in one’s ability to exert control over the environment and to produce desired results is essential for an individual’s well-being. It has been repeatedly argued that the perception of control is not only desirable, but it is likely a psychological and biological necessity.” They go on to state that “the restriction of choice is aversive.” (Leotti, 2010)

Lack of Control is Aversive

Not only is it aversive, it can result in the condition of learned helplessness. This is a state of behavior in which the animal stops even trying to make choices. How many times have we described a parrot as a “perch potato?” The perch potato is manifesting a version of learned helplessness.

Expanding upon this idea, they write: “In the absence of other stressors, however, the removal of choice, in and of itself, can be very stressful. It has been found that the restriction of behaviors, particularly behaviors that are highly valued by a species, contributes to behavioral and physiological manifestations of stress. It seems that the aversive effects of captivity may depend upon the extent to which behavioral choices have been reduced relative to what could be performed in the natural environment.” (Leotti, 2010)

New Perceptions

In the past few years, I have come to see our parrot-keeping practices in a new light. We have taken flighted spirits, clipped their wings, and put them in cages. Many parrots spend all of their time in their cage, or have at most, one or two hours out each day. We have taken away their liberty, which is essential for exercising choice.

If we kept dogs in a similar manner, rendering them unable to move in a way natural to them and keeping them in kennels for 22 hours every day, it would be considered abuse. However, these practices are still commonplace in the parrot world, rarely being brought into question. We appear unable to judge the inappropriateness of these practices since they have been accepted as normal for so long.

The Problem with Conventional Wisdom

Peter Hitchens Quote

The explanation for this lies in the phenomenon called conventional wisdom. Conventional wisdom is a collection of beliefs that are convenient and comfortable to people, such that they are able to resist facts that might diminish those very beliefs. (Wikipedia, 2019) I once heard someone say: A belief is an emotional commitment to an idea. As soon as you have a belief, you are automatically in denial in regards to any information that comes to you to the contrary.

Our conventional wisdom, when it comes to our companion parrots, is causing them harm. Dr. Friedman stated in her presentation, “A lack of control is a major risk factor for feather damaging behavior.” I could not agree more.

Feather Damaging Behavior

I have specialized in helping clients whose birds damage their feathers since 1996 and have given considerable thought to the causes. The list of non-medical causes I compiled years ago in an article for the World Parrot Trust included (1) inappropriate diet, (2) chronic stress or anxiety, (3) increased production of reproductive hormones, (4) lack of independent play skills that leads to boredom or over-dependence on the owner, (5) inadequate bathing opportunities, (6) lack of adequate rest, (7) insufficient exercise, (8) insufficient opportunity for learning and making choices, (9) lack of foraging and other “discovery” opportunities, (10) lack of access to fresh air and sunshine, and (11) foreign substances on feathers or exposure to toxic materials, such as cigarette smoke.

Today, my list reads as follows:

  • Chronic stress resulting from lack of choice making opportunities, especially as this relates to natural behaviors (foraging, flying, bathing, problem solving, enjoying fresh air and sunshine), and an overall lack of liberty and control
  • Inappropriate diet
  • Increased production of reproductive hormones
  • Inferior juvenile rearing conditions

I had two experiences this past year that appear to support my new view. Two female greys that I raised close to 20 years ago needed a change of homes. One came back to me to stay and the other went to a client of mine. Both greys had previously enjoyed really good homes – they had large cages, were flighted, ate nutritious diets, got plenty of enrichment, and had access to outdoor aviaries. However, they both spent too many hours in their cages.

One of the New Environments

Both had extensive feather damage over their torsos at the time of rehoming. Now, both are fully feathered. In their current homes, they still have cages, but they enjoy a great deal more liberty, which results in the ability to make choices at an exponential rate. Both birds also had the advantage of excellent early rearing experiences and wonderful first homes. It appears that greater control over choices was the one factor that was significantly different in these new homes.

Unethical Practices Harm Us as Well

Given the above, it should be clear that the typical manner in which we keep parrots is destructive to their physical and psychological health. However, it harms us as well.

How are we harmed by our own behavior? We fail to appreciate that depriving a captive parrot of the ability to move around at choice, to fly, has an ethical component. Therefore, we are able to behave unethically while still maintaining a positive self-image.

However, there are many who are uncomfortable on some level. A good many clients have confided to me that they feel terrible that their parrots live in cages and display behaviors consistent with learned helplessness. This requires action.

Feasible Changes

Conventional wisdom is resistant to change.   So, how can we begin? Where do we start?

Grand sweeping gestures are prone to failure. It is not feasible to abandon the use of cages or release them all out “into the wild.”

This is a complex subject and behavior is a study of one. This true both for us and our birds. What is possible in one home may not be possible in another.

However, as Kurtyca suggests, “…although we cannot offer them complete control over all aspects of their environment, perhaps by offering choices within the confines of captivity, we can give some small amount of control, and thus increase their wellbeing.” (Kurtycz, 2015)

“One of the putative sources of stress in captivity is interference with or prevention of animals’ engagement in species-typical behaviors for which they appear to have a ‘‘behavioral need.’’(Morgan, 2006)

Species-typical Behaviors

Might this be the best place to begin our efforts? Species-typical behaviors for parrots include flying, foraging and problem solving, social interactivity, perching up high, chewing wood and other materials, bathing, interacting with the natural environment, and mating and rearing young.

It is only the last that we cannot afford to encourage in the companion parrot home. When we have done so in the past, most often the results have been disastrous.

Flight

As I have argued many times, wings should never be clipped unless absolutely necessary and certainly not for human convenience. Instead, our own homes and behavior must be modified in order to support their flighted status.

Foraging and Other Enrichment

If a parrot did not learn to forage when young, he will not understand the concept of hidden food. This then will need to be patiently taught. In regards to other enrichment, a wide variety of chewable items can be provided – cloth, palm frond toys, wood that is easy to chew, cardboard and paper, bells. A parrot regains a bit of control over his environment when he can choose the items with which he interacts.

The Natural Environment

I no longer regard as optional the provision of a safe space outdoors where a parrot can enjoy the natural environment. Notice that I used italics for the word “safe.”

I did so because there are problems with putting birds outdoors in carriers or cages. The small dimensions of both may cause stress, since the parrot perceives a lack of ability for escape should a predator be seen. The width of cage bars could allow a predator access to the parrot. Both must be used only with close supervision.

An aviary is, of course, the ideal. However, if this is not possible, other options must be considered. The stimulation of natural sunshine and breezes not only encourages good psychological health, the exposure to sunlight encourages good physical health.

Social Connectivity

We can offer a captive parrot greater control over his social interactions when we watch his body language carefully and then create greater distance if the signs indicate that this is his desire. We can decrease his stress by leaving plenty of room between the cages if multiple parrots of different species reside in one home.

We might also call into question the practice of keeping a single parrot. They are flocking creatures and, while they might be flexible enough to regard us and our other pets as a member of their flock, a single parrot often benefits from another bird in the home. No one should, however, get another parrot unless they want one.

Access to Height

We can increase his perception of control by allowing him to perch up high, where he feels safer. This is accomplished by installing hanging perches in the ceiling.

Placing area rugs below will contain the mess, and reinforcing cued behaviors will ensure that you can retrieve him.

Training Offers Control

One of the best ways we can give back control to a parrot is to live as a trainer, by providing frequent opportunities for earning reinforcers. Positive reinforcement training is the gold standard for behavior change. It provides enrichment. It makes our lives easier. It helps us learn to read body language.

There are many reasons to train a parrot. However, the greatest of these is that it affords the parrot a sense of control. He has control over his ability to access the things he desires. Here are a few specific things you might begin to do:

  • Begin to teach specific behaviors, like targeting.
  • Offer your parrot a reinforcer (small piece of preferred food) for every cued behavior.
  • Embrace the SMART x 50 approach to encouraging desirable behavior.

Kathy Sdao, ACAAB, owns Bright Spot Dog Training and developed the SMART x 50 program. Although published for dogs, this can easily by applied to parrot behavior. SMART is the acronym for See, Mark And Reward Training. The numeral 50 refers to the goal of dispensing 50 reinforcers a day. (I think this amount may be excessive for a parrot, unless you can factor in some healthy choices.)

SMART x 50

This program encourages owners to get into the habit of awareness regarding the desirable behaviors that their parrots perform on a daily basis. It relies on the assumption that every bird already performs many desirable behaviors during the course of any day and that we can strengthen these and increase quality of life for our birds in the process.

These are the steps:

  • Count out 50 very small (no bigger than ½ the size of a pine nut), desirable treats.
  • Put these in a pocket or small container for easy access.
  • When you see or hear your parrot perform a cute or desirable behavior, mark this with one distinct word, such as “Yes!” (Examples: desirable noises, singing, interacting with enrichment, responding to cues such as “step up.”)
  • Deliver the treat.
  • Use up to 50 treats a day, but don’t feel badly if 10 are all you are able to dispense.

In using this, I have seen a distinct change in all of my animals. They become more interactive and enthusiastic in their demeanor. And, don’t be surprised if yours begin to toss out some new behaviors, just to see if those might also earn something.

The Next Decade

Jacques Deval once wrote “God loved the birds and invented trees. Man loved the birds and invented cages.”

Although true, I think this is a horrible little quote. Perhaps I find it so because of the truth he spoke. Let’s put the lie to those words in the next decade and strive for practices that allow for more liberty and control for our parrots. Each of us can just take one reasonable, do-able step at a time.

References:

Kurtycz, Laura M. (2015) “Choice and Control for Animals in Captivity.” The British Psychological Society, The Psychologist.28: 892-895https://thepsychologist.bps.org.uk/volume-28/november-2015/choice-and-control-animals-captivity

Leotti, Lauren A., Iyengar, Sheena S., Ochsner, Kevin N. (2010) “Born to Choose: The Origine and Value of the Need for Control.” Trends in Cognitive Sciences. 14.10: 457-463. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tics.2010.08.001

Morgan, Kathleen N. and Tromborg, Chris. (2006). “Sources of Stress in Cativity.” Science Direct.102: 262-302. https://www.reed.edu/biology/professors/srenn/pages/teaching/2008_syllabus/2008_readings/1_MorganTromborg2008.pdf

Wikipedia contributors. (2019). Conventional wisdom. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 21:18, January 13, 2020, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Conventional_wisdom&oldid=931490544

Thank you for reading my blog. I am Pamela Clark, an IAABC Certified Parrot Behavior Consultant. My passion is helping people with their parrots. To access free resources, schedule a consultation, subscribe to my newsletter (a different publication from this blog, or purchase my webinars, please visit http://www.pamelaclarkonline.com.

Success Story: A Case of Feather Damaging Behavior

Abbie contacted me in early April 2018.  Scout, her Black-headed Caique, had suddenly begun destroying his feathers the previous December.  He was 13 years old at the time and had livOscarandChristieed with Abbie for 5 years.  Before that, he had one previous owner who returned him to the breeder for a biting problem.  Abbie had adopted him from that breeder after his return.

Abbie did exactly the right things once she noticed the problem. She scheduled a vet visit to rule out any medical causes. She then sought professional behavior support.  Abbie describes her feelings at the time: 

When we first noticed Scout had picked his feathers, and could see the holes in his plumage, I was heartbroken. I knew that feather picking was an unhealthy behavior. As I looked into it, I was overwhelmed and scared for Scout because there are so many differing opinions and so many suggestions. It is confusing, and the internet just makes it more impersonal. I didn’t want to spend months or years trying one thing and it not working, being frustrated, and starting over. I knew Scout couldn’t go through that either, not if I was serious about ending the feather picking. 

OscarBefore
Before Photo (early April 2018)

Scout is part of our family and we love him dearly. My heart was broken, but I was determined to help this get fixed. I thought I was already a good bird owner. I didn’t realize how much I didn’t know. We actually prayed, as a family, to be able to take care of Scout and for him to get better. 

 It was Abbie’s determination to get help quickly that ensured her success. As a specialist in feather damaging behavior (FDB), I have learned to provide prognoses to clients struggling with this problem. If you get effective help within six months of start of the problem, there is a 95% chance that your parrot will again be completely feathered. If you wait until the problem has gone on for a year, that chance of success drops to about 85%. If the problem goes on for two years or more, chances of resolution drop to about 70% or lower.

It’s always worth getting help from a professional because quality of life can be improved. However, if you are serious about having a parrot with perfect plumage again, getting help quickly is the key to success.

A Complex Problem

Feather damaging behavior (FDB) is a complex problem and finding solutions depends upon a detailed review of all aspects of the parrot’s life. There is rarely just one cause for this problem, unless it’s a medical one. Typically, there are several factors that combine to push the parrot over the edge into this extreme behavior. Thus, each case is a bit like a crime scene investigation.  You must take into account all the clues available by taking a thorough history.

Describing all of the risk factors for FDB is not within the scope of today’s blog. For a more thorough discussion of possible causes, please read my two-part article Feather Destructive Behavior in Companion Parrots.

I will tell you, though, that a lot has to be wrong in a parrot’s life for this problem to begin at all.  I was at a client’s home recently to talk about their cockatoo who had begun to bite. As we talked, she admitted that she is terrified that her parrot will start feather picking in the future.  I could immediately reassure her.  The bird has a large cage with plenty to do. He’s got great play skills. He enjoys full flight and regular training sessions. He eats a perfect diet. He gets time outdoors and bathing opportunities regularly. There is no way this bird is a candidate to develop this problem.  It just doesn’t happen “out of the blue.” There are always very clear, identifiable reasons that all relate to quality of life.

Identification of Causes

I sent Abbie an eight-page questionnaire to complete. Prior to our telephone consultation, I needed her to provide a detailed history. As I reviewed all of the information that she provided, I formulated some thoughts about the possible causes.

  1.  First, Scout had formed a pair bond with Abbie and was regularly on her shoulder for extended periods. He also took advantage of his out-of-cage time to go cavity seeking on the floor. I believe that both factors lead to an increased production of reproductive hormones, which is a risk factor for FDB.
  2. Scout also lacked “play skills.”  He didn’t interact much with enrichment, preferring instead to cruise the floor. He needed help learning to forage and we needed to find out what types of toys he might find interesting.
  3. I also thought his diet could use improvement. Abbie had never been able to get Scout to eat pellets. His main dietary staple was Lafeber Nutriberries with various fruits and vegetables added, depending upon what was in the house. I thought the diet might be a bit low in protein. The Nutriberries, while a valuable addition, only contain 12.5% protein. Since Scout also ate other foods, this brought the overall protein content of what he consumed even lower. Further, while the Nutriberries do contain some pellets, they have too much seed to be the primary dietary staple for a caique.
  4. Last, while some caiques can be fairly bullet-proof when it comes to dealing with stressful situations, I didn’t think this was the case with Scout. He had experienced a number of stressful situations within the relatively short period of five months. These included a week-long evacuation for a hurricane, a change of appearance for Abbie, an owner absence during which Scout stayed in the home alone with a caregiver coming in twice a day, and the advent of the Christmas holiday with all the changes to routine and home appearance that this brought.

Stress and Feather Picking

I want to take a minute to emphasize something. I read too often that a parrot started to destroy feathers because the dog died…or the owner went on vacation…or the daughter went off to college.  Events like those can trigger the problem, but are no more than that.

Despite the prevailing “wisdom” on the Internet, I don’t find that stress plays a role very often in the development of feather damaging behavior. Parrots are flexible and adaptable and forgiving.  Most are well able to return themselves to a state of equilibrium after a stressful event. However, this does take a bit of time. If enough stressful events happen within a short enough period of time, the result can impact the parrot adversely.

Testing Hypotheses While Keeping within Limits

All of these possible causes that I identified were only hypotheses. With a case of FDB, you can’t know for sure what the causes are.  However, with enough experience, you can make some educated guesses. The process from that point onward requires making changes and measuring your progress.

In Abbie’s case, we had limits within which we needed to work.  As with so many of us, these had to do with money and time.  Not only does Abbie work full-time outside the home, her husband is often away and she has a toddler to care for. It wasn’t easy for her to accomplish the changes I recommended. As she put it:

Over the past few months, working with Pamela, there were times when I got confused, frustrated, overwhelmed and busy with life. But, when I talked to her, she helped me break things down into realistic things that I could do, in my personal situation in life, to make steady progress.

Evolving the Pair Bond

Since Scout had begun feather picking in December, just as the days were beginning to grow longer, I suspected that increased production of reproductive hormones was a significant factor.

I wanted to see what we could do to reduce hormone production and encourage Scout to pursue more “functional” behaviors. This required evolving the pair bond that he had with Abbie. I asked her to gradually reduce the amount of time that he spent on her shoulder. The end goal was to be no “shoulder time” for more than five minutes once or twice a day. She was also to confine any petting to his head only. If he started to masturbate when with her, she would cheerfully but immediately put him down and walk away. He would learn that this sort of attention was not welcome.

The Solution to Cavity Seeking is Stationing

It was important that Scout not be allowed to roam the floor.  This practice not only results in a lot of destruction to baseboards and furniture, it allows the parrot to seek out “nesty” spots. His time would be a lot better spent in foraging or flying. To solve this problem, she began stationing training with him.  He would get all the good stuff (toys, treats, and social attention) when he was on his perch. He would get nothing except a return to his perch when he tried to access the floor.

However, before she could begin this training, she had to provide some stations (perches). OscaronBasketAgain we worked within our limits and Abbie found that baskets make great perches for birds Scout’s size.  They can be moved from room to room and the base filled with items that might trigger interest.  Scout soon learned to station well. He had lots to do in his basket each time he was on it and Abbie rewarded him liberally for staying there.

We found a coiled rope perch that Abbie could hang from the ceiling. This too would help to keep Scout off the floor. His wings are not clipped, but he doesn’t choose to fly much.  Therefore, this would be a great way to keep him up high where he couldn’t get into trouble. By mid-May, Scout was no longer getting down to roam the floor.

Foraging and Enrichment

Together, we increased the amount of enrichment that Scout received daily.  This is important for any feather picking bird. If a bird is chewing on enrichment, he can’t be chewing on his feathers.  Granted, some birds must be taught to forage and enjoy toys to chew.

In my experience, you just have to find a starting point.  I gave Abbie some suggestions for specific toys to purchase and others to make at home. To increase his foraging efforts right away, we put his Nutriberries in a foraging wheel along with plenty of beads of a size that he couldn’t swallow. He had to fish out the beads to get at the Nutriberries. That was a beginning. If Abbie had the time, she would provide a new foraging project every day before she left for work.

While it may seem fairly inconsequential, I also asked Abbie to change the perching in Scout’s cage.  If you want a parrot to do something, you must set him up for success. The way that the perches were placed, it wasn’t as easy as it could be for Scout to access his toys.  By placing these in more convenient (for him) locations, we encouraged him to interact with enrichment more often for longer periods.

Making Changes to Diet

We changed Scout’s diet and began to provide a lot of it in foraging toys. If a parrot isn’t on an optimal diet, you won’t get optimal behavior. Abbie introduced pellets into the daily ration. She also began to include more variety, in terms of fresh foods.

I suggested that she feed supplemental foods twice a day – first thing in the morning and again when she got home from work. She was to focus on vegetables and limited low-sugar fruits. She would put the veggies into an acrylic foraging ball when she was short of time. When her schedule was freer, she would make a chop mix and feed that.

I asked Abbie to stop giving Scout cashews as treats and instead reserve these solely for training and foraging. We would gradually reduce the number of Nutriberries he ate each day as he began to sample the new foods. By mid-May Scout was eating the new foods, although his consumption of the pellets was a bit slower.

Teaching New Behaviors and Strengthening Existing Ones

I recommended that Abbie engage in some active training with Scout to teach new behaviors. When a parrot has formed a pair bond with you, beginning to train new behaviors can help. Over time, the parrot learns to look to you for guidance rather than physical affection. It gives everyone a more functional way to relate and serves to round out the social experience.

Thus, Abbie began target training with Scout.  Scout, however, met this effort by exhibiting such excitable behavior that training wasn’t possible. Once we saw this, we backed off a little and just reinforced him for calm behavior in the presence of the target. ChristieTargeting Once he could remain calm when a training session started, Abbie could proceed with the process of teaching him to touch the chopstick with his beak.

In addition, I asked Abbie to work on the step-up cue with Scout. He did step up, but wasn’t consistent. I saw this as another way to evolve her relationship with him. She was to reinforce him every time he stepped up quickly when cued to do so. Once they had achieved better compliance, she would begin to work on recall with him, which would increase the amount of exercise he gets.

Stress

We did not make any specific changes to reduce stress.  There were no vacations or other potentially stressful events planned and I knew that just increasing enrichment and training would have a beneficial impact on any stress that might still linger.

Results

By mid-June, it was obvious that Scout had stopped his feather destruction.

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After Photo (mid-June 2018)

Remember the “before” photo above?  The photo to the right shows how Scout looked in mid-June, only two and a half months after we began our consultation.

Granted, this was a very fast resolution of the problem.  However, it proves what can be accomplished when an owner seeks help as soon as the problem starts and then implements religiously the right recommendations.

It also reflects the fact that Scout was just starting a molt.  In cases where the parrot bites feathers off, you won’t necessarily see progress until those feather ends molt out and new feathers take their places. It can mean months of waiting to find out if your efforts have been effective.  In the meantime it helps to keep a photo diary by taking pictures at the start of each month.  That way, you can assure yourself that at least the feather loss isn’t still continuing.

Abbie’s reflection on the experience: Some of my biggest takeaways are that it is ME that needs the behavior training; after I am trained, I can train Scout. The emphasis must be on being a Zookeeper first. And, the emphasis on being a parental [guiding] role in your parrot’s life, not a mate.

Lessons to Be Learned

  • If you have a parrot who starts to damage his feathers, get help quickly. If you have a parrot who has been chewing off feathers for some time, get help anyway. You will at least improve his quality of life and your knowledge.
  • Limits won’t limit your success. We all have limited time, energy, and money. That doesn’t have to stop you from taking action today.
  • Feather damaging behavior can absolutely be resolved with the right interventions.
  • Keeping parrots in a way that prevents problems is not necessarily easy. Since reliable information is hard to find, even the sharpest owners can still have problems.  Success isn’t measured by a lack of problems. It gets measured in how quickly you address them. Way to go, Abbie!

Have you found success in stopping feather destruction?  If so, please share what helped the most by leaving a comment.

Thank you for reading my blog. I am Pamela Clark, an IAABC Certified Parrot Behavior Consultant and licensed veterinary technician. My passion is helping people with parrots. For more information and to access many free resources, please visit me at http://www.pamelaclarkonline.com. Until next time!