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Merck Manual

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Feather Loss

Feather Loss

Molting

Birds lose and replace most of their feathers at least once yearly; some species will normally have a partial molt 6 months later. In North America, most species start their major molt around mid-February and end it about a month later. South American parrots usually skip the fall molt but Old World parrots (especially cockatiels) will sometimes drop feathers in early September.

It is important to know if your bird is undergoing normal feather replacement or has feather loss for other reasons.

Types of Feather Damage

Feathers can be chewed off at the level of skin, chewed off with the downy aftershaft left behind, or chewed at just the tips; leaving a moth-eaten appearance. Some birds will extract the feathers completely, oftentimes vocalizing painfully during this process. Other birds simply chew, abnormally preen, or fray their plumage.

Feather damage can also occur from wear and tear, infectious causes, parasites, barbering by cagemates, and cage trauma. Parasites cause feather breakage or rubbing of the plumage and skin, which also breaks the plumage.

Causes of Feather Damage

  • Parasites—Contrary to public opinion, parasites are rarely a cause for feather loss. Red mites, feather mites, and lice are occasionally found.

  • Bacteria and Fungi—Both types of organisms can cause follicle infection and usually respond well to medication.

  • Nutrition—Malnutrition can cause feather abnormalities directly and by affecting a bird’s organ function and immune system.

  • Barbering—Cage mates frequently pick feathers of birds housed with them.

  • Behavior—Besides the lack of natural stressors that act to prevent any wild bird from plucking, other factors that can contribute to behavioral feather damage in captive parrots include sexual frustration, boredom, territoriality, compulsive behavior, predator stress from household pets, and lack of parental training for preening.

  • Medical—Organ disease such as liver damage, kidney failure, tumors, respiratory infection and other infections can contribute to stress-induced feather loss or self-trauma.

  • Other Causes—Irritants such as insect bites, tonics applied to the plumage, ointments, hand creams or oils from the owner that are inadvertently transferred to the bird’s feathers, or improperly trimmed flight feathers can lead to chewing.