The following information has been provided by Dr. Jill M. Patt, DVM practicing in Mesa, Arizona. She has been keeping and raising exotic birds for years, providing her a unique knowledge and understanding that goes beyond that of a regular vet who does not have the benefit of daily interaction with birds / parrots.
Valuable Web Resources:
- Research by Purdue University: Cage Location a Primary Factor in Emotional Feather Plucking
1) Full Spectrum Lighting:
Often our birds are completely housed indoors and never see the sunlight. Even those by a window will not benefit from the sun because the window acts as a filter preventing the bird from absorbing the benefits of the sun such as Vitamin D3. Birds use the sunlight by preening their feathers with feather dust in the case of cockatiel or cockatoos or the oily secretions of the uropygial (preen) gland. The substance on the feathers will undergo a chemical reaction from the sunlight producing Vitamin D3 which the bird ingests with further preening of the feathers. The exclusively indoor bird does not have the benefit of the reaction. One alternative is to provide full spectrum lighting. The packaging for the light should state that is provides both UVA and UVB rays and must always be a fluorescent light and not an incandescent bulb. The introduction of the light should be slow to prevent stress to the bird. I’d suggest starting out with the light in the same room but not lighted or next to the cage and gradually moving it closer to the cage over several days. When the bird appears comfortable with the light is can be placed within 18inches of the cage and turned on. Ensure that the bird is unable to access the light or cord because most will chew given the opportunity. Also, the light should not be left on around the clock. Night time and darkness is also important to the bird’s health and I recommend 12 hours of uninterrupted darkness each night. Some of the better light will simulate dawn and dusk with a slow brightening and dimming and can be placed on a timer for consistency.
Another option is to provide an outdoor cage for temporary sunning. The cause must have shaded areas available at all times and should be protected from wild birds or their droppings.
2) Humidity Level:
Many of our captive birds are adapted to the jungle and very high humidity. I suggest you research the natural lifestyle of your particular species and attempt to provide something close to their natural temperature and humidity. Often we live in areas of the country with very low humidity (i.e. Arizona) or we live in areas that require artificial heating which will lower the humidity. Either of these situations can be uncomfortable for our birds. Feather pickers will often benefit from increased humidity because it is soothing to the skin and allows them to keep their feathers clean.
A great way of increasing the humidity is to provide a daily bath for your bird. Bathing can be done in a variety of way depending on the individual. Many of the larger parrots enjoy showering with us and there are actual shower perches that can be purchased.
Smaller birds may enjoy misting or a shallow bowl of fresh clean water placed in the cage daily.
Noise will often stimulate bathing activity and my birds will almost always bathe when I run the vacuum. For smaller birds I’ve also run the skin faucet slowly and placed the bird on a towel over the skin divider (for traction). The birds will watch you running your hands under the water and often will join in on the activity.
Bathing with water alone will improve the health of the skin and feathers, but for feather pickers I’ve often added a prescription shampoo to the bathing routine (especially for the shower birds) and this is often an effective way of treating secondary skin infection caused by the trauma of picking. Of course you should never use an over the counter shampoo and also check with your vet prior to using any substance on the skin or feather.
- Information about the importance of bathing for both your and your pet’s health, and ways to introduce this daily ritual into your life.
Often time anti-pick sprays will often increase the feather destruction because the bird is attempting to clean the substance off its feathers. So always check with your vet first.
A humidifier is another means of increasing the humidity. If used, the water chamber must be cleaned in the dishwasher every day to prevent growth of fungus and bacteria that can be very harmful to our birds. Also the paper or cage litter must be changed daily to prevent growth of fungus and of course the bowls should always be cleaned daily as well.
3) Provide mental stimulation during the day:
I cannot over stress the importance of this need. Our birds are often left sitting alone in the cage, with a dish full of food, while we are at work. These can be long boring hours for our intelligent companions. They have no interaction with other intelligent beings most of the day, there is no work involved in getting food and there is no ability for vigourous exercise during the day. Why wouldn’t they feather pick?
In the wild these same birds would spend their time interacting with flock mates, flying to distant locations while expending lots of excess energy, and most importantly looking for food throughout the day (mental stimulation).
So what can we do? Toys, toys, toys... Think of a child spending time in a room alone and then the same child in a room full of enriching/interactive type toys. Still not perfect but better. I always suggest a variety of toys (see links below) that should include hand toys, puzzler toys, treasure chests, chewable toys and foraging toys. Think of toys not as an option or luxury for the pet bird, but as essentials to that bird’s well being.
I also suggest placing a TV or radio on a timer so that it repeatedly goes on and off throught the day. This will still allow the bird some quiet time while also providing mental stimulation. Placing the cage in partial view of a window is also helpful. And requiring them to forage for their food is excellent mental stimulation. Foraging may involve hiding food or placing food in toys that they must “unlock” to get the treats. Please refer to the below websites for valuable information.
Please also see the following:
- Redirecting Negative Behavior by Providing an Enriched Environment:
- Foraging – Tips and Tricks to Enhance your Parrot’s Environment
- Please also see: toy safety and toys)
4) Vary the location of the cage or have multiple cages:
Caution should be used especially in a timid bird with little self confidence. Some birds are so frightened of change that a cage move will cause picking (see correct beginning). However, if your bird is already picking providing variety in the cage location may give them other things to think about and provide some distraction to slow the picking. Of course, it is best to start out early with a baby bird but even older birds can lean to tolerate change if the introduction is gradual.
5) A companion bird????
This is a tough question and can go either way depending on the individual bird. Ideally, I recommend when purchasing a baby bird that 2 birds be purchased. I believe it is unfair to these intelligent beings to require that they spend their lives alone. If raised together many birds will become lifelong companions.
The babies should both be hand fed so that they are very tame and you must interact frequently with both birds to keep them tame and loving with the family members.
The down side of having 2 birds is that they can become aggressive with each other (especially if introduced later in life) and breeding activity can be stimulated. Breeding activity or hormonal changes can occur with 2 birds of the same sex of even with a single bird that has a mirror.
The negative aspects of these hormonal changes are potential aggression, feather picking due to hormonal stress, and reproductive problems such as egg binding in females.
If a bird has lived the majority of its live alone and has behavioral problems such as feather picking I often do not recommend getting a second bird. The original bird is often very jealous of the newcomer and fighting may ensue, also the new bird may develop the same behavioral problems as the first. It is best to work exclusively on the original bird to improve its general health both mental and physical.
Don’t have your bird in the kitchen or in the center of activity but rather on the periphery of activity so that they can be a part of the family but can also “escape” for some quiet time.
- Please also see: Cage Safety / Cages / Flights – Recommendations / Set Up Ideas