The bright colors of the parrots, the fantastic display of the peacock, the silent flight of the owl, indeed, the flight of any bird, all depend on feathers. A bird without its plumage is a contradiction, having lost its essential nature. A bird’s very life relies on feathers, for they insulate. A bird without feathers must be kept in a heated environment, or it will die of exposure in short order. This is easy to imagine, for who has not relied upon goose down to keep warm in a cold climate. Scientists speculate that feathers originally developed from reptile scales to help maintain body temperature. This occurred millions of years before the feathers bestowed on birds the ability to glide and then to fly.
The molt is a normal event in the life of a pet bird. Some birds, canaries in particular, replace all feathers during a few weeks. This generally occurs in late summer. Most other pet birds drop and regrow a few feathers all year ’round as a normal course of events.
A canary without a regular molting season, one that, instead, seems to molt constantly, is said to be in a ‘soft molt.’ This is a stress on the bird’s system. It is also a leading cause of the failure of canaries to sing. Softmolt is brought about by constant fluctuations in the temperature and, especially, the number of hours of light that the bird gets. Keep the cage covered from dawn to dusk all year ’round. Make sure the cage is not in a drafty location, or too near a radiator or other heater.
A great deal of protein goes into growing a feather. This is one of many reasons that all birds must have a balanced diet. Seed mixes must be vitamin, mineral, and protein enriched. Special molting, conditioning, and nestling mixes are also sold to increase the percentage of protein in the diet. Pellets and other processed foods have been formulated as complete diets. Whatever balanced diet that you choose, supplement it with small amounts of any healthy fruit or vegetable that you eat yourself. This is important for variety.
There are a several illnesses that are associated with feathers and the molt. In some canaries, most often Glosters and Norwich type birds, the feather will remain ingrown and develop into a ugly mass. Your vet is able to easily remove the lump. Unfortunately, it will often eventually grow back. Though unsightly, and certainly a discomfort to the bird, these malformed feathers are not life threatening.
Now we come to the bane of bird keeping. For years breeders of parakeets were troubled by occasional outbreaks of young birds that would continuously lose their flight and tail feathers. Often, they would eventually grow more or less normal feathers. Sometimes the bird would never grow proper flight or tail feathers. In some instances, the parakeets continued to lose the feathers and would die. With the birth of modern avian medicine, similar afflictions were studied in cockatoos and other birds. It is now known that the disease psittacine beak and feather disease, or PBFD for short, is a serious viral disease. Though not contagious to humans, it can spread to other birds. With cockatoos, the first symptom is the loss of the feather dust. What this means in practice is that the normally gray and dusty beak will now appear black and polished. Loss of feathers is the next stage of the illness. NEVER buy a cockatoo that shows any of these warning signs. Be extremely careful of exposing a healthy cockatoo to another bird, particularly a parakeet. The actual transmission of the disease is not well understood. Simply having the dust of the feathers of an afflicted bird on your clothes might doom your pet to a horrible death!
Ragged plumage and feather plucking have many causes, Sometimes it may indicate that the bird is ready to mate. An overly amorous or a hostile cage companion may be chewing or the plumage. Here you would either let nature take its course or remove the offender, depending on the situation.
Mites and lice, small parasites, are known to harm the feather. Though usually too tiny to see without a magnifying glass, they may be present it large numbers. Your pet shop supplies many effective products to combat these vermin.
Nutrition is of the highest priority in the development of the feathers. Be sure that your bird is getting a diet that contains all the necessary vitamins, minerals, and protein.
The most common cause of feather plucking is simply boredom. Parrots in particular are highly intelligent fellow beings. In nature, they travel over wide distances in flocks each day foraging for food. You must make every effort to support the psychological needs of your pet. A larger cage and more toys are the obvious first things to try. Sometimes it may help to place the cage within sight of a window so your bird may see out. Don’t put the cage right in the window, for the heat from the sun and drafts might result in illness. Also keep security in mind. If your bird can see out, then a potential thief might see the bird!
A bird that becomes a habitual feather plucker is very hard to help. These unfortunates might be helped by having another bird for a companion. This is no surefire cure. I saw a Nanday Conure that was as naked as a chicken in the oven. The owners of this pitiful bird would spend every weekend at the casinos of Atlantic City, leaving the bird completely alone. When placed with other birds, Blackjack, as the conure was named, not only kept plucking himself, but started to ‘undress’ his cagemates as well!
If a bird continues to pull out its feathers after every effort has been made to entertain it, a veterinarian skilled in birds should be called in. Sometimes the bird is reacting to an allergy or to some ailment. No matter the cause of the problem, restraining collars and bad-tasting sprays are not of much help.
Birds love to bathe and should be given every opportunity to do so. For the smaller birds, special bath dishes are sold. Lories also love to take baths. Take the bath dish out when the bird is finished. You don’t want the bird to drink the soiled water. A bird that does not bathe might be nervous in new surroundings. Give him a chance to settle down. A few small pieces of lettuce in the water may help him to make up his mind to take the plunge. The cage bottom might have to be changed after your pet is done splashing around.
For the large parrots, a daily spraying with any of the good bird bath products will keep the bird clean. You don’t have to soak the bird down. A gentle misting will be all the bird needs to look his best. Never spray cockatoos or cockatiels with an oil-based product. This can damage the powder of these birds’ feathers.