Does Your Bird Over Preen? This Might Be Why!

Photo of quaker by Anna Sloan

Over preening is a feather destructive behavior. Sometimes a bird begins to pay too much attention to its feathers – in a way that seems unhealthy and obsessive. Generally, we observe this through changed preening behaviors.

For reasons that make no sense to me, over preening has a less ominous status as a behavioral problem than plucking. However, it is a precursor to plucking and very loudly states that something is wrong.

A couple of months ago I was in contact with a woman who has a goffins cockatoo that had begun over preening. Knowing that I had rehomed a goffins with feather destructive habits and had been successful in stopping the behavior, a mutual friend put us in contact hoping that I could help her.

She had been noticing for some time that her bird’s feather condition was slowly deteriorating. She did the things she should: she took her bird to the vet where it was found to be in great health, and she did some online research. But since her bird was not plucking, much of the information she found didn’t really fit her situation, and none of it offered a solution.

Photo of umbrella cockatoo by Anna Sloan

When Ann and I were in touch, we talked about her bird’s diet, which was more than adequate, and her handling and husbandry skills all seemed perfectly fine. We lived in different states so I had only conversation and emails with which to try to help. I referred her to reading materials and gave her some tips on how to go about trying to find the cause, but without luck. It was becoming clear to me that I wasn’t going to be able to help her from such a distance.

During a call one day, she mentioned to me that she wondered if her bird objected to the smell of her hand lotion. That single sentence said more to me than all of the conversations we’d had to date. Now we had two possibilities where before we had none:

  1. If Ann had dry skin, perhaps the humidity levels in the house were low causing the bird’s skin to be dry as well. Dry skin is itchy and brings attention to where the feathers meet the skin – it is easy to see where an itchy bird might find relief in over preening – or worse.
  2. Birds are very clean animals. They spend a great deal of time every day removing dirt, dust and debris from their feathers in the act of preening. It is in their nature to remove anything foreign from the body – theirs or ours – I have had a scab or two ripped off in my lifetime by my well-intentioned parrots.  Imagine how foreign hand lotion residue would feel on the feathers of a bird that was handled by their owner after having applied it. A bird could spend all day unsuccessfully trying to remove it – in the process, damaging their feathers.

Photo of blue crowned conure by Anna Sloan

It turns out that Ann has a health issue that causes her skin to be unusually dry and that low humidity was not a factor in her bird’s feather destruction. She was, however, using a heavy, waxy moisturizer for her condition and was unaware that she was coating her bird with it every time she handled it.

The solution was to avoid handling the bird within an hour of applying the lotion, as much as possible, and daily bathing for the bird. The over preening stopped as soon as the bird was convinced the feathers were clean. Sometimes its just THAT simple!

Author Patty Jourgensen specializes in avian health, behavior and nutrition and has been working with and caring for rescue birds since 1987. 


Richard Somsel

My eclectus male over preens according to my avian vet. He went through a Mojo molt early this year. There were down feathers but I never saw any plucked feathers at cage bottom. She suggested daily bathing (misting). I don’t use hand lotion. Any advice?

Richard Somsel

I have an African Parrot and he has the same problem and I have tried all the solutions with him


Cloie my African Grey is breaking her feathers, on side of her body all her feathers on her wings are bitten or pulled out, long healthty feathers as well. Se has white flakes all over her body, and scrathes all the time. I have taken her for tests, the vet says there is nothing wrong with her. He put a coller on her for two weeks, after the collar came off she scratchd even more. Please help Carla from South Africa


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