How Long Does It Take To Recover From Feather Damage?

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Rosebreasted Cockatoo/Galah. This is Merlin, taken in Oct 2009. I had found him 2 months earlier, in shock and bleeding in a pet store due to a bad wing clip. I bought him and drove the shop crazy by reporting them and plying them with subsequent vet bills. (The shop couldn’t hit Merlin over the head with a brick to hide the evidence if I brought him home, could they?)

Every now and again I am asked the question: “How long will it take for my bird’s damaged feathers to grow out?” Most of the time, the question relates to a clipped bird, but sometimes it is someone with a bird who has recovered from an illness or is dealing with a plucking/self-mutilation issue.

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Taken in November 2009, you can see Merlin is starting to moult and regrow his flight feathers.

The standard answer is approximately 12 months. In other words, the average bird goes through some sort of moult at least once a year. When the bird goes through a moult, the damaged feathers should hopefully be replaced with new ones. That’s only the standard answer though and it’s actually probably not that simple in many cases.

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10 months later (Late August 2010) – Merlin still hasn’t fully recovered.

A little over a year ago, I was dealing with serious feather issues with my Blue and Gold Macaw. Fid had recovered from Psittacosis but had to face the reality of feathers that had some pretty nasty flaws in them. Due to illness, his feathers hadn’t had the consistent nutrition required to develop flaw-free. Instead his body had used what resources it had to battle the illness.

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Taken June 9th 2012 (so a little more than 3 years after the dodgy wing clip was done.) There is still a slight abnormality that you can see in the centre of his wing. (Feathers are slightly shorter and matted).  It took Merlin approximately 4 years to totally recover.

This meant that after he recovered from the illness, the new feathers (which were getting the nutrition they needed) were still struggling to grow out. They didn’t have the protection that older feathers would have provided, which meant they were getting damaged as Fid played and flew around. I lost count of the blood feathers that I dealt with last year.

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One of Fid’s blood feathers last year. The white powder is corn flour (if you’re Australian) or corn starch (if you’re elsewhere in the world), that I used to stop the bleeding/stabilise him before snapping a pic.

The situation was made worse by the fact that Fid had his wings clipped before he’d even learned to fly. He also wasn’t clipped ‘correctly’. Whatever scissors/tool had been used, they hadn’t been strong enough to cut cleanly through larger feathers. The process had left the remaining part of the feathers splitting and peeling down the central shaft, making them catch on everything Fid passed.

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The four upper feathers were broken off Fid’s damaged tail last year. The two bottom feathers have been recently moulted. They’re still not great but it’s a big improvement. 

The result was a clumsy bird, with an extraordinarily long tail that he was learning to maneuver without the aid of the full counter weight/balance that his wings should have provided. The worst blood feathers were on Fid’s tail as he was constantly knocking it. His wings weren’t pretty either. He wasn’t in good shape for a time in his life when he was naturally starting to learn to fly.

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A recent photo, you can see how one wing tip is damaged and causing a few balance problems. 

Fast forward 12 months. His clipped and damaged feathers should have grown out, right? He’s healthy. His feathers should be perfect, right? Well that’s not quite how it works.

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Fid dropped these feathers (one from each wing) within days of each other. I’m glad to see it’s the same feather on each wing and the fact they dropped within days of each other, indicates they’ll grow out at the same time and help the balance issue he has had.

When a parrot moults, it doesn’t moult out every single feather in one hit. If they did, we’d have a stack of naked, flightless birds running around. There is some order to it though. Flight feathers moult bilaterally. Which means as a feather is dropped from one wing, the same feather on the other wing should drop within a few days. This is a handy fact to know if you’re trying to judge a bird’s health. If the feathers aren’t moulting in this way, it could be a sign of either illness or some sort of damage to the feather.

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I had hayfever, Fid stole the last tissue. I didn’t kill him. (He was lucky.) You can clearly see the black spots on his wing and how ratty his tail is here.

Just how big a moult a bird has is going to depend on a number of things, including the bird’s species, the bird’s age, the bird’s sex, the time of year, hormones, amount of light a bird is exposed to, or a bird’s health.

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He can fly very well now but still has steering issues due to the damaged tail.

Fid has just hit the age of two, so he’s due for a really massive moult. At the time of writing, in Australia – many parrot owners are saying it’s moulting season, birds are moulting very heavily right now.  Fid lost his first full length unbroken tail feather about 2 months ago. It wasn’t pretty. It was a former blood feather that grew out. So instead of a bright shiny blue, it had some serious blackening and was barbed. It was one of only two tail feathers that made it through to full length without breaking after last year’s blood feather nightmare.

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Learning to land (aiming to get close to that jar of almonds).

Watching that first new tail feather grow in (a macaw’s longer tail feathers take months to reach their full length), the difference between it and his older feathers is remarkable. It’s a very shiny, lighter blue and it just looks healthy compared to his older feathers. Unfortunately though, the state of the older feathers is again impacting on the new feather as it grows out. While it doesn’t have stress bars, it is getting knocked around more than I’d like, due to lack of protection from neighbouring damaged feathers. On the bright side, at least this year there is enough protection so that his entire tail should reach its full length.

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Lori – my rainbow lorikeet is sitting on my shoulder. She was a rescued pet. Another bird that came with psittacosis. Her original avian vet said she was a mutation/hybrid because of her colouring. (See the blue on her wings and leg? That should be green.) The vet was wrong, Lori isn’t a mutation/hybrid. The colouring was caused by malnutrition. Given a corrected diet (and having overcome psittacosis) – those blue feathers disappeared within 2 years.

Fid is also still sporting some blackened feathers on his shoulder that he just won’t moult out yet. They look worse than ever because the new ones are so bright and shiny in comparison. If I didn’t know his history and saw him for the first time I’d be worried he’s ill. The point is though that I know which feathers are new and which are old. Seeing the new feathers as they come in, it’s obvious he’s very healthy.

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Abandoned on the side of a busy intersection along with a clipped Indian Ringneck, this unweaned juvenile rainbow lorikeet had its tail ripped out by ravens and very nearly died from her injuries. Dori wasn’t in great shape when she moved in here.

It can be hard being public about a bird with damaged feathers. If you post a picture online, people immediately comment on the broken feathers or blackened spots. Most people don’t think it through and realize that it can take years for a bird to recover good feather condition after illness or damage, so if they know you have had the bird for years and it still has damage – in their eyes you must be doing something wrong. I think people dread that judgement and don’t share their pictures for that reason, which also stops people from seeing /realizing how long the road to recovery is.

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You can see in this picture that the blue on Lori’s wing is almost gone. The juvenile lorikeet is looking healthier too.

The best thing that you can do for a bird with damaged feathers is really make sure you’re getting the bird’s diet right. (Check out the BirdTricks feeding program if you need help with that.) Make sure that the bird is getting everything it needs to grow strong healthy feathers. Frequent bathing opportunities, adequate sunlight and proper sleeping patterns will help too. Don’t be alarmed if it takes a few moults (which for many species means several years) for your bird to recover. That’s normal. The worse the damage is – the longer it will take.

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Frequent bathing helps encourage a healthy type of preening.

As a note to all of us: Pause before you comment on a bird’s feather condition whether the bird is clipped or damaged. Clipping is a highly emotional topic. I don’t clip my birds but I don’t judge those who do because I can think of situations where people have had to make a judgement call on clipping for the safety of their birds.

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The same birds a few years later. Dori (the juvenile from the upper pics) is perched above, Lori (the one who used to have abnormal blue feathers).

I very nearly clipped my elderly galah when he recovered the ability to fly because his desire to fly long distances was putting a strain on his heart. I didn’t want him flying far until his heart condition was under control. Clipped birds can still fly and I decided clipping wouldn’t slow him down enough to be worthwhile.  Likewise, Fid was originally clipped during a moult, which meant wing feathers on one wing grew out faster than the other. The feathers that grew out fast got damaged due to lack of protection. It has made him extra clumsy because he’s lopsided. I think if even one more wing feather on that damaged wing was broken, it would have been bad enough that I would have had to clip his good wing during this moult, in order prevent him crashing as he flies. The aim there would be to give his tail a chance to grow out undamaged and then let his wings grow out next moult when his tail was in a condition to cope. My point here is, some people have very good reasons to clip and we shouldn’t judge them without knowing the situation.

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Fid has come a long way – the colour of his new feathers is something to see! So apparently is that jar of almonds…

Likewise, owners of plucked birds are doing it tough. There are many reasons a bird might pluck and it doesn’t mean they necessarily have a ‘bad owner’. In fact the owner may be a good owner who is trying to fix the situation. The guilt that comes with having a plucked bird is terrible and it stops many owners from sharing their experiences and possibly getting the help and support that they need.

Any feather damage takes time to repair and understanding that makes it easier for anyone dealing with this issue.

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Stolen almonds taste better.

 Mel Vincent works as an animal rehabilitator out of Australia.

22 comments

Bindiya Malhotra

hiiii. I have a cockatiel and my husband on him accidentally .. He lost some feathers from his face and can see red skin from that part…. He is closing his left eye again and again but behaving very normal. Should I take him to vet…

Bindiya Malhotra
Iesya D.

And I didn’t read it!

Iesya D.
peter

hi mel i also have two lorikeets and they are both recovering they eat nectar apples pears mangoes bananas and native foliage and flowers

peter
Maureen Tweddle

Thank you, Mel, for this great information. I decided to stop clipping my Sennie’s wings (vet clip) some 2 1/2 yrs ago, and t recently noticed that she still has one more clipped feather to moult. Was a bit concerned, but now realize even a healthy bird can take years to replace feathers. Always appreciate your posts.

Maureen Tweddle
Reet Nicholl

Great articlesfrom you and others. Pepsi our fav girl cockatiel is bald as her mate Soni plucks her neck & head. she is ok, but I dont know how to fix her. Reet Nicholl, Sydney.

Reet Nicholl
Hoshi

My baby cockatiel (5 months) lost all of his tail feathers. So he waddled with a little stump butt. His new feathers grew in in a matter of weeks. I was shocked. From nothing to 4in feathers in 90 days was insane! Im happy for my boy.

Hoshi
Laura Walsh Ouellette

Thank you very much for the informative post!! I have three birds, a pineapple conure and green cheek who have had the same parents, years apart (and they fight like siblings! lol) and a green pacific who has deformed feet and a damaged wing, but who can still fly. I was unaware of the colour of wings determining nutrition — but it makes sense….another question to ask: can the feather spray (from ecotrition) that helps during molting with molt-ease and aloe vera, and plumage maintenance — also assist in healing bloody feathers? I read it is good for minor irritations (and in my green cheeks’ case, an accidentally pinched toe, caught in the door overnight that bled a little. My bad: I thought he was trying to pick the door mechanism until I spotted him stuck. Am still feeling horrible over it). I used the corn starch and it controlled the bleeding. Just asking….

Laura Walsh Ouellette
Sherry Harrington

Thank you is not enough for sharing your time tested knowledge of your beloved birds with us. I feel like I’m not alone is raising my two small conures that I’ve had abt. A year and half…your blogs are so informative and real.THANK YOU, couldn’t do it without you and BirdTricks.com family

Sherry Harrington
Katherine Denison

Thanks, Mel, for your always rich, observant and beautifully illustrated articles.

Katherine Denison
Tamara S.

I am very happy to read this article. I am not an expert, but I love my birds and do the very best I can with them. It hurts to be judged and does prevent people from sharing and asking the questions they need to in order to learn more. One of my birds is bare under his wings from plucking when he was at a previous home. My vet said that it may never grow back at this time and I’m fine with that because it doesn’t hinder him in any way….. yet if I were to be judged on it, something I had no control over, it would hurt. Thank you for this article!

Tamara S.
Tammy Coulter

Wow, what a great articlel! With two too’s (both rescue birds) I needed to read this, infact I hope to see more on the older bird, as these boys are between the ages of 25-30 yrs old. And have yet to even learn the words “step up”! I can see how alot of feather damage is from having to share a cage, not enough light, poor nutrition, etc…. But after seeing what a healthy much “younger too” looks like just the other day, I’m left wondering where is this mottled look on there chests from, there are many thin patches where you can see the color of there skin. Yes, there older. But this look is unnerving to say the least. More info please :-) I’m soaking it up like a sponge!

Tammy Coulter
David

I adopted a peach cockatoo about 2 years ago, she was bald except for her wings and tail and head, her back and the base of her wings finally have some puffy feathers growing in, but I think she picks out her chest feathers . The chest and tummy feathers ( when they do start to grow ) are sparse. She is so loveable and gentle, but I don’t know why she still doesn’t have her feathers growing in. she was abused and put outside in her cage when I got her. is there something that I should be giving her to induce better feather growth ?

David
Jendi

Thank you for this post for a couple reasons. One – I needed the reminder about clipped birds because it makes me feel so bad when I see someone that clips all their birds. Two – We rescued a Timneh and an Eclectus and both were plucked when they adopted us. I’m happy with the new feather growth we have been seeing, but like you said – people that just see a current picture online don’t understand how far the bird has come. We have taken care of this eclectus for less than a year and there is only 1 small spot of pink skin showing now: http://instagram.com/p/gdV_81iPR7/ Our Timneh had been clipped and was plucking before we adopted him and now – a little over a year later – he can fly and has grown a lot of his chest feathers back: http://instagram.com/p/fSjbxvCPQD/

Jendi
Debbie Thrift

A great article. The fact it can takes years to fully replace the damaged feathers is helpful to owners going through the same situation. We often feel there is something wrong when the damaged feathers are not fully replaced in one moult. It is a shame the number of improperly clipped wings I have seen in my 37 years involved with birds in various capacities. If you do not know what you’re doing please find someone who does. Worse is when so-called “Professional Groomers” hack the wing feathers like someone using a pair of child’s school safety scissors. I have dealt with birds that had all their wing feathers trimmed, primaries, secondaries etc what a mess and the stress it has caused the poor innocent bird. Thanks again for a great informative article.

Debbie Thrift
Eric

Great article! It really can take a long time for damaged feathers to finally be replaced.

Eric
Dee

Fantastic article! I was heartbroken for years—as my Galah would scream over broken blood feathers and I stupidly let the vet pull them. Bad clips 5 years ago caused broken and unhealthy feathers that could not be supported by the rest of his wing. NO ONE will usually explain this-I figured it out on my own. I do not ever let my birds out of my sight to be groomed-or tested or ANYTHING now. I only let them clip 3 primary wing feathers-enough so they can still fly and glide but not gain height. Each bird has a different body and so requires diff types of clips if you do-if I ask a groomer how they clip a caique for instance and they just give me a general response..they don’t get to touch my birds.SERIOUSLY-never let your bird out of your sight-and specify exactly how you want them clipped—or go through the heartache we did.. Thanks again for your great blog!

Dee
Cheryllynn Conover

Our Greenwing was plucking his chest feathers we saw he was preening just to rough there. We got him right to the vet but he said he was absolutely healthy then charged us $350.00! So we kept distracting him if he went for his chest feathers, he never got to be bald but his chest feathers we’re not pretty. Just by constant monitoring we realized that whenever he got to warm (we live in Florida) he went right to plucking not to his water dish. So no outside perches above 85 degrees. That stopped it but its 2 years and he still does not look smooth like he did. You have learn from your bird and monitor what they do. Quetzalcoatl and Cheryllynn

Cheryllynn Conover
Cheecowah Jack

Thank you Mel, I have a Rescue Bird as well. She was almost naked. but with LOTS of time she too is growing back feathers. I also know all about those blood feathers. I have had to pull a few just to stop the bleeding. It is horror to go through. We have not had any issues now in a year. Please everyone Post Pictures. Remember your bird is not shy. Everyone would loves to see progress. share, share, share!

Cheecowah Jack
Laurie

Great info! Thank you. I have an African Grey that hasn’t come out of a molt from about 3 years ago. I’ve tried different foods with very little change. He really hates showers so they aren’t as often as he probably needs. I’ll keep trying though. He sure is sweet and VERY funny!

Laurie
Lori

It’s so much fun seeing what Fid has gotten up to/ into lately! Thanks for another great article too!

Lori
Leah

I have a Severe Macaw who continues to have gray “bars” that show up AFTER they’ve grown in. They are mostly on her chest with a few to her back. She has full spectrum lighting (We live in Western Washington where there isn’t a lot of natural light) and gets fed via your feeding system. She gets a shower at least twice a week, sometimes more depending on her demand ;-). Any additional thoughts would be appreciated!

Leah
Denise Moran

Great article!! I have a 9 month old cockatiel who would chew on his flight feathers down to the skin…ouch i took him to the vet three times due to the same cause. His diet was changed to organic pellets. I still have a hard time getting them to eat fresh fruits and veggies :( but i don’t give up. I bought tons of toys including foraging ones and he stopped the self mutilation but my poor baby has no tail. They easily bend and break. What do i do????

Denise Moran

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