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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Mel Vincent works as an animal rehabilitator out of Australia.