My Feather Destructive Cockatoo

Goffin cockatoo, Theo

A couple of weeks ago, I was cleaning Theo’s cage and noticed one of a parrot owners most dreaded sights: the tattered remnants of feathers – evidence of feather destruction.

Whenever we discover feather destructive behaviors (FDB) in our birds it is heartbreaking, but this was a particularly distressing discovery for me given Theo’s background.

I took Theo in about 6 years ago from a home where she had lived for almost all of her life – she was 23 at the time. It was a good home and she was loved, but she had developed the habit of barbering her feathers down to the nub.

She had serious fear issues when I got her – the most unexpected things would send her into a panic. She was terrified of toys and as a result had none. It is unclear what exactly caused her FDB, but I believe it may have been that her fear of everything left her with nothing to do but chew off her feathers. Her former owner knew that Theo wasn’t thriving and she wound up with me.

I worked with Theo on her fears and slowly coaxed the extrovert that exists in every cockatoo to the surface. After her next molt, her flight feathers began to bloom and she took flight, in every sense of the word, for the first time in years. It was glorious to watch.

After all of the work that went into stopping her FDB, it is especially frustrating that it has returned.

This is a stark difference from Theo’s normally flawless feathers.

After seeing the feathers on the cage bottom, I took her to the vet for a full work up. More and more we are finding health reasons for FDB. The results came back showing her to be in perfect health – not a big surprise as she is flighted and on an impeccable diet. Of course, while it is very good news, it also means that I have the daunting task of determining what in her environment is causing her to chew on her feathers.

The problem with Theo is that she is a very quiet and mild-mannered bird. You are thinking to yourself: “how can this possibly be a problem??” It is a problem because when something is wrong, she doesn’t protest until it becomes overwhelming. In this case, her protestations are happening by way of feather destruction. This is not the case with any of my other birds. I always know what’s up with them because they always speak their minds, usually loudly – and I welcome that.

Her vet reminded me that she laid her first egg this past spring, the result of a very hormonal season for her. The fall does bring a mild resurgence of similar behaviors. It is possible that this is the cause, many people have birds that pluck seasonally. I have the feeling, however, that there is more to the story. It feels more complicated than that to me and I will continue to search for answers.

While trying to study her environment (without freaking her out because I am staring at her, something that seems to unnerve many cockatoos) I noticed something that I had not previously seen. There is a pair of blue jays that live in the tree that is in Theo’s line of sight every day. I tucked myself out of sight and watched them for a while and felt that they were swooping towards the window aggressively, jays are very territorial. Unless they are aware of the cockatoos inside, there really is no reason for them to fly near the window at all. For the time I have moved Theo away from the window.

Is this related to Theo’s FDB? Only time will tell. I will keep you posted.

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

2 comments

Patty

Our birds do sound very much alike. It took some time with Theo but she did move past her earlier problem. Now to get on top of this one!

Patty
Eric & Molly Bird

Very poignant article. I adopted a goffins 3 years ago and she seems very similar to Theo. She has a habit of chewing her flight feathers down to the nub, and lightly plucking the feathers inside her thighs, and is a very nervous bird. She had been on a seed diet before I got her, and once she switched to organic pellets and veggies, her inner thigh plucking stopped. She got a full checkup not long after I adopted her, and the vet determined she is healthy, so I have assumed it was environmental or hormonal, although she doesn’t display very strong hormonal behaviors (I’m counting myself lucky!). She has come a long way since I got her and is finally flighted. She is actually a pretty skilled flyer so I’m guessing she must have had practice in the past. She is a very intelligent bird, so I’ve been recall training her and she’s caught on very quick. In preparation for flight, I have been taking her for regular walks around the neighborhood so she gets more comfortable with being outside and new situations in general. She was absolutely terrified in the beginning but she’s gotten much better and continues to improve. I’m hoping she enjoys the freedom of flight enough to not chew her wings anymore. Thanks for writing this article, I will re-evaluate her environment to be sure nothing is stressing her out.

Eric & Molly Bird

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