Plucking: Sometimes it’s the Symptom, Not the Problem

Photo by Dave
Location: Waynesboro, VA
Beginning stages of plucking shown: Galah “Bondi”

As our tour comes to an end there have been some major changes for us and our birds. To name a few off the top of my head:

  • We sent the aviaries to powder coating and Chet’s house so he could have them for his birds while we traveled through Washington state. So no more aviaries for our birds for the last month of tour.
  • The arrival of Rocko our baby toco toucan.
  • Lots of packing and preparation leading to increased levels of stress on our parts.

By our standards, we’ve socialized Rocko very little to the other members of our feathered family mostly for reasons of safety to our other birds. But he has been in the trailer for travel so they all are aware of his joining the family – though our birds are very used to birds coming and going. During this tour we had Coco, a baby blue and gold macaw Dave trained for a client and various freeflight students (past and new) as well as this was not uncommon when we were in our house in Florida (Hymie the hyacinth for a while and Storm the amazon for 45 days) so this is nothing ‘out of the ordinary’ for them.

Not to say though, that it can’t still affect them.

As soon as this month of change hit, I began noticing something was just ‘wrong’ with Bondi. I couldn’t have told you what it was and I didn’t speak up because I didn’t know what to say. “I just have a feeling?”

Photo by Dave
Location: Waynesboro, VA
In the grass: Galah “Bondi”

 Instead of being her usual social self (I’ve written before about how OVER socialized she is) during pre-show, she would rather preen. I wasn’t too worried about this because the feathers I found in her cage were down feathers which normally come out with molting and so forth – however, it turned out if I had looked closer, I would have noticed it was the picking at the feather that made it come out unnaturally.

During her “rock out” I started to notice that her feathers under her wings were looking lonesome, missing. Just a little but enough. It was hard to compare to Bandit because his rock out isn’t quite as good as Bondi’s when it comes to opening his wings all the way and he’s my only direct comparison as her ‘twin’. I pointed it out to Dave but we thought maybe she was molting, because Tusa and Jinx were at the time so we assumed maybe she was too, what with all the down feathers I was finding.

Little did we know her preening was increasing while her normal social behavior was decreasing.

Finally her legs started to look funny to me but I couldn’t pinpoint what about them was making them look odd. Again, I didn’t mention it, and little did I know that Dave was thinking the same thing.

By the end of a two week period it was all significantly worse and I couldn’t take it anymore. Although I was searching for feathers I thought came from her wings to no avail, I was sure she was pulling them now. We spent weeks freeflying and having fun outside and Bondi was great the first few days but the last day of the trip she just wasn’t herself. That was actually the day she sat in a tree for the first time – totally not like her. I assumed it was bound to happen, she was bound to get curious, but now I realize it was yet another sign to tell us she wasn’t feeling right.

Photo by Dave
Location: Waynesboro, VA
With Jeanne (Storm’s human): Galah “Bondi”

The general manager on tour made her an appointment with the vet the following day and I took her in. I was so nervous, anxious and stressed about it. My baby girl… plucking? I felt responsible and beside myself and it was all I could do to act normally in the waiting room. A bunch of kids were there with their mom and I thought Bondi would love to be out and meet them. But she wasn’t, she was fidgety and anxious – all the things I was.

While holding her in the waiting room she turned to “preen” and out came a beautiful gray feather… whole with blood on the tip (part that goes into her body) and I cringed realizing in one of her favorite social situations she had just plucked a perfectly good feather out. I held onto it to show the vet who immediately took it for examination and confirmed the plucking behavior. He also pointed out that her legs (more so her left than her right, just like her wings) were bare of feathers. That’s what looked so funny to me about them that I couldn’t figure out.

Bondi’s behavior was perfect with the vet and I brought treats to entice her to rock out many times to show the underside of her wings and fly around. She had blood work done and an x-ray. Looking at her x-ray, he told me she has no fat (rose breasted cockatoos are notorious for getting fatty tumors which we’ve always been very aware of) and showed me just how muscular of a bird she is which made me feel happy about all her flying.

The vet pointed out to me though that her bone density is not what he would prefer it to be and that because she’s female (our flock is primarily male) she needs more calcium and protein. Scrambled eggs with the entire shell included in it is perfect for her to get this source as well as cuttle bone and calcium blocks to put inside her cage or aviary.

I realized her diet, when he asked me about it, as well as her bathing habits, had changed dramatically in the last month without having aviaries. Normally we’d let them get bathed by mother nature and it had been raining a lot in this last month but they weren’t getting it because they weren’t outside in an aviary. We had flown them in the rain in Virginia but it wasn’t a downpour so much as a light rain so she didn’t get that much of a bath and we’d mostly let the macaws fly in it since the little parrots showed less interest. Her constant bathing had diminished dramatically and feeding them fresh foods in their travel cages just gets disgusting so I had tried to not do that unless they were out freeflying and could eat their meals in the grass before going to bed for the night which had only happened in Virginia and again, more so for the macaws than the little guys who showed little interest again.


Photo by Dave
Location: Waynesboro, VA
Early signs of bare legs: Galah “Bondi”

The things Bondi was affected by were more than the three changes I had thought of:

  • Less bathing opportunities
  • Less fresh food being fed/consumed
  • Fruit overdose from it being so much of Rocko’s diet and so handy
  • Less direct sunlight
  • Less cleaning (the aviaries were soaked down daily, the travel cages are cleaned once or twice a week)

Her diet and the cleanliness seemed to play a huge role in her recent plucking habits. During the last month of our tour the skylight window of the bird trailer broke and it doesn’t block out all the rain when it does rain so it gets to the bottom of their cages. Most are unreachable but it can still cause serious cleanliness problems having loose rain water in places making everything wet.

The vet swabbed Bondi’s mouth and found white patches and the swab indicated a yeast infection (candida). When our parakeet Nikko got really sick I remembered the pink colored medication we had to give him for the yeast (his yeast was in his nostrils causing pus to come from them when squeezed – was a rather gross process and he’s fine now but I documented that illness as well before coming on tour two years ago) anyway… we were given two medications for two weeks along with a high potency pellet from Harrison’s, power treats and sunshine factor from Harrison’s as well to up her protein, calcium and get rid of the itchy toxin that the yeast infection was distributing making her pluck (symptom to the problem, problem being the yeast from the recent changes within a month to her environment).

Crazy how things all work in a big circle. Changes and accidents with our trailer and tour ending = a huge change in her living environment which created = yeast infection which put off an itchy toxin causing her to… = pluck.

Ever since taking her to the vet I’ve been bathing her every day and she doesn’t go crazy preening either. The first night we gave her her medications we noticed a difference in her not trying to preen the whole night. In the morning we gave her the meds before her breakfast and she stuffed herself with the Harrison’s high potency pellets (note: only give these to your bird if an avian specialist recommends it, they aren’t for any parrot and should only be fed for as long a duration as recommended. I’m merely sharing my diagnosis and experience and not sharing medication names because I don’t want people self diagnosing their parrots without an avian vet’s professional input.)

You can usually buy these pellets online or at your vet’s office.

Photo by Dave
Location: Waynesboro, VA
With me: Galah “Bondi”

Bondi’s color of pink brightened by about 3-4 shades in one day upon taking her medications. Compared to Bandit she looked much more pink. I’ve seen rose breasted cockatoos who have feathers that are practically red which usually indicates something is wrong as well. A bird that is getting too many vitamins will have changes in feather color like that. Luckily, it didn’t look red and I knew that it would be important for her to get everything the vet recommended in this two week period before worrying about much else.

That night I changed everyone’s cages and we decided to keep Bondi separated from the others at night so she would no longer be sleeping in the trailer with them. Instead she stays in a travel carrier at night in the RV in our bathroom to get complete darkness for sleep. And during the day she hangs out with us having to take meds twice a day.

One thing I was really proud of her for was that originally they were going to give her anesthesia to get the x-rays and blood work done on her. I told them she’s very good with strangers and asked if they could try and do it without first – and if she threw that much of a fight then use it but otherwise I’d prefer they attempt it without and they did and were successful which made me much more happy and comfortable with everything. And very happy with her training to make her vet visit more tolerable for her.

Photo by Jamieleigh
Location: Waynesboro, VA
With Dave: Galahs “Bondi” & “Bandit”

I have to admit, I know a lot about training but not so much about health and vet care of parrots so most of what the vet told me was running circles around my brain. I just made sure I left knowing what I needed to do to get her healthy again and when I knew the follow ups would be. This vet was very knowledgeable and comforting, and said that the yeast could have easily been caused by too much fruit in the diet over pellets and veggies. I realized with Rocko around, everyone’s diets had been way more fruit over veggies since he can’t really have them and without the aviaries, they are hard to prepare and clean up after in the trailer’s travel cages. Yet another change I made and remained pretty much unaware of how it was effecting our flock.

It really shows me to look at things differently. How one thing can domino effect and change SO many other things we tend to be unaware of. I hope to be more aware from now on.

And of course I’ll post updates on Bondi’s condition. She’s on two medications for 2 weeks plus the sunshine factor once a day for 60 days and a change of diet (+ protein, + calcium and high potency pellets). After two weeks we’ll know much more with a follow up from the vet. Luckily we will be home in a little over a week and able to provide her with aviaries again and a much cleaner environment being home and finally off the road.

Photo by Jamieleigh
Location: Waynesboro, VA
Our flock mates:  Galah “Bandit”, Camelot macaws “Comet” & “Tusa”, blue throat macaw “Jinx”, Galah “Bondi”

The first update I got from our avian vet before I could even post this was the day after her visit he called that night and left me a message saying her blood work confirmed everything we had talked about that I’ve already written here but that something is “going on” with her liver as the tests showed abnormalities. He asked me to bring her in the following morning at 8am, a Saturday which they normally don’t work and gave me an emergency number. I have to say, I emerged from listening to this voicemail with welled up eyes. My bad feelings of this illness have just intensified ever since something has been done about it. It’s unnerving and I stare at all my birds completely differently – treasuring that they are healthy and alive and yet wondering if something is under the surface that I can’t see, hurting them without my knowing. It’s a terrible feeling.

I go into that stage of hating myself for not knowing as much as a trained avian specialist knows – ridiculous in a sense but somehow justified in my head.

That 8am appointment lead to changing her from eating the high potency pellets from Harrison’s to a diet specifically for fatty liver disease in parrots by Roudybush. Luckily, my birds will eat anything so switching pellets so drastically has never been a problem and my birds have always really enjoyed Roudybush pellets. Not to mention they look a lot like the Feed Your Flock pellets but more brown in color rather than green. Food transitions are easy for that reason. She was also given different medications that were easier on her body while one previous prescribed medication was discontinued yet kept, the others were implemented. Not all of them were “medications” either, but I was giving her about 6 different things by syringe at this point per day. Some were required twice a day.

Photo by person nice enough to take it
Location: Nampa, ID
At preshow: Galah “Bondi”

In her favorite social settings she was preening (leading to picking) which had me the most worried. The vet also recommended we take seeds and nuts out of her diet completely – even though they’re only given for training in the show right now she can’t have any of it since it’s believed she has fatty liver disease which is very common in rose breasted cockatoos.

Because of this recent ‘scare’ I decided to bring the rest of my flock in on Monday just to be sure and get baselines on all of them, especially given that the yeast infections (like candida) is contagious.

They will all be getting what Bondi got; a physical exam, baseline blood work, testing for yeast, mouth swabs and stool samples taken.

I will keep you all posted on their results, of course. I feel it’s very important to document any and all behavior and health related issues with our birds so not only can we look back and see what we did, what happened before and after, but also so that everyone in the avian community can learn. As embarrassing as it may be to make mistakes – it’s also normal, and human, and makes us real and gives us the ability to grow. I’m trying not to be ashamed that I make mistakes too, wishing I knew everything there is to know about avian health like a specialist but I don’t, however I’m learning and sharing which I hope more parrot owners do.

Photo by Jamieleigh
Location: Waynesboro, VA
With me: Galahs “Bandit” & “Bondi”, African grey “Cressi”

Thanks to most of you for your support, as many of you know our flock members by name and even nicknames. Much love to everyone for their kind words while we and our beloved feathered children endure this process.

Right now with Bondi we medicate every day and wait to see changes. We’ll know more with updated vet visits which will be in about 14 days. And we’ll know the most after a month depending on how Bondi reacts to her medications and so forth. Don’t worry, we will be updating you all about this and hopefully I can make it back to this entry to add links to the other entries to come after.

Jamieleigh Womach has been working with parrots and toucans since the age of 17. She isn’t homeless but is home less than she prefers to be. She travels the world with her husband, daughter, and a flockful of parrots with whom she shares the stage.

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