What Is a Pin Feather?

Q: My bird’s head is covered with prickly little feathers.  Is this normal?

Janis K., Huntsville, Alabama

A: Yes, it is quite normal.  When a bird has a lot of feather regrowth following a molt, his head can be covered with small growths called pin feathers.

A pin feather is quite simply a new feather at the beginning stages of growth. They can be found on a baby bird as it feathers out or an older bird during feather regrowth following a molt.

The feather pushes through a follicle in the skin housed in a keratin sheath that serves as protection for the the feather as it matures. I remember being told years ago that the sheath contained nutrients that benefited the bird, and it would be just like Mother Nature to offer such a unique advantage to the act of preening. But since the sheath is made up of skin cells, I doubt that is the case.

As you examine these feathers, you will see that the base is pink in color. This is a live blood supply that runs up the length of the shaft nourishing it during development. This area around the blood supply is quite sensitive during feather growth and it is uncomfortable to the bird if the feather is disturbed. For this reason, many birds do not care to be touched during this time. As the feather grows, the blood supply recedes and settles at the base of the feather shaft.

When the feather is fully mature, your bird will remove the keratin sheath during preening. However, you might be required to assist in the areas around the head and neck since a bird’s beak cannot reach these areas and they are not so easily removed using the feet.

The way I generally do this is, when there is enough growth that I won’t be disturbing the sensitive area of the feather, I scratch a small section of the sheath away with my fingernail and the rest crumbles apart by rolling my fingers gently over it.

I like to bath the birds more frequently when they have new feathers coming in because it soothes their skin and the disintegrating sheaths make a lot of mess and dust.

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

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