Zeus, My African Grey, The (Chest)-Featherless King of the Gods
Meet Zeus, who loves to meow, before or after I say, “What sound does a kitty make?”
Yes, Zeus is a plucker. I adopted him this way, so I don’t know his history, what he was fed or how long he’s plucked. What I do know is that plucking is common in African Grey (AG) parrots. In an attempt to help Zeus, I’ve researched- and I’m finding that feather plucking in any parrot comes down to 3 basic causes: 1) medical reasons, 2) psychological reasons or 3) environmental causes. In English, 1) causes only the avian vet will find/address, 2) they are unhappy/emotionally imbalanced or 3) their food/cage is missing something.
So Your AG Plucks – What To Do?
Since Tony Silva says in his book (Psittaculture) that 50% of parrots that pluck do so as a result of psychological or environmental causes, the first thing to do is double check your AG’s environment:
- 🥗 DIET
One significant cause of any health problem for any parrot is a poor diet. In the wild, parrots will eat up to 100 different things in a year (as per Psittaculture). Hopefully you know that feeding your parrot a seed-based diet is terrible for them – and can cause several deficiencies; a pellet diet is better, but it is 1 flavor. They are accustomed to hundreds. And micro-nutrients do not live in pellets, so vegetables are a must for a healthy diet. A lack of calcium can occur in AGs, and can cause the feather plucking.
- NO SMOKE🚬 🚫
Make sure there is no one smoking in the home -and- that smoker’s hands aren’t in proximity of your AG. Yes, it stays on your hand and apparently affects’m.
- NO SCENT💨
Make sure no scents are present in your home: no scented candles, air fresheners… parrots are very sensitive to scents. They are accustomed to the cleanest air high up in trees or flying in the sky.
- 🏡CAGE COMFORT
Check their happiness state in their cage. A lot of people think it is inhumane to keep a parrot caged all of the time – but it depends on the parrot. Some WANT to be in the comfort of their own safe space. Their home is clean, has fresh food, water and entertainment (hopefully!) Who wouldn’t want that? Others want to explore and want OUT of their cage during the day. If your AG wants out, then you may need to asses his/her cage/home. Make sure your AG has something to stimulate and entertain his/her super-intelligent mind. AGs are as smart as apes – they can use tools, they are multilingual and they can figure out puzzles. A bored parrot, especially an AG, with nothing to chew, nothing to watch or do can turn to their own feathers. Parrots need wood to destroy. I’ve seen videos of them digging in dirt, they can be active! I believe they are nature’s gardeners, preening wood, leaves… It keeps them engaged and entertained. It’s not easy, because you can’t give them a wood that is too hard to chew. Or one that is poisonous. Or has pesticides. I also wouldn’t do one with mold.
So, they constantly need new toys, training (engagement) …. If your AG is plucking, up your game in your offerings and see if that helps.
- 🎵A CALM ENVIRONMENT
One of the greatest things about AGs, in my opinion, is that they sing, whistle and engage you – but they don’t scream all day long. They are calm and pensive parrots. Make sure they aren’t near loud birds, like Macaws or Conures. See that there is no construction close by or a dog barking at them. Eliminate anything that might be making them feel nervous or uneasy. I always give all of my parrots a nesting box or a ‘hidden space,’ like a cozy, for them to sleep in or get away in. Like us, sometimes they want a little peace and quiet in their bedroom, undisturbed. I even try to cover some of the entrance to their box so that they feel they have privacy.
- 💛 Love
Don’t forget, parrots are emotionally intelligent and extremely social. This means that they require social companionship; they require a bonded pair. In my flock, I have very few single parrots. I like for our parrots to always have at least one housemate, another parrot they can bond with, or several. If you have just one AG, he or she may not have enough of your time and attention to be in balance. It is almost impossible for us, as humans, to be with them all of the time; it is even hard for us to spend several hours a day with our parrots. Experts say that an AG keeper should spend 3, 4 or more hours a day with their parrot! Consider a mate. Sometimes this alone will stop the plucking.
- 🌧️ OFFER RAIN
Another common cause – a lack of rain in their cage! Parrots can get dry skin, which can lead to medical issues, but can also just make them itchy and cause them to pluck out their feathers. Offer mist. Parrots love water, so place a bowl at the bottom of their cage they can bathe in – and, yes, it will make a mess for you to clean- or mist them, offering them a shower at least 3 times a week, preferably daily.
TAKE’M TO THE VET
I’m not a fan of taking my parrots to the vet every time they sneeze because the stress of going to the vet could be worse than my trying to help my parrots at home. However, if your African Grey or Cockatoo (or any other parrot) is plucking out it’s feathers, the cause may be something that only your avian veterinarian can identify and treat. Work with your veterinarian to try to improve the issue. So, here are some causes (as per my research) and then some corrections you or you and your avian vet can look to try:
HARI’s (Hagen Aviacultural Research Institue) checklist:
- Diet evaluation and details of your AG’s history (health, lifestyle, behavior, feather condition, etc.) is the primary objective to explore
- Possible compromised feather structure could trigger the damaging behavior
- Preening education and skill level
- Obesity can trigger feather damaging behavior
- Health of the feet: Sore feet due to arthritis, pododermatitis, etc. may make it difficult to preen efficiently
- Parasites: May cause disease and discomfort, pruritus.
- Toxins: Water, cage metal, and toy quality should be taken into consideration as these can also lead to feather damaging behaviorGenetic predispositions
- Nutritional deficiencies
- Feather hygiene, frequent misting or bathing is imperative
- Environmental factors such as indoor heating (dry skin), cigarette smoke, cooking oils, etc.
- Viral diseases
- Hormones should be monitored and managed
The question to ask: Is the feather-damaging behavior self-induced or from another source?
As per Tony Silva in “Psittaculture,” 50% of plucking parrots (not just AGs) show no discernible medical cause.
Psychological issues include things like boredom, anxiety/stress, jealousy, frustration, exaggerated preening, lack or loss of a mate, inability to adapt to a new cage. It is believed that the most common causes of plucking are diet or a lack of bathing/humidity.
For African Greys a low blood calcium level can be the dietary lack, coupled with cage boredom. In general AG’s are prone to a vitamin A deficiency, so if you have AG’s be sure to give them a lot of calcium and orange veggies, like carrots or sweet potatoes. Calcium can be easy – take your breakfast eggshells, wash them and then bake them for 20 minutes at 200 degrees (so that they are clean of any bacteria). They will be dry and ‘crispy’ – break them up (I have a mortar and pestal for this) and place them in a separate bowl in your cage or sprinkle them on their morning veggies.
What Are We Doing For Zeus?
Truth is AGs need lots of vitamin A and calcium. So, I’m going to try to SHOVE carrots and eggshells down his throat! Just kidding, but seriously, I am going to try to make some birdie-bread with carrots and/or sweet potato and finely-ground eggshells in them.
I also plan to up my game – even tho I haven’t had him for a long time, and I am guessing he’s been plucking his feathers for some time, I am going to increase the toys in his cage. Since Zeus’s chest is naked but the rest of him is not, I’m guessing he doesn’t have a medical issue. And, Hera is on eggs, so a trip to the vet is out of the question right now. The most likely cause is psychological, dietary or sanitary. He’s bored, needs vitamin A and needs daily misting – or all of the above.
Zeus is amazing! At night he says “Night-night!” and he dances when I sing to him or play music. He also clicks along to music – so he needs engagement. He likes my husband and nipped at me… so I’m cautious. Still, I’ll plan on trying to spend more time with him when I don’t feel it will take away from Hera’s safety.
One of the challenges with Zeus is that I won’t know what is working, if his feathers improve, for a long time, since their feathers don’t always grow out right away. Until this improves, I will take comfort in thinking that, if I improve his diet and engagement, missing feathers doesn’t have to compromise him in any way; I don’t see that he is vulnerable. Note: there is no smoke, scents or other threats of any kind in the house, so these I’ve already taken off my list. If it is just a habit at this point, there may be nothing I can do.
Wish Zeus, the King of the Parrot-Gods (at least in his mind) luck!
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Tony Silva, Psittaculture, A Manual for the Care and Breeding of Parrots