Home » Is My African Grey Plucking or Molting Feathers?
african grey pulling feathers out

Is My African Grey Plucking or Molting Feathers?

Last Updated on April 10, 2024 by Carrie Stephens

While molting occurs in all psittacine birds, it’s important not to confuse it with feather plucking (pterotillomania). This involves an African grey parrot pulling out healthy feathers with its beak.

If shedding is symmetrical on both sides, an African grey is molting. If the feathers don’t shed naturally, meaning the body has large featherless regions (chest, shoulders, etc.), it’s picking out feathers.

African greys are prone to Feather Destructive Behavior (FDB), usually to self-soothe when emotionally distressed. Feel-good endorphins are released when parrots forcefully remove their feathers.

FBD has behavioral and medical causes. An owner should never ignore feather picking because it’s a warning sign that a parrot’s care needs aren’t adequately met.

African Grey Parrots Molt Their Feathers

African grey parrots usually molt their feathers every 12 months, but it can occur every 18 months.

Once an African grey reaches 11 months old, it’ll likely have undergone its first molt. After this, feathers will be organically shed, and replacements will gradually emerge.

Feathers are made of beta keratin (β-keratin), so they’ll experience natural wear and tear. Molting removes old and damaged feathers, allowing strong and vibrant replacements to replace them.

Time of Year African Greys Molt

An African grey will usually shed feathers organically in the spring (breeding season) when the weather is warm. A parrot will detect the change in temperature and number of daylight hours.

Some African greys may undertake a second molt in the fall, but it’s uncommon in large bird species.

how to tell the difference between molting and feather plucking

Why African Grey Parrots Pluck Their Feathers

Feather plucking is an entirely different activity from molting.

While molting causes feathers to loosen and fall out naturally, feather plucking involves forcefully extracting feathers from the body with the beak.

African greys are likely to pick feathers as an act of self-mutilation. If an African grey starts plucking at its feathers, what begins as a bad habit may soon become a compulsion.

Having established that feather plucking is an undesirable habit, you may wonder why parrots engage in this behavior. There are various explanations, including:

Health Concerns

If injured, a parrot may pluck at feathers to ease its discomfort. It may have ectoparasites (mites, fleas, etc.), an allergic or metabolic disease, or a bacterial skin infection.

If an African grey has suddenly mutilated its feathers, assess it for harm caused by collisions with inanimate objects (walls, windows, ceiling fans, etc.) when out of its cage.

Heat or Humidity

Some parrots pluck their feathers in response to excessive heat or humidity.

African greys are most content with a temperature between 70 and 80°F and a humidity level of around 60%. They can cope with variances, but this range is most comfortable.

Consider temporarily relocating the parrot’s cage to a cooler, shadier part of the home in the summer or turning down the heating in the winter.

Occasional misting reduces a parrot’s body temperature and eases skin irritation due to molting.

Wrong Diet

Some African greys pluck their feathers due to malnutrition. Not providing a balanced diet can leave the skin tender and itchy, leading to removing the feathers by force.

Hypovitaminosis A is correlated to feather plucking. If you suspect a parrot isn’t getting enough vitamin A (retinol) from its diet, add foods like carrots and red peppers.

Emotional Distress

Parrots pluck their feathers to release endorphins when distressed. The causes include:

  • Lack of routine. Failing to feed a parrot or cover its cage at a set time can trigger stress.
  • Boredom. Parrots are clever birds that must be intellectually stimulated.
  • Loneliness. Leaving a parrot without company can cause depression and separation anxiety.
  • Sexual frustration. Animals warn how lone African greys can become attracted to owners, considering them mates, leading to sexual frustration.
  • Jealousy. If someone takes something from them, including their owners, this can lead to jealousy.
  • Lack of exercise. African greys need time out of their cage to walk and fly.
  • Wrong environment. Parrots need peaceful and calm surroundings. Avoid shouting and loud TV.

If you don’t meet the emotional needs of an African grey, feather plucking is the likely outcome.

Preening vs. Plucking in Parrots

An inexperienced owner may confuse a parrot’s preening (the act of smoothing out feathers) with plucking. If a parrot preens during a molt, it’ll remove loose feathers to expedite the process.

Aside from the effort required to remove feathers, the difference is in the plumage. Parrots preen to improve their appearance, while feather plucking (pterotillomania) is an act of self-harm.

If a parrot is molting and removing feathers when preening, you’ll see the even removal from both sides. Sturkie’s Avian Physiology explains how parrots shed symmetrically so their wings are always functional.

Feather-plucking behavior can affect flight. Parrots tear feathers from their bodies, leaving them looking unkempt and ragged. The beak may damage the skin.

What A Plucked Feather Looks Like

You can tell if a feather has been plucked based on its appearance. A molted feather will be straight and regain its elegance, while a plucked feather will likely still have a barb attached to the base.

A picked feather didn’t reach its natural lifespan, wrenched from the body before it was ready. This force may leave traces of blood on the base of the shaft, while the feather’s vane may look ragged.

Feather Plucking Can Be Dangerous

If African greys pull out their feathers, it can cause permanent damage to the follicles. This may result in an inability to replace the lost feathers, leading to permanent bald areas.

When temperatures drop, a parrot will find it harder to stay warm. Unprotected by feathers, the skin can also be harmed, increasing the risk of developing infections and illnesses.

Stopping An African Grey from Plucking Its Feathers

Start by ruling out feather plucking due to a medical problem. Then, make lifestyle and environmental changes. That way, you can commence training to prevent FDB.

Address Medical Problems

Ensure the parrot’s skin isn’t irritated by a bacterial skin infection or parasites.

An African grey may require prescription medication to control its compulsion to pluck feathers, with Behavioral Brain Research suggesting the act could be linked to a neurological concern.

Ensure there are no airborne pollutants, like cigarette smoke and air fresheners.

how to stop an African grey from plucking feathers

More Things To Do

Consider if you need a larger cage for an African grey to explore and ensure it has in-cage enrichment. That may involve adding more fun toys and perches at different heights and angles.

Parrots need to bathe in fresh water. Ensure your African grey can keep its skin and feathers clean.

You may need to spend more time with an African grey, regularly conversing and teaching it new vocabulary and tricks. African greys need near-constant engagement if they’re not paired up.

Consider letting an African grey exercise on a harness to benefit from natural sunlight.

Dietary Modifications

Make dietary modifications under veterinary advisement. For example, vitamin A-rich foods (sweet potatoes, squash, mango, papaya, and cantaloupe) are essential for healthy skin and feathers.

Feather-Picking Sprays

Anti-plucking sprays can ease itchiness, reducing the impulse to remove feathers forcefully. They also add an unappealing taste to the feathers, deterring a parrot from placing them in its beak.

You can make anti-plucking sprays at home. To do so, mix 2 teaspoons of apple cider vinegar (ACV) with 4 cups of filtered water and apply this to a spray bottle. Parrots dislike the flavor of ACV.

Bird Collars And Vests

A bird collar or vest restricts access to the feathers, making plucking impossible.

Opinion is divided on the efficacy of collars and vests for parrots prone to feather plucking. While it’ll halt the act, it won’t resolve the psychological reason behind the desire to self-mutilate feathers.

To help a parrot overcome its desire to remove feathers, you must determine why it behaves this way. Then, remove the negative trigger from its living environment.

Feather-destructive behavior is unheard of among wild parrots but very common in captivity. The only exception is that feathers are manually removed to line nests in the breeding season.

While molting is entirely natural, feather plucking is a destructive behavior.