The Unconventional Guide to Cockatoos, Part II: Understanding Feather Destructive Behavior

Not all cockatoos are perfectly feathered on the outside, but having a better understanding to the "why" behind feather-destructive behavior can help us see our cockatoos' true beauty on the inside.

Parrots with feather destructive behavior (FDB) need just as much love, compassion, and understanding from us, with just require a little more attention in the "management" department. Via Kim Hannah

Click here for Part 1

Life with a cockatoo is often entertaining and fun. But along with the sunny brightness that cockatoos bring to our lives, there is a darker side that can be as frustrating as it is heartbreaking: feather-destructive behavior .

According to Margaret Wissman, DVM, feather-destructive behavior is:

The willful damage or destruction by a bird of its own feathers. The general term of “feather destructive behaviors?(or FDB) encompasses any form of a bird? self-inflicted feather damage, including shredding the feathers, biting them off, pulling them out, etc.

When is the last time you saw a flock of featherless cockatoos in the wild? Feather destructive behavior in cockatoos (for the sake of this article, we will refer to this as “FDB” ) can be heartbreaking for us and life-threatening for our parrots. And while it is not species-specific, there is high prevalence of FDB in cockatoos.

FDB can range from simply fraying feathers, to snipping off parts of feathers (“barbing”), to shredding feathers, to completely plucking feathers out. Worst of all is when the behavior moves past destruction of feathers and on to self-mutilation.

Why? Why would such a beautiful, intelligent creature destroy their feathers or mutilate themselves? The truth is that we just don’t know as much as we should about these sensitive, complex birds who were never meant to live a caged life… and FDB is a sad result of that.

Here are a few things to consider if you bring a cockatoo with FDB into your life:

1. Why Would A Cockatoo Pull Its Feathers Out? Sometimes It’s Physiological or Medical

FDB can also be a very distinct “clue” to internal issues instead of emotional ones.

Nutritional imbalances, metal toxicity, parasites, bacteria and fungal infections, reactions to environmental toxins (such as cigarette smoke ) and even cancer can upset the delicate balance of a parrot’s system, which has also been shown in many cases to be a direct cause of FDB.

Avian veterinarians can be very instrumental in helping to figure out whether the cause of FDB in some parrots is due to internal issues. For that reason, it is very important to seek their expertise to rule out possible underlying conditions. In these cases, treatment can sometimes cause FDB to cease altogether, provided that it has not become a habit. Much like chewing one’s fingernails, FDB can become a habit that is very, very difficult to break.

We should not judge our parrots by how they look on the outside, just as we are not judge each other by our own “book covers.”

We should not judge our parrots by how they look on the outside, just as we are not judge each other by our own “book covers.”

2. Why Does A Bird Pluck Its Feathers? Sometimes It’s Emotional

Cockatoos are sensitive, complex and emotional creatures. Sometimes, but not all the time, FDB results from a lack of understanding or a complete disregard for a parrot? basic needs: safety, comfort, play and diet.

Imagine that you lived in a world where no one could understand your language. You could not explain what your life was like. No one really understand if you were happy or sad, or in pain.

You could not explain that maybe sometimes you did not get to come out of your cage for long periods of time, or that you never had bird-safe toys to play with or safe wood to chew on. You could not tell them that you did not have a balanced diet, or clean water… and that sometimes you felt that no one even cared that you existed.

You could not tell them you were lonely. You could not explain that maybe you felt like something was “wrong” inside of you, and when you tried to ask for help, you were ignored, yelled at or even shut into a dark closet.

Imagine that you could not say that you never wanted to destroy your own feathers, pull them out, or even dangerously harm yourself, but that the release of pain-killing endorphins in doing so was the only way you knew to ease your discomfort or despair. Even worse was that you no longer wanted to do this to yourself, but now you could not stop.

Imagine how horrible it would be that you could not share with anyone that on some days, you wondered if this was how you were supposed to live … forever?

The despair and/or frustration that parrots with FDB must undoubtedly feel can manifest itself in ways that are really not too dissimilar from our own. I am probably not the only one who has known of someone who felt so powerless with their circumstances , whose cries for help were never truly “heard”… until it was too late.

So even though we think we are quite different from our feathered friends, perhaps we really are not.

Even with the profound advancements we have made in understanding the nutritional, emotional, and physical needs of parrots in recent years, the causes and treatment of FDB still continues to remain a mystery.

3. And Sometimes There Is No Answer To Why Cockatoos Pick Their Feathers

Is there an answer to FDB? Probably. Is it always easy to figure out? Sometimes not, if ever.

Sometimes all the tests in the world cannot unravel the mystery or solve the problem of FDB. The most frustrating part of trying to understand FDB is that there is often no pattern or no rhyme or reason to its cause.

“I have had birds come here from really bad situations and be perfectly feathered, and others with FDB that have come from loving families with the best of everything,” says Kim Hannah, President and Executive Director of “EAST,” Exotic Avian Sanctuary of Tennessee.

When Thor, our 30-year-old Moluccan cockatoo, came to live with us, she came with missing feathers on her back, chest and legs.

Even after numerous visits with avian vets, extensive blood-work and diagnostics, all reports where perfectly normal. And yet, there she sat, bare-legged with missing feathers.

I wish I knew about Thor’s past life. There is almost 30 years of mystery there that I will probably never unravel, but within those years probably lies the key to what started her feather-destructive behavior.

All I know is that while I may never solve that mystery, I will give her a healthy, enriched, well-balanced, and much-loved life from this point forward. I don? care what she looks like on the outside. I love her for the wonderful and endearing creature she is on the inside.

Cocaktoos are known for feather destructive behaviorEven with the profound advancements we have made in understanding the nutritional, emotional, and physical needs of parrots in recent years, the causes and treatment of FDB still continues to remain a mystery.

4. Love Them For Who They Are, Not How They Look

Parrots with FDB are not “bad birds.” They should never be shunned or treated as though they are “less” than their fully feathered counterparts.

“Sometimes all it takes is a good diet, lots of enrichment and stimulation ( bird-safe toys and foraging ), sunlight, showers, as well as bird safe wood to chew on and destroy to keep them busy and redirect their behavior,” says Kim, “But remember, you may try all those things and some parrots will continue to barb their feathers or pluck. And that? ok, because they can still become wonderful, life-long, companions.

In some cases, cockatoos that pluck or mutilate themselves may require lifetime use of protective vests or collars, but not all parrots with FDB require such extreme measures. It? also very important to not give too much attention to your parrot if you catch them picking at their feathers or plucking. The very last thing you want to happen in this type of situation is to turn FDB into attention-seeking behavior.

It takes a tremendous amount of commitment to bring a cockatoo with FDB into your life. But no matter how frustrated you may get sometimes, always remember that these beautiful creatures never wanted to be that way in the first place. They did not ask for a captive life. No one gave them a choice… and they are doing the very best that they can to deal with that.

We need to love our shabby, shaggy, and sometimes bald ‘toos for the beautiful creatures they are on the inside.


Because who we are in our hearts is exactly the manner in which they love us.

Article Categories:
Birds · Health and Care