Cockatoo Heaven

Cockatoo Characteristics



Feather Dust And The Powder Down Birds
by Carol Highfill

Presented with permission from
Winged Wisdom Magazine

Anyone who has spent time around birds is very aware of the feathers, feather particles and feather dust which will be found around the area. But there are some species of parrots which produce an additional feather dander called powder. These birds - often known as the Powder Down Birds - are Cockatoos, Cockatiels and African Greys.

Is Feather Dust A Problem?

People who are very concerned with neatness in their homes are poor candidates for owning any pet bird. They would be fighting a losing battle, trying to eliminate all signs of feather dander in their home.

However, even for those not-so-neat-freaks, feather dust can also be a health hazard. People with asthma, allergies or respiratory problems can experience breathing problems from feather dander. Even those who can tolerate some feather dust, may not be able to handle the additional dust produced by a Powder Down Bird.

There is a disease called allergic alveolitis (also known as budgerigar dander pneumonicosis, bird breeder's disease, hypersensitivity pneumonitis and pigeon breeder's lung) which affects the lungs and occurs in people who are hypersensitive to feathers, feather dust, and fecal material -- expecially from pigeons and budgies. You can read more about it in Allergic Alveolitus.

Feather Dust can be easily spread throughout a home. Birds have a wide variety of feathers, from large flight feathers to tiny down feathers. Read more about feathers at Feathers. The tiny down feathers, small pieces of feathers and other feather particles are very light and can easily be carried throughout the area by traffic, air currents and even via air conditioning and heating ducts.

We own 4 umbrella cockatoos and quickly got used to a white film of dust on our furniture and floors. Our birds were housed in a bird room off our kitchen and we often had to wipe a layer almost 1/8th inch thick off the top of our refrigerator. The feather dust also traveled through our heating ducts and not only emerged in every room, but also lodged in the air conditioning coils on our furnace. Cleaning and repairing costs came to $500. Furnace filters have to be replaced every two weeks instead of the usual 3 months.

What Causes Feather Dust

Feather dander is caused by a variety of factors. When birds preen their feathers and during periods of playing and excercising, small pieces of feathers are frequently broken off. These pieces drop to the ground, but air currents, fluttering wings of the birds, etc. help spread these pieces throughout the environment. Bathing is another source of losing full or portions of feathers. And when molting occurs or during periods of high activity, entire feathers are also lost.

New feathers grow in with a keratin coating on the sheath of the feather. As the feather matures, the keratin dries and breaks off in small pieces, producing feather dander.

The Powder Down Birds have an additional type of feather. Powder down feathers are small specialized feathers that shed a very fine, white, waxy powder composed of keratin. Powder down forms a waterproof barrier for contour feathers and is spread through the feathers when the bird grooms. Cockatiels, Cockatoos and African Greys, produce the greatest amount of powder on their feathers. If one strokes a powder down bird, it will feel very silky and soft. And when done, there will often be a coating of fine white powder on the hand. As mentioned above, powder down can cause irritation to people with respiratory problems and allergies.

Most parrots - except amazons and a few of the macaws - have a preen gland (uropygial gland) which is found on the back at the base of the tail. When a bird grooms its feathers, it spreads the secretions from the gland throughout its feathers. This is important for waterproofing the feathers, manufacturing vitamin D precursors, keeping the skin, feathers, and bill supple, and performing an antibacterial function. But it also causes feather dust to be slightly sticky and difficult to remove.

How Can Feather Dust Be Controlled

There are a number of things that can be done to reduce the amount of feather dust. Frequent bathing of birds, daily sweeping, mopping and vacuuming, wiping down the cage and changing the cage liners often can help. For those who are sensitive, use a face mask when changing or cleaning the cage. Don't use a carpet in the room which contains the bird cage.

Limit the number of birds owned or get a smaller species which doesn't put out as much dust. Pet or play with birds immediately after bathing, when they are less dusty.

Changing furnace filters more frequently also helps. Some people put Hepa filtering devices in their bird rooms or other areas where they spend time. Some add these filters to their furnaces. Getting a vacuum with a Hepa filter also helps clean the air. Others use air cleaners (ionizers), but this is a controversial solution.

Replace drapes with vertical blinds, if possible. They catch less dust. There are even pillowcovers which act as filters. Dust living areas often with products like Swiffers which attract dust.

Some people will have problems, no matter what is done and should think twice about owning a bird. Others may be able to tolerate birds, but not the powder down birds. Birds are wonderful pets, but are not for everyone.

Winged Wisdom Note: Carol and husband Kenneth have owned pet birds for over 13 years and are co-creators of the Birds n Ways, Winged Wisdom and Cockatoo Heaven websites.

Article Copyright © 2001 Carol Highfill and Winged Wisdom. All rights reserved.
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