March/April 2003 Magazine
One of the most disheartening things a bird owner can experience is having a bird who plucks his feathers or mutilates himself. The first step is to see a veterinarian to determine if the cause is medical. Having ruled this out, the cause is then most likely behavioral. It may be lonliness, boredom, or lack of attention. But no one knows all the reasons why birds begin to pluck their feathers.
While there is no sure cure, some people have had success in stopping (or reducing) this behavior by providing the bird with lots of toys, some designed to look like feathers or another bird. Here are some ideas which may help.
Paper is a good source material - plain white paper, packing papers such those used when moving, newspaper or even paper towels (for small birds). Since paper is light and can be torn into strips which flap easily, some birds think of them as a feather substitute. Here are a few ideas:
- Tear paper into long 1"-2" wide strips and weave through the the bars of the cage, leaving the ends flapping loose. Use multiple layers for strength.
- Roll up a few sheets of newspaper into a tube or roll. Insert the tube into a narrow ring or short piece of PVC pipe so that the ring is in the middle of the tube. Make slits in the ends of the paper on each side about 2"-3" (less if you have a small bird), fan out the pieces and hang in the cage, preferrably at one side. Some birds will preen the ends, as if they are feathers. Others just enjoy attacking and shredding the paper. Sizes can be varied to suit the species and size of bird.
- The Corn Stalk. This is something that we used to make when we were children. Roll a few pieces of paper into a tube. Makes slits in one end. While loosely holding onto the other end, reach into the inside of the slit end and grab the innermost ring of paper. Slowly pull it out. As you pull the various layers will come out forming a longer tube which looks like a cornstalk with pieces of the slit paper forming leaves. Place a piece of tape on the uncut end to keep the tube from unravelling and hang in the cage.
Mops and Mop-like Toys
Real mops or toys in the shape of mopheads are objects which birds like to preen. The individual strands ressemble feathers and are an invitation to the bird to preen them, taking attention away from their own feathers and keeping the bird busy.
- Purchase a cotton mophead from your local supermarket. Be sure to check the labels and get one which has not been treated. Before using it, wash it to remove any contaminents or loose dust. You can hang the mophead in the cage as is (along the side and near a favorite perch is best). You can also put knots in some of the strands, (especially if your bird likes to undo knots) or tie small pieces of wood, leather or beads to the strands. Experiment to see what your bird prefers. The bird may also treat the mophead as another bird and choose to sleep next to it.
- Purchase or find an old cotton sheet. Tear into long 1/2" - 1 1/2" wide strips, depending upon the bird's size. Tie a piece of rope or a ring at the middle of the strands so that they will hang like a mophead. The idea is to make a toy about the size of the bird and which the bird thinks is another bird. This may entice the bird to either preen the toy or snuggle up against it when sleeping. Try different colors of cloth, choosing some that are similar to the color of the bird.
Hang the cloth toy in the cage (along the side and near a favorite perch is best). You can also put knots in some of the strands. Experiment to see what your bird prefers.
- Purchase or make toys which look like mops. You can use cotton or sisal rope or leather strands to make the toys. Try the knots to see if the bird likes to undo them as part of the preening behavior. They are very easy to make and restore yourself. If using rope, then get a cotton, woven rope, which does not unwind. (See below)
Knot and String Toys
- This toy is made of many small pieces of rope which are knotted around a metal ring. There are a number of success stories with this toy. It seems to capture the interest of the birds and helps reduce plucking. It is also easy to gather the pieces which have been untied by the bird and retie them onto the toy. This particular toy is called Pluck No More and can be purchased from Kings Cages at www.KingsCages.com. However, a number of companies make similar toys. If and when the rope pieces wear out, they can be replaced with woven (braided) cotton rope.
This toy is relatively easy to make at home. Cut pieces of rope into 6"-12" pieces depending upon the size of the bird. Knot them around a metal wire ring, so that the ends extending from the knots are at least 1 1/2" inches long. Keep adding pieces until the ring is filled with the knotted rope. Hang in the cage. If the bird unties the pieces too quickly, then use longer pieces of rope and make multiple knots. You can even tie pieces of leather lacing here and there. Try coloring the rope with safe dyes. The important thing is to get braided or woven, not twisted, cotton rope. (See below)
- The following toys also have a lot of strings and knots on them which may attract a bird's preening attention. Look for these types of toys in your favorite pet store or catalogs.
Another thing that has been tried is a broom. If you can find a broom made of untreated straw or some safe material, hang the broomhead in the cage as a toy. Be sure to wash it first. It may be better to hang it on the outside of the cage, so that the strands peek through between the bars. For small birds, try a whisk broom.
Materials and Sources
One of the hardest things to find is woven or braided cotton rope. Another is good coloring agents at affordable prices.
- When looking for rope for toys it is easy to find twisted rope. However, this rope will quickly unravel at the cut ends into separate strands and is not the rope to use for the toys described above. Most companies selling bird toy parts carry twisted rope.
The rope pictured here, courtesy of Birds and Branches, is difficult to find. It is commonly called woven or braided rope and is cotton all the way through.
There are some places, such as marinas or home improvement stores which sell braided ropes. However, these are usually either woven using an acrylic fiber or only the outside is woven, covering an inner core of straight acrylic fibers. In the latter, the outer woven cover often pulls back from the ends, exposing the stiff inner fibers. This type of rope does not tie well into knots and also may be dangerous to the birds.
Birds & Branches at http://www.birdb.com/rope.htm carries a variety of sizes of braided cotton rope.
- When coloring wood or other toy parts, use a dye which is safe, affordable and which produces a strong color. People often use food colorings and Kool-aid (or diet Kool-aid to avoid the sugar) purchased at supermarkets. However, the colors which result are often pale or washed out. Some people recommend adding a little vinegar for brighter colors. Food colorings come in small bottles and some are very expensive if dying large quantities. If you wish to dye the ropes in these toys, try some of these products. However, if you are unhappy with the result, Exquisite Colourant at http://www.vitacritter.com sells concentrated toy dyes in a variety of strong colors, so a little goes a long way. They are made of the same human grade food colorings used in food and are affordable.
If you have a bird which plucks its feathers, hopefully some of these suggestions will help. If not, then try a few of these ideas on your birds anyway. They may enjoy them.
Winged Wisdom Note: Melinda Brooks has owned birds for over fifteen years, including finches, tiels, budgies, conures, cockatoos, amazons and macaws.
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Last update: July 1, 2003