In birds, moulting is a completely natural process but can also be a sign of health problems. The shedding of feathers to be replaced with new ones is a regular and normal process for birds as feathers are ‘dead’ parts a lot like human fingernails. Moreover, like a human hair follicle, the feather follicle will not produce a new one until the old one has gone. This is moulting.
Different birds’ species moult at different times of the year, often depending where their species was originally from, the seasons or their breeding cycle. Moulting is also used as a temperature regulation during winter. So when you buy a bird, find out when its natural moulting season is, so you can keep an eye open for it.
During the moult, a bird slowly replaced most all of its feathers. It is hard on the bird as it uses extra energy to make the feathers and the loss of feathers can also be stressful. Depending again on the breed of bird, it can last from a few weeks to several months, with parrots having the longest moulting periods.
Preening is the key to the moult for a bird. When the quill of a feather becomes loose, the bird removes it to let a new one grow. Each feather grows in a protective casing made from keratin and this needs to be removed for the feather to open up. The bird then further preens the feather to open it up fully.
During the moult, birds will preen an excessive amount and white flaking material will often collect in their cage or home. It looks a bit like dandruff and can cause owners to be concerned about dry, itchy skin. People think the bird may need oil to help alleviate this but that isn’t the case. The residue is simply a by-product of the keratin removal.
One important factor to help your bird through its moult is diet. When moulting, food amounts ingested should increase by around 25% to help compensate for the extra energy needed. One of the best methods is to increase fresh fruit, vegetables, and cereals to the diet. Depending on the species, boiled egg yolks added to fresh food can be beneficial as well as insects for species that will take them, both of which are high in protein.
You can buy special moulting food and there are tonics available to be added to water to help give a boost in the worst cases.
Warmth is also important during the moult, especially if the bird moults in our winter. Loss of feathers equals loss of insulation meaning that even the faintest draft can affect the bird. Again, some species are more susceptible to cold than others are but even the hardiest bird will be affected when moulting. Rest is also crucial and they will need 8-12 hours darkness a day to get through the moult.
Birds will also be a bit anti-social when moulting, just as we are when we feel unwell. They may take to hiding in dark, quiet spots so keep a check on them but otherwise, give them a little space. If they have lost flight feathers and cannot fly properly, this will make them feel even more vulnerable so may be bad tempered and may bite. However, bear with them, none of us are at our best at these times!
Irregular feather loss or plucking happens outside of the normal moulting season and can often be a symptom of a health issue or a behavioural problem.
Some of the causes of plucking are:
Humidity can be cause of irregular feather loss due to the bird’s natural environment. If yours is a species that comes from a rainforest climate, they will be used to high humidity and without it, feathers can be dry and itchy, causing them to pluck. One way to remedy this is to make sure they always have access to a birdbath and lightly mist their feathers each day. This will help make the home environment more what they are used to.
As a behavioural disorder, it is often known as pterotillomania, or feather damaging behaviour. This is where the bird chews or bites their feathers and even the skin. It is most commonly seen in parrot species birds where figures show as many as 10% of birds have this problem. The three main reasons for the disorder is thought to be cage size restricting the bird’s movements, a barren environment which doesn’t provide stimulation for the bird and solitary housing which basically leads to loneliness. It can also be a coping strategy for a bird that is feeling stressed.
The best way to stop the behaviour is to find out the cause behind it. Seek a vet’s opinion or another parrot keeper who may be able to offer tips as to what the problem may be. Usually a larger cage and/or more entertainments and time out of the cage can help with recovery. There are also aids to stop the bird plucking such as jackets when the breast and belly area has been plucked. This simply adds a knitted or material garment like a human would wear over these areas that protects them and means the bird cannot get at the newly growing feathers. They also look very adorable!
There is a disease called Psittacine Beak and Feather Disease (PBFD), which attacks the immune system and shows up when a bird moults. It is most common in parrots, macaws, cockatoos and lovebirds and often results in feathers regrowing in an abnormal way. The disease isn’t curable and is very infectious so if you see any signs that something is amiss with your bird, seek vet assistance immediately.
The moult happens to every bird and for some, the stress of it is too much and particularly their first moult, they do not make it through. There are things you can to help out and to watch out for signs that it is more than just a natural moult then hopefully your bird will come out the other end with