Carl’s Severe Macaw – Is it plucking, molting or over-preening?

Carl’s Severe Macaw – Is it plucking, molting or over-preening?

Why are those feathers in the cage floor? Is it plucking, molting or over-preening?

We recently received an email from a subscribe of Sunday Brunch that I am sharing with you below:

I recently adopted a 15 year old Severe Macaw whose previous owner had a terminal illness. I could tell the Macaw had been taken care of meticulously from the written records of her care from Hatch Papers to recent complete blood panels however I never had the opportunity to question the previous owner concerning details of ‘Bandit”. I knew the moment I saw her that  I wanted her as I owned a Severe 30+ years ago and have known several over the years but none as sweet as this little girl.

We spend at least an hour each day cuddled up and grooming each other, over the last month I finished

assisting in the removal of cuticle from her new feathers and thought she was finishing a molt but in the last ten days she has begun to lose a large number of feathers from down. tertiary flights a couple of tail feathers and everything in between. some come out during our preening sessions but most are found in her cage.

She receives a well rounded diet of fruits, veggies, seed and pellets which I prepare twice daily along with four others who own my heart and soul, all rescue kids.

I am concerned about the beginning of a plucking problem since Bandit is new to our family even though she seems to be very well adjusted and happy.

Are there any Tell-Tale signs to differentiate between Preening with Molting and Plucking ? Any advice you can offer or things to look for that might settle my mind would be appreciated.

Thank You for your Time and Advice,

Carl B

This problem certainly is in the minds of other adoptive parrot parents and here is my advice:

Let’s look at the three ways parrots can lose feathers and how to deal with each.


When a bird molts, it loses feathers in a symmetrical pattern. This means that if a primary flight feather on the left side molts, the matching one on the right side will molt at the same time or within a day or so.

The tertiary flight feather, or inner wing feathers, molt first and the pattern moves out the wing. Tail feathers will molt in the same pattern and then the contour feathers covering the body molt along with the down feathers, those fluffy inner feathers. Each feather is replaced quickly but at times the bird can look a bit ragged. There should never be a bald spot during a molt. All this is nature’s way of preserving the ability for the bird to fly while replacing feathers with new ones. The molt begins based on a complex combination of hormones and environment.


Every day a healthy bird spends time grooming its feathers. This removes dander and the keratin sheaths of new feathers growing in. Those birds that have a preen gland (the uropygial gland) located at the base of the tail will rub oil on their beaks and spread it over the feathers. The vast majority of birds commonly kept as companion birds have this gland. The oil on the feathers if what makes a bird nearly waterproof.

Some birds, especially when stressed or having a medical problem, will over-groom their feathers, creating a ragged look and likely breaking some feathers. This habit can lead to plucking, the last subject we will look at.

A parrot like Carl’s that has lost its human and been placed in a new home can mourn the missing human and experience stress due to the presence of other birds (if it was an only bird before). Some random feathers can be lost due to over-grooming but it is not likely to happen in the same pattern of feathers as in a molt.

A parrot that is over-grooming should have support by daily giving a good multivitamin and mineral supplement as well as an anti-stress supplement like Avi Calm Bird Supplement. If the air is dry, frequent opportunities to bathe or shower can help as well as items to prevent boredom like foraging toys, climbing toys, wood toys to chew, shreddable toys and other attractive, interesting toys. Arrange the cage so that the bird has a screen of toys in one area to hide behind and arrange the other items in the cage so that the bird has space to move around but has something nearby to play with. Some parrots love to sleep in a birdie bed and feel secure at night using it. If the parrot seems to like television or music, leave this distraction on when the bird is alone during the day.

It is important to address over-grooming — the most likely thing Carl’s parrot is doing — before it becomes a real habit or progresses to plucking. It is much easier to stop at this point than it is if it progresses to plucking. It is also important to have the bird visit an avian vet to be sure a health problem is not causing or adding to the over-grooming.


Plucking is the act of a bird purposefully pulling out feathers. It is much like humans who cut themselves because the pain caused by yanking a feather out releases endorphins in the brain of humans or birds. A depressed bird will feel different, even happier, due to the release of endorphins so it can easily become like an addiction. Plucking will leave bare spots where the feathers were pulled out and can even result in a near-naked bird. Long-time plucking can damage feather follicles so that feathers will never regrow.

Plucking can be addressed in the same ways as over-grooming but it is a much harder habit to break. A plucking parrot should definitely visit a vet to see if health may be an issue. If not health problems are present, the second most likely cause is boredom, but in Carl’s case it may be depression due to feeling of loss of its former home and human. A plucking parrot needs the same supplements as an over-grooming bird, but should also have a supplement for feather growth.

Place a plucking bird in the area of the home where it gets the most attention and where activities occur. It could be a good idea to place the new bird away from any existing parrots until it adjust to its new home.

We wish Carl and his Bandit success in stopping the over-grooming which is what I think is happening. By looking at the feathers lost, you can in a few days see if a molt is the cause but even then adding vitamin and mineral support as well as a calming supplement is a good idea. From Carl’s email it doesn’t sound like Bandit is plucking — at least not yet — but she should be watched to see if you see the bird actually removing feathers forcefully.

written by nora caterino
approved by catherine tobsing
approved by mitch rezman

your zygodactyl footnote

This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. Your picture of a Severe Macaw is actually a Military Macaw, Ara militaris not Ara severa

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