Pecking is the manifestation of a psychological or physical discomfort. Pecking is a term that encompasses any act that damages the bird's plumage, whether it is breaking the feather in half, chewing it along its entire length or literally pulling it out of the skin. The bird can even go so far as to damage the skin under the feathers, sometimes even creating lesions right down to the blood! It is the expression of a discomfort that requires an investigation.
Unfortunately, there are many causes, both psychological and physical, which all differ from one another. We must therefore resort to a multitude of tests in order to direct our suspicions. Psychological causes of pecking are diagnosed by exclusion, i.e., since there are no tests available to detect that the bird is suffering from boredom, fear or sexual frustration, the physical causes, which can be detected, are sought first. If no test turns out to be positive, a psychological cause is then investigated.
Physical conditions that may cause pecking
Parasites, malnutrition, pain, heavy metal poisoning, egg retention, egg yolk coelomite, skin neoplasia, skin infection, allergy, irritation, etc.
Psychological conditions that may induce pecking
Boredom (frequent), sexual frustration, fear (person, object, noise), etc.
Several questions must be asked in order to collect clues that can guide our diagnosis and to select the tests to be carried out as a priority:
- Has your bird's environment changed (moving house, new object in the house, new person, new pet, new noises, new cleaning product, deodorant, laundry cleaner, perfume, toys, etc.)?
- Has there been a significant incident recently (injury, fleeing outside, arguing in front of him with another person, arguing with the bird...)?
- Do you smoke? (An irritant!)
- When was the last moult of your bird? How long did it last and was it complete?
- Have you recently renovated your house, waxed the floors or painted the walls?
- Has your bird been recently in contact with another bird?
- Was your bird tested for the 4 diseases?
Step 2: Examination
During the examination we look for signs of malnutrition, disease, skin problems, etc. A medical problem is primarily looked for at this stage.
Step 3: Tests
The answers to our questions and our examination findings are used to select the tests to be carried out to screen for medical causes, and to select those that are most likely to provide us with an answer. For example, if the bird has poor plumage, we carry out a feather analysis and look for parasites or disease of the feathers and beak.
Treatment (underlying cause)
Treatment of the underlying cause is started as soon as the diagnosis is obtained, as it varies according to the diagnosis.
- Pain medication may be given to the bird if there are lesions that appear to be painful.
- When your bird is pecking itself, do not react! Scolding your bird, talking or showing dissatisfaction are all considered signs of attention. Whether they are good or bad, it is an encouragement to him! You must replace this behaviour with another one, so you can take him without staring or talking at him and offer him a toy or put a movie on, to take his mind off it!
- Stop stroking your bird on its lower back, beak or under the belly if you already do. Without realizing it, you are sexually stimulating your bird and sexual frustration is often a psychological cause of pecking. Reduce your interactions to playing and keep stroking to a minimum. Leave it to someone else to pet your Buddy, always in moderation, of course.
- It is important to enrich your bird's environment in order to correct possible psychological causes. The main methods are foraging, teaching commands (hop, I'm hungry, good night, etc.) and social interactions.
In the wild, the parrot mainly engages in three activities: looking for food, socializing with its group and grooming.
Unfortunately, the reality at home is quite different. In most cases, the parrot will live without other companions of its species, making social interactions unfortunately very rare. Therefore, your bird will rely on the other two above-mentioned activities. When it comes to its food, we have the unfortunate habit of preparing everything for our bird to ensure that everything will be within reach. We’ll cut fruit into small pieces, remove the banana peel and place it in a bowl, ready to swallow. But these good intentions are not the best way to proceed! How about foraging? There’s no need to look for food, it’s readily available! So all that Buddy will have to do during the day, while you are away (eight hours on average, according to the typical workday) is grooming. As a result, the bird may groom itself excessively, damaging or tearing off its feathers, and pecking itself! Unfortunately, this is the most common problem encountered by parrots living in captivity – when putting their schedule into perspective, once can easily understand why! Here are a few tricks to prevent this catastrophe.
Maximize interaction with your bird; you are its only friend, involve it in your daily life. Bring it out with you at mealtimes, take it in the shower with you (it will use the opportunity to wash itself too!) or take it out running errands (always with a harness!) Watch television with it, you can even swap your action films for home movies on occasion: he'll love it! If your work allows, why not setting up a cage near your desk so it can keep you company during the day?
Play with your bird: you'd be amazed at what you'll get out of it, and for your bird as well! You can play hide and seek; many birds also like to dance or imitate particular sounds. You can buy Fisher Price toys designed for children under a year old, which are colourful and musical and will keep them busy for a long time while developing their learning skills.
Introduce it to as many people as possible. The more familiar your bird will be interacting with strangers, the more confident it will be and the less likely you will have difficulty receiving visitors at home. However, make sure that the person is comfortable before introducing your bird to them; they may feel fear from people and be afraid in turn, which is often a dangerous combination.
Teach it commands: "hop" to climb on your hand, "good night" at bedtime, "eat" at meals, "no" while specifying what it must not touch – or "no" won’t mean anything! This way, you’ll be able to implement a certain consistency in your mutual exchanges, as well as firmness and rules in your interactions.
Leave the television or radio on before going to work.
This term refers to the search for food, any activity with the objective of getting something to eat ... just like in nature! Several options exist:
- Hide pieces of fruit/vegetables/nuts in paper balls and tie them up everywhere in the cage, even in hard-to-reach places.
- Offer whole fruit: banana with its peel, quarter watermelon or pumpkin, bunch of grapes. The messier the food, the more fun it is ... for the bird!
- Place a clean cardboard box (e.g., shoe box) in its cage and place scraps of paper in the bottom. Then hide nuts in the box!
- Once your bird has understood the concept, increase the level of difficulty: cover its food bowl with paper and close it up with Scotch tape! Hide snacks in a small cardboard box. Present small, closed boxes of Rice Krispies or Frosted Flakes whole-grain cereal (shake the box in front of your bird so it understands there's something inside).
- Place pieces of food in cardboard tubes, make it work for a surprise!
- Avoid sudden changes in your bird's life.
- Be attentive to its needs. If it looks like it's falling asleep, put it quietly in its cage, even if it's the middle of the day! Does it want to play with you while you try to work quietly at home? Take a break, put its harness on and take it outside for 30 minutes! We bet he'll take a little nap when he gets home! Then, you can work undisturbed and he'll be happy on its own!
- Give your bird an interesting and entertaining life! Environmental enrichment is not a temporary treatment, it must be instilled 12 hours a day, the whole time your bird isn’t sleeping, 7 days a week!