Fair feather friends

By Dr Dorianne Elliot 


Birds are set apart in the animal world due to their feathers. Feathers are highly specialised outgrowths of the epidermis, or outer layer of the skin and over millions of years they’ve been modified into thousands of different, highly effective designs. The most amazing adaptation allowed by feathers is of course the ability to fly. Feathers have allowed birds to master the skies and spread right across the globe. Apart from the gift of flight, feathers play many varied roles in the lives of birds.

Fantastic Feather Functions

Penguins use feathers for waterproofing and insulation. They can happily survive sub-zero temperatures while fishing. Owls have stealth feathers – their unique wings operate in complete silence in order to fool the excellent hearing abilities of their rodent prey. Emus (related to Ostriches) have two feathers growing from each shaft. Oh and come to think of it, you know those highly sought-after eiderdowns? These warm comforters are stuffed with the soft downy feathers from the Eider Duck. She lives in Iceland and uses the fluffy down to line her nest and keep her chicks warm.

Colours Take Flight!

No other group of animals can compete with birds for sheer variety and intensity of colour. Interestingly enough, many feathers (especially the metallic blue, green and purple types) are actually dark in colour but give off a bright sheen when exposed to sunlight. This is because the feathers have millions of tiny refracting surfaces that reflect the sunlight back towards the observer. You may have noticed that male birds are often the more attractive ones. This is because they need their flamboyant plumage to attract mates. The more gorgeous and impressive they look, the more interest the females are likely to take in them. This fancy dress parade is taken to the extreme in the Indonesian Birds of Paradise.

When Feathers Fly …

Unfortunately an all too common problem with captive and pet birds is poor feather quality. Feather damage can either be caused by external factors such as the bird biting or scratching himself, or it can be as a result of poor feather quality. Many birds, especially intelligent and sensitive species such as African Greys and White Cockatoos, are prone to feather destructive behaviour.Contrary to popular belief, this behaviour is not always due to “boredom” or “stress”. Feather destructive behaviour is a complex and multi-factorial problem that should be thoroughly evaluated on an individual basis in order to find and implement a solution.

Feathers Maketh The Bird?

The most common reason for poor feathering is an unhealthy diet. Parrots enjoy high fat foods and if given half a chance will overeat on fatty foods such as sunflower seeds and peanuts and will ignore healthy foods such as greens. Over time parrots can become extremely stubborn with dietary preferences and will need to be actively trained to eat a more balanced diet. Simply placing a bowl of vegetables or healthy parrot pellets in the cage will be a waste of time as the bird will either ignore them or actively hurl them from the cage in its attempts to find the

Preferred seeds

A seed-based diet is deficient in multiple vitamins and minerals and will lead to Vitamin A, Calcium and other deficiencies. These deficiencies can lead to obesity, heart failure, seizures, pneumonia, kidney failure, poor feather quality and a host of other problems. Teaching your parrot to eat a healthy, balanced diet consisting of at least 60% properly balanced parrot pellets with added vegetables, some fruit and a few seeds as a treat is the single most important thing you can do to give your bird a long and healthy life.

Find Help Fast!

Feather destructive behaviour, where the bird actively bites, shreds, pulls out or otherwise damages its own feathers can be a very difficult behaviour to control. The sooner one gets control of the problem the better! Once the behaviour becomes a habit and self-rewarding, the chances of stopping it for good are slim. Apart from dietary problems there are many diseases, psychological problems and other causes of poor feather quality and it is highly recommended to allow an experienced avian veterinarian to examine any bird as soon as poor feather quality is noticed, to give you the best chance of solving the problem.

Enjoy your feathered friends!


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