Indian Ringneck Parakeet in flight, closeup of the open right wing feathering.

What a Bird's Feathers Tell Us

What a Bird's Feathers Tell Us

With a muscle for every feather there is more going on for a parrot and his feathers than flying. Feathers offer thermoregulation, protection, communication, flight, nesting material, camouflage, mating ritual expressions, and pride.  A healthy bird takes time and pride in their feathering.

Feathering offers a wealth of information.  

  • Parrots communicate constantly with involuntary and voluntary feather movements. A helmet of fluffed feathers on the head, head lowered, raised shoulders, feathers fluffed on the neck or all around the neck are a clear no.
  • Involuntary feather movements and positions are a health and nutrition indicator. An ill parrot will fluff for warmth, comfort, or to compensate for feeling weak by looking larger. Quick chest respiration, open mouth, and fluffed feathers with sagging wings are an indication of sick bird.
  • Stress bars in feathers are a timeline telling us when nutrition was low or when stress was high. Much like rings on a tree. Stress bars can't be healed or removed but they are excellent timeline clues if you are trying to unravel a bird's behavior.

For example, our Macaw Butters showed stress bars on her tail feathers on a wellness Vet visit. We were able to put the time the feathers came into Felix's (CAG) arrival to the flock. A bit of rehashing those weeks and we realized the new cage and new bird introduction wasn't done very well for Butters' needs.

When we brought Snickers home, we applied what we learned. Through the next molting and new feather growth we saw no stress bars on Felix or Butters. This is a long process of course. Using all the communication lines our parrots offer us allows us to gather knowledge we can use down the road, as well as in the current moment.

With flight feathers connected to bone and thereby connected to air sacs, a fully-fledged bird also has a healthier respiratory system, simply by allowing the interdependent feather, muscle, air sac mechanism to generate under normal conditions of stress via fledging. A fully fledged parrot is shown to have less fear, better balance, and more confidence. He learns to act volitionally. 

Trimming feathers for control or safety reasons is a personal choice and should not be judged. Knowing and understanding the physiologic affects is helpful for understanding feather communication and usage after the trimming. When feathers are trimmed or missing, the muscles utilized by those feathers are no longer used. They are stagnant from the loss. These missing feathers can no longer be used for communication. Missing flight also removes communication. These are not statements of judgement, but statements of physiological facts. Something to think about when making that decision.

When you are enjoying your parrot's company take time to notate their feathers and feather communication. They have a lot to say, even when they are quietly preening. 

Kathy LaFollett is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.

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