All About Cockatiel Feathers

written for NCS Magazine
By Dr. Jerry LaBonde, MS, DVM
Denver, CO

Feathers are what separate the birds from the beasts. Their structure is more similar to reptilian scales than mammalian hair. Feathers have a variety of functions such as flight, temperature regulation, protections against environmental and climatic extremes, and courtship display. In the wild, birds with poor feathering condition do not survive, therefore careful attention to the feathers and their condition is vital. Birds will use their beak and feet to condition and waterproof their feathers and to meticulously remove sheaths through which all new contour and flight feathers emerge. This process is called “preening” and at times is common between cage mates.

Because birds hide their disease symptoms so well, poor feather condition may be the first sign of an ill bird. The feather condition reflects the physiologic and psychological health of the bird. Many feather diseases have an underlying diet or internal disease problem as well as a psychological disorder. Missing or unhealthy feathers can indicate and ill bird or obsessive preening such as feather picking. A continuum developed by Rosskopf and Woepel is helpful to understand feather disorders.

Feather disorders (especially feather picking) can be one of the most frustrating and disconcerting conditions of caged birds to owners as well as their veterinarians. The list of factors contributing to feather problems or feather picking is long and extensive.
For example, poor feather condition can be related to improper environment or diet, trauma, hormonal and reproductive diseases, psychological, metabolic diseases, genetic, viruses, bacteria, fungi, as well as internal and external parasites. The frustrating part of feather disorders is that many of the conditions look identical. This makes the diagnostic workup by the veterinarian difficult. Contrary to popular opinion, external parasites (mites, in particular), are extremely rare among caged birds.

Close observation of the feathers and skin can sometimes give insight to the cause of poor feather appearance. For example, broken and ragged feathers could be due to improper housing, mate trauma, or delayed molt. Brittle and frazzled feathers with scaly skin is often a sign of poor nutrition. Stress marks (horizontal lines of improper feather growth) are a sign that when the feather was in the “pin” stage, the bird was ill or stressed. Retarded feather growth and retention of pin feather sheaths in young birds can be due to a dry environment. Abnormal coloration can be genetic, diet, or internal illness. This can be a common problem in cockatiels. The replacement of a white feather by a golden yellow one may indicate a problem. A low grade psittacosis infection can be one of the causes of this condition. Abnormal molts can be expressed by dark areas or fringes of feathers that appear bronzed and frayed. This is often a sign of illness, poor nutrition, or an imported bird to northern latitudes. If this is accompanied by puritis (itchy skin), it can indicate extreme environmental temperature fluctuations, low thyroid function or internal parasites such as giardia.

Some birds have poor feather condition because they are unable to preen. This condition can be the result of a neck or back injury. Some hand raised babies may have never learned the finer details of preening and therefore, have an unkempt appearance.

Feather cysts are ingrown feathers that can occur in cockatiels as well as other species. This is thought to be related to trauma to the follicle (the base of the feather) and in cannaries it is a genetic problem. Surgical removal is the only way to correct the problem. Baldness is a genetic problem in lutino cockatiels and hormonal in canaries. Papovavirus has been implicated in delayed feather replacement after a birds first mold of wing and contour feathers. In budgies they’re call “creepers” but it has been reported in cockatiels as well.

Feather picking is an obsessive, destructive behavior pattern during which all or part of feathers are pulled out, amputated or damaged. This must be distinguished from normal molting and preening behavior. The appearance of the feather picker is always the same. There is feather loss or damage below the neck and the head feathers are spared and appear healthy. The only exception to this is if the cage mate picks the head feathers of the “victim”. Causes for feather picking conditions in cockatiels are allergic and parasitic. The most notorious is giardia. Giardia is theorized to cause a malabsorption of needed vitamins and nutrients compounded by an allergic response to the parasite. This combination is responsible for the severe puritis that cockatiels get. The areas most frequently picked at are the wrist, shoulder, flank, and breast. At times the feather picking can get so intense the bird will mutilate it’s own body. Some birds can show a hypersensitivity to bacteria and fungi on the skin which can cause a bird to pick and mutilate it’s skin as well.

17 thoughts on “All About Cockatiel Feathers”

  1. Hi, I am going mad with my cockatiel he keeps on plucking his feathers, I have replaced his cage, he has a much bigger cage now filled with all sorts of toys and gadgets for him to play with, he get a cockatiel tonic every third day, he gets lots of food, he refuses to eat any form of fruit whatsoever. He gets better, then all of a sudden when I open him up in the mornings, his cage is full of feathers, all sorts from tail to soft feathers, he gets handles quite a lot. I just don’t know what to do anymore, do you think I should get him a mate.

  2. My oldest male cockatiel has lost most of the feathers around his neck due to female companionship. They are constantly on each other so I have to move her to another cage once a year. She drops several eggs a month. Is there a chance he can regrow his feathers with proper medicine?

  3. The lack of feathers in the back of his neck is totally common. Oftentimes these will regrow without medication at all. It doesn’t hurt him not to have his feathers.

  4. I have two cockatiels that are three months old. the male bird has no feathers on the top of his head. Could it be the other cockatiel pecks at him? or could it be that they are still young?


  5. Tracy

    It is possible that the other bird is plucking him. But, without seeing your birds, it is difficult to tell. If it is just on the very top of the head, just behind the crest, it could be hereditary baldness. Further information is needed to tell what is going on. I would invite you to join the National Cockatiel Society Facebook page, you can post some photos and ask the group – they may be able to give you more insight to what is going on.

  6. My bird is very young about 6/7 months old. Lately he has been losing feathers too easily around her neck and her little head hair. Is this normal?

  7. I have 2 birds in separate cages. Just recently the white one has been losing a lot of feathers and this morning she only has half her crest and a slight bald patch on her head. There are a lot of ‘fluffy’ feathers on the bottom of the cage and she sometimes has a frantic flutter at night where she also looses feathers.

  8. Hi, i have a male cockatiel (his name is Merry) and he does get dirty. We do bath him, but recently we have noticed that his tail feathers look mouldy? i’m not sure if it is actually mould or not, but thats what it looks like. He lives in an outdoor cage along with a lorikeet, but the lorikeet does not have any issues with feathers.

    i was hoping you could help us solve this little mystery so we can fix the problem.

    also, it doesn’t seem to be causing him any harm.


  9. My cocktaiel one big feather came out is it ok? I am so worried he is 6 month old and from his head also some feathers coming out is it ok?

  10. My mom is a teacher and found a cocktail walking around in her school parking lot, she captured it and gave it to me. I have no idea how old he is I took him to the pet store and they told me his wings appeared to have been clipped more recently. I decided to keep him. Now, I know nothing about birds… but b I’ve had this one for a little over a month and I’m in love. He doesn’t really act like he’s afraid of me unless I have to put my hand in his cage… and he tries to bite me. He picks through his food and I throw most of it out. I stayed the night out and came back to find that he was missing feathers on his head. Like, it looks like there’s a twig sticking out of the top of his head. .. I’ve noticed that he’s constantly picking at his faeathers…I’ve been doing a bit of research. …but I’d how to stop him from picking his feathers. .. sometimes I find a lot of fluffy feathers in his cage (usually not many big ones) I don’t know his name or how to talk to him….He does seem pretty smart though. I’m worried that his feather picking is getting worse and I don’t know how to make him stop… any suggestions anyone?

  11. Oh!…. and I bought him toys… but I never see him play with them… He only rocks himself on the swing

  12. Hi
    My bird has suddenly lost most of his left wing flight feathers all at once. I have had him for over 10 years and have never seen this before. He is excercised daily and virtually has free reign over his room. His diet is varied with cockateil seed, fruit and greens as well as the occasional treat of cooked rice or small amounts of vita brits. Any ideas?

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