Lecure 6 Delaney

Self-injurious Behavior as a Model for Psychological Feather Damaging Behavior in Psittacine Birds

Presenting Author: Susan E. Orosz, DVM, PhD, Dipl ABVP (Avian), Dipl ECAMS

and Cathy Johnson Delaney, DVM, Dipl ABVP (Avian)

University of Tennessee, TN and Dept of Comparative Medicine, University of Washington, WA

Interpretive Review and comments by Dr. Nemetz

These two veterinarians presented an interesting view on a societal psychological cause for what they more appropriately labeled "Feather Damaging Behavior" based on studies in primates. Dr. Nemetz has discussed with clients and given lectures on the fact that many psittacine species develop intricate social groups in the wild and their aberrant upbringing by humans may have a substantial influence on a bird's propensity to feather damaging behavior or self-injurious behavior (self-mutilation). The birds' social interactions can also vary seasonally. Drs. Orosz and Delaney stated that even the group size varies among species. During the nonbreeding season, groups of Amazons consist of smaller groups (<15-20) compared with Cockatoos ( Cacatua species) and African grey parrots ( Psittacus erithacus) that can exist in groups larger than 50. Dr. Nemetz was not surprised, supporting his belief that Cockatoos and African grey parrots form stronger social interactive bonds than do amazon and macaw species. This data also supports why Cockatoos and African grey parrots are the #1 and #2 species presented to The BIRD Clinic for feather damaging behavior or self-injurious behavior of hormonal or psychogenic cause.

Unfortunately, in a study of self-injurious behavior in monkeys, maintenance of this behavior persisted or recurred despite attempts to change the environment. Dr. Nemetz has seen this same response, or lack thereof, in cases of psittacines presented with a history of self-injury. Life survival does not appear to be a factor in this syndrome as the act of self-inflicted wounds suggests, as mentioned in this paper, this behavior has a value to the individual as a way of relieving negative emotions.

These authors went on to present several other similarities and possibly a physiological explanation for this behavior between these highly social animals.


Dr. Nemetz enjoyed this paper for one overriding reason: The pet store industry, the public, and veterinarians CANNOT ignore the fact that these are highly social wild (non-domesticated) animals. Dr. Nemetz created two risk groups for numerous bird species; "Flock species" and "Non-flock species". This categorization tends to help clients understand some of these complex social dynamics. The "Flock species" (Cockatoos and African grey parrots) demonstrate a higher risk of feather damaging behavior where "Non-flock" species (Amazons and macaws) have a lower risk of this presentation. However, during breeding seasons when the social network is heightened the risk incidence is higher in non-flock species.

Our society choose to make exotic birds our pets and Dr. Nemetz believes these wonderful animals can make phenomenal family members for decades, but we are also changing their natural social upbringing (socialization). The people that interact with birds, from the breeders on up the social chain need to spend more time understanding the natural social behavior among the various species they raise and sell. If not, unfortunately Dr. Nemetz expects over time veterinarians will be presented with more and more cases of feather damaging behavior or self-injurious behavior which is not positive for the individual bird, the owner, or the bird industry at large.