Someone recently asked me to write about
feathers, and what changes in color mean. When birds branched off
from their dinosaur ancestors, they developed feathers. There is
some debate as to if those feathered animals flew at that time, most
say they did not. I will touch on some feather facts that will
hopefully let you decide what is normal, and what is not.
Most know there are no feathers along the keel,
but many do not realize there are other featherless tracks under the
wings, behind the legs, and in crested birds, on the top of the
head. Most of these featherless patches are covered by surrounding
feathers, and can cause the owners concern when noted for the first
There are three main types of feathers; down,
contour and filoplume (hair like). Birds kept in cooler
environments will have more down, and may loose that down as the
ambient temperature rises. Contours are the majority of the
feathers we see; they protect the bird from the elements, and
include the flight feathers. Filoplumes are the lash like feathers
around the eyes.
The colors in the feathers of a bird are formed
by true pigmentation or by light refraction from the structure of
Pigment comes from three different groups:
colors from dark black, reddish brown and pale yellow. Melanin
provides more than color. Feathers with melanin are stronger and
more resistant to damage. I believe this is why many white
mutations of budgies and cockatiels have thinner, lacier feathers
that exfoliate easily.
produced from eating certain plants or something that has eaten a
plant. Red canaries can be made redder by eating a special diet.
Flamingos turn pink because of their diet. Carotenoids are also
necessary for immune function.
produced by modifying amino acids. There are many different
chemical structures, and they can produce a range of colors from red
unique red pigment found in some parrots.
Iridescent colors are
always structural in origin. Blue colors are almost always produced
by tiny air pockets in the barbs of feathers that scatter light.
This is why blue or green feathers turn dark when they are wet!
Genetic mutation changes occur from birth, or
after the first molt. Many birds have a 'pied' gene that may
present as a single off-colored feather.
Some viruses can cause abnormally colored
feathers, though this occurrence is rare, it should be considered.
Nutritional problems have been shown to cause
Metabolic problems; such as liver disease,
high stress levels (producing natural steroids), thyroid
problems (very hard to diagnose in birds).
Birds molt (old feathers fall out, and are
replaced with new one) once or twice a year. After following my
macaws' molt for 21 years, I can tell you it is not regular. She
may molt every six months or go over a year. Showers help keep
older feathers healthy and stimulate normal preening. When new
feathers come in they are blood feathers, or have a blood supply in
them. Occasionally a bird may fall or hit these new feathers and
they bleed. This can be a medical emergency and you should contact
your avian veterinarian.
Mutilating feathers or feathers and skin,
should always be considered a medical concern. We are aware of more
medical issues that cause a bird to damage feathers. So it is
always best to seek medical advice when they start damaging
Plucking physically hurts, so we believe some
birds pluck for the endorphin release, causing a sort of "runners
high". Though it can be caused by true medical problems. The uropygial gland should always be checked when the plucking is around
the tail area.
And finally, the current buzzword is foraging.
It is what a bird must do in the wild to find food. Foraging
systems make birds 'work' for food, treats or toys. Some studies
show birds are more active and spend less time over preening if they
forage. There are many new ideas out there. Just remember, many of
our birds will have to be shown how to forage—don't assume it's a
bad idea if the bird doesn't take to it, if they can't figure it
out, try something a little easier, like a small paper bag. Not
only is it good occupational therapy, but it provides great bonding
Kay Duffin, DVM
Academy Pet Hospital
6000 Academy Rd NE
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