Birds have thousands of feathers. Each one is subject to wear and tear.
It is only natural for your parakeet (aka budgerigar or budgie) to lose some feathers at predictable times through the process of molting.
Sometimes, however, losing feathers isn’t due to the normal processes of maturity and seasonal rhythms.
Feather loss can also be caused by diseases that must be treated for your parakeet to stay healthy.
In this article, we will tell you the differences between molting and pathological feather loss, and what to do when your parakeet needs veterinary intervention.
It can be disturbing when your pet changes its appearance, but feather changes are a vital part of bird biology.
Every parakeet loses every feather on its body to molting — but not all at once. Parakeets molt and shed feathers throughout the year.
Parakeets can also lose feathers due to preening, fighting, and various kinds of diseases.
Molting in Parakeets
The reason parakeets and other birds lose their feathers through the molting process is that they become abraded and lose their ability to protect the bird from temperature extremes and moisture.
Unlike other birds, parakeets don’t molt on a predictable schedule.
They will lose some feathers throughout the year, but there is no way to predict when they will lose more or fewer feathers than usual.
Molting in Adult Parakeets
It’s normal for an adult parakeet to lose about nine feathers a day to molting. Worn-out adult feathers fall out and are replaced by pinfeathers.
These pin feathers grow out at a rate of about 2 millimeters (a little less than one-tenth of an inch) every day.
Parakeets that are fed 100-percent seed diets grow feathers more slowly than parakeets that get some fruits and vegetables in their daily diet.
Orange, yellow, and red fruits and vegetables contain plant chemicals that a parakeet’s body can transform into vitamin A, which stimulates skin and feather growth.
Molting in Baby Parakeets
Baby parakeets molt when they are about ten to twelve weeks old. They lose feathers symmetrically.
A feather that falls out on one side of the young parakeet’s body is matched by a feather that falls out on the other side of the body.
The feathers that come in after an immature parakeet’s first molt can dramatically change its appearance, especially in males.
Your young budgie’s appearance can change every day for the three weeks to three months it takes to go through its first molt.
When that molting process is complete, it will have the plumage you expect in an adult bird.
Young budgerigars are susceptible to a condition called French molt or budgerigar fledgling disease. It’s caused by a polyomavirus.
There is one strain of the virus that causes the chick’s tail and flight feathers to fall out just at the time it is ready to leave the nest.
This strain of the virus is not life-threatening, but the bird will never be able to fly.
There is another strain of the virus that can cause death in chicks even before owners notice symptoms.
Just a few hours after infection, infected chicks may stop eating. This will be because they can’t move food from their crops into their digestive tract.
Infected baby parakeets may regurgitate food back to their parents. Their droppings will be wet.
They develop swollen abdomens despite not eating. Bloody areas break out under the skin.
Some infected birds will long enough to show the signs of anorexia and weight loss.
The reason the bird loses interest in eating is that its crop fails to empty into its stomach.
Infected chicks may vomit up undigested food and suffer profuse diarrhea. This makes them dehydrated.
In short order, they develop difficulty breathing, swollen abdomens despite not being able to eat, and blood patches of skin.
Death can occur overnight with no warning.
The polyomavirus that causes this condition is spread by contaminated droppings and feathers.
It gets into birds when a bird that survives the disease reaches adulthood and becomes a carrier.
There is a painless DNA test your vet can do to find out if your parakeet is a carrier.
There is a polyomavirus vaccine that can prevent polyomavirus infection in healthy birds if it is given in time. But there is no treatment for the disease once it appears in a chick.
Other Problems in Molting
Mineral deficiencies, excessive heating, and stress can delay the regrowth of feathers after molting.
Sometimes loss of feathers is due to a correctable thyroid condition.
It’s never normal for a parakeet to have bald areas persisting anywhere on its body. Feathers should grow back within five to 10 weeks after molting.
When they don’t, it’s time to consult the veterinarian.
Molting is physically tiring for your bird. When your baby parakeet is acquiring its adult plumage, don’t give it too much to do.
Intense word training can wait until it is about six months old.
And anytime you see your bird molting lots of feathers, make sure it gets fresh plant foods for the beta-carotene and vitamin A that stimulate new feather growth.
Also read: Should You Clip Your Parakeet’s Wings?
Preening in Parakeets
It’s normal for a few of the nine or so feathers a parakeet loses every day to fall out during preening.
All healthy parakeets preen their feathers. Preening keeps feathers free of dirt and debris. It’s the way a parakeet “un-ruffles” its feathers.
Preening to a parakeet is like taking a shower every day for a human. It’s essential for staying clean and well-groomed.
Parakeets that have cage mates will preen each other. This ritual of “allopreening” is both a sign of affection and practical activity.
Allopreening allows parakeets to preen hard-to-reach areas like the top of their heads and their necks.
Parakeets have a feather oil gland at the base of each feather.
They will release a little oil from the gland with their beaks and then spread it down the feather as they preen.
The oil makes the feather waterproof. It helps it glide past other feathers so it does not get tangled.
Every feather needs full treatment, so parakeets spend three or four hours a day working on their feathers.
What Happens When Parakeets Don’t Preen
Preening is an essential parakeet behavior. Not preening has serious consequences for your pet.
- Without regular application of natural oils, feathers begin to look dull and feel brittle. The tiny barbs that come off the vane of the feather may get tangled and break off. Entire feathers may fall out.
- Your parakeet’s ability to fly will deteriorate. It absolutely will not be safe to take your parakeet outside.
- Your parakeet won’t be able to ruffle its feathers to trap heat at night. It becomes more susceptible to cold.
- The vibrant colors that make your parakeet attractive will fade. Your parakeet can take on a porcupine-like appearance when it does not remove the tough sheath on its pin feathers.
- Mites and other parasites can tae residence in your bird’s feathers. They can work their way into the bird’s skin and air sac.
- Your bird will look sick.
Some parakeets stop preening when they are caged in a room where a dog or cat spends much of the day.
They may stop preening when they are caged with larger, more aggressive birds like cockatiels or parrots.
They may stop preening when they are seriously ill.
If a change of scenery doesn’t help your parakeet start preening again, it’s time to see the vet.
What Can You Do When Your Parakeet Preens Too Much?
Parakeets can spend too much time preening. Frayed, broken, and missing feathers may result.
Excessive preening usually results from the parakeet’s equivalent of PTSD. A parakeet that is stressed out may pull out its feathers.
Fortunately, parakeets can often communicate what is distressing them.
If your parakeet pulls out feathers and often does a little dance behind the cage door when it sees you, it needs some time out of the cage.
If you frequently see your parakeet backed into a corner with its wings stretched out, it has serious issues with its cage mate. It probably needs its own cage.
If your budgie flutters its wings and stares at you, it is telling you it senses danger nearby.
And if your budgie is puffing, fluffing, and pulling at its feathers all the time, it is telling you that it is bored.
Fighting in Parakeets
Parakeets may lose feathers when they fight.
Fights between parakeets are rare. Parakeets are usually peaceful creatures, at least with other parakeets.
Two or more parakeets in a cage may have an occasional spat over food, toys, nesting space, or mates.
Parakeets can usually sort out their problems on their own.
But if a parakeet is fighting with a larger bird in its cage, it is time to move your parakeet to its own cage for safety.
Feather Diseases in Parakeets
We have already mentioned French molt in young parakeets.
This viral infection, however, is not the only feather infection that can pose a problem to budgies.
Parakeet Beak and Feather Disease
Parakeet Beak and Feather Disease (PBFD), also known as Psittacine Circovirus Disease (PCD), is a viral infection that results in lost feathers as well as misshapen toenails and beaks.
It sometimes only causes a parakeet to take on an untidy, ruffled appearance. But it can cause a parakeet to go completely bald.
It also causes sores and skin blemishes, and it can cause cracked beaks.
PBFD is caught from bird droppings, feather dust, and regurgitated food. A cockatiel can transmit the virus to a parakeet in the same cage.
It is much more common in Japan (especially Okinawa), China, Singapore, New Guinea, and South Pacific islands than in Canada and the USA.
It’s also more common in parakeets with red feathers than in parakeets with the more common green and yellow feathers.
It’s not possible for a veterinarian to tell the difference between PBFD and French molt in chicks just by looking. A DNA test is required.
What a DNA test can tell you is which birds you need to separate.
Birds with this condition will need hand feeding and careful climate control for the rest of their lives. There is no treatment or cure.
Preventing Feather Diseases
What can you do to prevent viral feather diseases (and infectious diseases of all kinds) in your budgies?
- Keep cages clean. Use a disposable cage liner underneath a grate at the bottom of the cage. Change it every day. Scrub down your parakeet’s cage with hot water and vinegar (without your parakeets in it) once a week. Change water two or three times a day, and don’t leave visible regurgitated food or droppings anywhere you see them.
- Don’t raise too many parakeets. Scientists have confirmed that one or two parakeets are a lot less likely to catch an infection than 10 or 20 parakeets in the same location.
- Only allow younger females to mate. Infection in chicks becomes more common the older the dam (mother bird) is when the eggs are laid. Three years old is time for retirement from motherhood.
- Give each bird its own favorite feeding station. Viruses spread through regurgitated food and nasal secretions, which can accumulate in a shared food cup.
- Give your birds more than one dish for bathing in their cage. The result will be twice as much spilled water, but perhaps less than half as much transmission of disease.
There is one more common feather disease we have not discussed: Feather duster. This genetic condition causes parakeets to develop “mops.”
These are feathers that grow in random directions, and keep on growing. Beaks and toenails keep growing in the same manner.
Feather Duster results from inbreeding. The affected parakeet receives two recessive genes, one from each parent.
The gene is activated by exposure to the parakeet’s form of herpes virus. Affected birds will never be able to fly.
They will stay in the bottom of their cages, not interested in climbing or playing.
Veterinarians usually advise human euthanasia for parakeets that have this rare disease.
But consult your vet before you euthanize your bird. Some parakeets develop weird but functional mutations of their feathers that give them a unique appearance while still keeping the ability to fly.
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