Letter 19: Feather-biting

Problem Hello. We have raised zebra finches for several years and thought we had seen about everything. Today one of our males started biting the feathers on his left wing until he had several of them bleeding. We put "stay" on the wound, but he kept picking at that. Fortunately he was not able to get enough of it off for the bleeding to resume. He did drink some water (he hasn't eaten yet, it is just past midnight here as I write this, and he is asleep. I hope he eats in the morning), but spent most of the early evening pulling out back and breast feathers, I assume in an attempt to get rid of the "uneven feeling" of having globs of "stay" on one wing. He has broken a blood feather on a couple of earlier occasions, but this is the first time I've ever seen deliberate self-mutilation in what has seemed to be a very happy healthy zebra finch. He is about four years old, and was hatched in our home. His father, and paternal grandmother are still living and in good health.
Has anyone encountered this problem before? If so, how did you solve it. We've never had a self-destructive behavior problem before.

I am sorry to write this in such haste. I'm afraid I'll have to stick to English as I was a poor student in German class.

John and Susan Wrbanek, <johnsuewrbanek@sprintmail.com>

Comment Dear John and Susan,
I am sorry to hear all this – I've never heard of such a sudden and at the same time frenzied attack by a bird on itself. Usually such a bad habit develops during several days or weeks, and the keeper can speculate on the cause, i. e. establish some kind of anamnesis by remembering continuous circumstances that may have led to feather-biting (boredom, frustration e.g. by loneliness, malnutrition etc.). Since you did not mention any such circumstances in your e-mail I am at a loss for a possible explanation for this case. I can only ask you to closely observe and check the birds' behaviour and circumstances (do they miss anything? parasites? etc.). And please read my answers to the reader's letter "Feathers on the Floor" on my English-spoken website.

It is interesting to learn that there are some people in the world (U.S.?) who have had German at school. I am confident my English is good enough to express precisely what I want to tell you, even on difficult subjects. If you find any wrong wording on my Zebra Finch website I'd be very grateful if you told me the mistakes – I need someone to check these pages. (By the way, I suppose "stay" is some kind of medecine to staunch the blood(?))

Yours, Hans-Jürgen Martin

Problem Dear Mr. Martin,
    Thank-you for your kind response to our e-mail. As I write this letter our bird that damaged and caused so much bleeding is recovering nicely, seems happy, has a good appetite, plays and sings, and enjoys the company of his mate. I have come up with a possible theory for why he may have bit himself so hard that he caused some wing feathers to bleed, and even pulled out several body feathers under the wing, but since I can't see any more damage than that, it's only a theory, I can't prove it.

    Our guess is that the bird may have been bit by a small insect or spider. We have ruled out mites as a problem. There isn't any evidence of them, and we have quite a few birds (around 60) and none of the others have any problem. The reason we are guessing a bite from a small insect or spider is because we have experienced such bites personally. It is interesting. We have had an extremely hot and dry summer for this area. Sometimes we have had temperatures near 33 degrees C for nearly two weeks. Then suddenly we had some cooler weather. By cooler I don't mean cold, just more comfortable for most animals and people. The cooler weather had temperatures near 23 degrees C. When that happened fruit flies (sometimes called "gnats") began behaving as if it were late autumn and started landing on people and animals to keep warm. Fruit flies don't ordinarily bite, they usually just feed on fruit and vegetables. But both my husband and I have been bit when one landed on an arm near the inside of the elbow while in the process of bending the arm. Apparently the fruit fly will bite if it feels squeezed. Based on that experience we are wondering if a fruit fly landed on our bird to try to keep warm and found himself under a wing, and bit. We have no way of knowing whether that is a correct guess or not. But our zebra finch has returned to his normal self, much to our delight. In the days following the bleeding feather incident he scratched a lot under the wing on the side where the feathers bled, but the scratching is very seldom now, making us think that the itch is subsiding.

    I'm sorry that in my haste I forgot how to spell "stryptic powder". "Stay" is indeed a coagulant formula that comes in a cream formula. It is manufactured by Mardel Laboratories, Inc. of Glendale Heights, Illinois, USA. We try to use the cream form of coagulant if we suspect that itching may be a root cause of the bleeding. We do have stryptic powder on hand as well.

    My husband, John, had the opportunity to study some German in high school, but has had no opportunity to study or practice since that time. I chose German for my foreign language to study in college, but I was so distracted with a very heavy math and science load, and working three part-time jobs that I must say that my language studies suffered a great deal from not being able to give enough time to studying German. And I have had no opportunity to add to that since graduating several years ago.

    As I write this letter, a fruit fly is trying to warm itself on the computer screen! There have been quite a few of them this year. Some are small enough to come in through the window screens. Others ride in sitting on fruit and vegetables from the garden or the store. Their numbers should decline dramatically when winter comes.

    Thank-you again for your kind response to my letter. We have bookmarked your web-site and will check it often.

Susan and John Wrbanek
Dayton, Ohio, USA

Similar e-mail: my birds offspring keep picking on her. they pluck her feathers and chase her. i seperated them but i was wondering if they will ever get along again? and sometimes i let them in an enclosed room to fly is it ok if i put them in the room together too?

Jenna Gilland: sugar0805@hotmail.com

Comment What d'you mean "on her"? Do the young zebbies pick on their mother? If yes, this is unusual – often it's the opposite. Plucking feathers happens if the birds are forced to live in a cage together. In nature they can easily avoid or escape each other. In a room they probably won't resort to this bad habit, but a large aviary is always better than the best room because a normal room is for humans.

Yours, Hans-Jürgen Martin

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