Greys moult their feathers annually to replace worn & damaged feathers. Healthy, strong feathers are critical to keeping a bird safely aloft, away from ground predators and dangers. Feathers are comprised of keratin (a fibrous, structural protein) which makes the feathers lightweight but strong. The same keratin is present in the beak and nails (claws).
In African Greys, their first moult begins as young as 11 months old. Normally, two feathers are shed at a time, usually within a day or two of each other, one feather from each side of their bodies (symmetrically.) In this way, the bird stays in balance which is so important to a flighted creature. Shed or moulted feathers will have their shafts intact, and may or may not have the downy material attached near the base followed by normal filament structure (the body of the feather.)
Moulting is a gradual process, healthy birds never shed more than a couple of feathers at a time. The whole process can occur over many months and a complete changeover of feathers will take about 2 or 3 years.
* It should been noted that it isn’t unusual for Greys to moult outside of the regular schedule throughout the year. These “mini-moults” will usually coincide with a noticeable change in environmental temperature. Moulting year round is also common among captive birds.
Nutrition During Moulting:
During “the moult,” birds are under dietary-stress. They require additional protein to help those new feathers grow, they may even seem a little hungrier than usual. This is the time to increase the protein in their diets. Dietary protein for birds is best provided through vegetarian sources as the addition of meat exposes them to animal fats that are not healthy for their arteries. Cheese is also protein-rich, but exposes birds to lactose and milk fats that their digestive systems are unable to cope with effectively. Hard-cooked eggs are rich in proteins and are readily accepted by many birds and are quick and easy to prepare, but best not fed more often than once-a-week.
Vegetable sources of proteins include:
- Cooked corn & brown rice, which when served in combination, provide a complete protein.
- Cooked legumes (peas, lentils, beans)
- Quality pellet diet (Harrison’s, Zupreem Natural, etc.)
- Nuts (almonds, walnuts, pistachio, cashew, hazelnut) unroasted if possible – avoid peanuts and pine nuts (too much fat)
- Soaked/Sprouted seeds (organically raised seed is always preferred) beware of seed from the pet shop as it can be stale and unable to sprout. Online specialty stores are a better source for quality seed mixes.
Failure to moult is a condition brought about by poor nutrition. Birds on a poor diet will become thyroid hormone-deficient. This in turn fails to trigger normal moulting and feather regrowth. It is imperative that captive birds be provided with a good and varied diet, rich in proteins, carbohydrates, essential fatty acids, minerals, and vitamins. Good quality, fresh vegetables, fruit, nuts, seeds, and a formulated pellet are all basic staples to a healthy, beautifully feathered bird’s diet.
Stress Bars and Other Feather Abnormalities:
Stress bars (sometimes referred to as “fret” marks) in feathers are indicative of starvation (self-imposed through extreme stress, or due to neglect). During the feather growing process, if a bird does not eat for a day or two, there will be gaps in the growing feathers known as stress bars. These marks (see photo) are lacking in colour, so they appear dark against the bird’s normal colouring. There is no treatment for the damage once it’s apparent, the only cure is prevention.
If your baby bird arrives with stress bars on his feathers, then the breeder’s husbandry practices must be blamed. If, however, these marks appear on new feathers that your bird has regrown since his arrival in your home, then you need to examine your bird’s environment to determine the cause. Sometimes, we are too close to the situation to see the obvious, so getting an unbiased opinion from someone well-versed in bird keeping is invaluable. Your avian veterinarian should also be consulted. Seeking help is nothing to be embarrassed about when you are doing it for the sake of your bird’s health.
Poor quality of feathers can be attributed to a seed diet. Seed is deficient in sulphur-containing amino acids, essential building blocks in the growth of strong, healthy feathers. Poor colouring is usually caused by a lack of essential fatty acids in the diet. Again, a quality diet cannot be overstressed. Birds need the best quality foods that we can provide them. In the wild, they forage in large groups/families seeking out the best of everything available. Since our captive birds cannot freely forage in our homes for food, we must make the effort to provide them with the best available to us.
Bands of differing colour is indicative of dietary changes or ill health during the feather’s growth. Unfortunately, this is all too common in young birds from less-than-ideal breeders. Poor animal husbandry, causing dietary deficiencies, and illnesses will impact on the feathers of the birds. If your bird arrives with these “bands” on his feathers, he should be seen by an avian vet as soon as possible. The hidden illness will need to be rooted out and treated as soon as possible. If there is no sign of infection or ailment, then a good diet will prevent your bird’s next generation of feathers from displaying this banding.
Parasites can cause damage to feathers, but this is always difficult to diagnose. Fret marks that appear in isolation (occuring on only one feather, or random feathers – different from stress bars) are usually blamed on Quill Mites (Syringophilus spp.) These pests eat part of the growing feather while it is still curled up in its sheath. This mite seems to affect chicks more than adults. Treatment should only be attempted by a qualified vet. Prevention through cleanliness of the cage, food, toys, and household is more easily attained by the average parront.
Sudden and unexplained feather loss should always be referred to your avian veterinarian. Many different diseases and ailments can cause a bird to seek relief by plucking out it’s own feathers, or cause the bird’s own body to release feathers. PBFD (Psittacine beak and feather disease), hormonal imbalances, liver enzyme imbalances, elevated uric acid levels, and skin ailments can all manifest themselves in sudden loss of feathers, so seeking professional help is very important. “Waiting to see if it gets better on its own” is akin to ignoring a broken leg. Never leave your bird in a questionable state of health. Take him to his vet at the first sign of a problem.