Let's talk about pin feathers. It seems like everyone's parrot has got them right now, must be that time of year.
Feathers aren't permanent. They are replaced once or twice a year across a bird's body. The feather grows from the follicle as a pointy pin. Inside of the sheath of the pin feather, the feather is growing under its protection. When the feather inside is ready, the sheath can be broken and the feather unfurled from its protective casing.
Parrots take care of the pin feathers all across their body. The only place they can't reach with the beak to open pin feathers is right on their head and immediate vicinity. In the wild, the parrot would depend on its mate or flock to assist with pin feathers on the head. But at home, the parrot relies on its owner for a little help with those feathers. Not only is this a potentially reinforcing activity, it is also a fantastic bonding opportunity.
However, if done incorrectly, popping a parrot's pin feathers can lead to frustration and biting. This article will provide you some tips and do/don'ts for opening your parrot's pin feathers.
Don't touch or open pin feathers on the parrot's body or anywhere it can reach on its own. Don't open immature pin feathers Don't be too rough Don't force this help on a parrot that doesn't want it
Do offer to help open pin feathers Do encourage a request signal Do open mature pin feathers on the head/neck Do use this as a training/bonding opportunity
If your parrot is uncomfortable with being touched on the head (especially if it bites), don't just go and try to open pin feathers for it. Even though the bird may enjoy having those uncomfortable pins opened, it will be more preoccupied with the discomfort of being touched. Make sure that your parrot has already been trained and accustomed to touch, handling, and normal head scratches.
Pin feathers will look like little soda straws. If you don't see a bit of feather sticking out, definitely leave this alone. The feather is not yet ready. Not only can opening a feather prematurely damage the feather, it will also hurt your parrot or cause it to bite. If in doubt, leave a pin feather to open later than too soon. Pin feathers that are ready to be opened will often be sticking out just a little above normal feathers, the tip of the pin will be open with the feather slightly visible. The ready pin will have a more flaky appearance compared to the really streamlined and perfect immature pins.
As the pins get more unbearable, the parrot will become more likely to be cooperative with the opening process. In fact you can even make use of negative punishment if the parrot is nippy during the process. If the parrot really wants its pins scratched but gets nippy, simply stop and walk away. The parrot will learn that biting will make the entire process stop rather than tell you not to scratch there. On the other hand if the parrot pulls away from having a certain feather scratched without aggressive behavior, you can negatively reinforce this by leaving that feather alone. Thus a communication and etiquette can develop without harm.
If your parrot starts scratching its head with its own foot, this may be an invitation to you to help open pin feathers. Reward this type of communication by obliging. This teaches the parrot polite ways to ask rather than reverting to unpleasant demanding ones.
Now when it comes specifically to the process of opening pins, the process will vary with parrot size but the concept is the same. You have to apply enough force to flake away the dead sheath without damaging the feather or hurting the parrot. When the pin feather is mature and ready to open, the sheath is fairly brittle and weak so it isn't particularly hard to do. For small parrots like Senegal Parrot, Conure, Ringneck, etc simply rolling the pin feather between two finders is usually sufficient. Just hold the pin between your thumb and forefinger and move the feather in a rolling motion. This will roll the sheath off the feather, crack, and flake it while leaving the opened feather behind.
For even smaller parrots such as cockatiel, lovebird, budgie, parrotlet, and other parakeets, if you can get the pin in your fingers, use the same process. But if the pin is too small to hold, you can just run your finger back and forth across the bird's head blanket rubbing all feathers. Since the pins/sheaths are so small, just passing your finger across the head should flake them up pretty well.
For medium parrots like African Grey, Amazon, Galah, Cape Parrot, etc., it will require a slightly more powerful roll between fingers. Sometimes a little squeeze or scratch with the fingernail will be needed to break the slightly tougher sheaths. Still, if the pin feather is ready for opening, this won't be too tough. Even running your hand back and forth through the parrot's feathers should be enough to scratch a lot of them.
Now for large parrots such as a cockatoo or macaw, even more force may be required to open a big pin feather on the head. Still try to use the techniques recommended for smaller parrots first but if these don't work, you may have to scratch the sheath with your fingernails to break it open. Rolling may be insufficient to break these tougher pins.
For all pin feathers, start from the outward tip and work your way inward. Keep in mind that toward the base of the pin, the quill will remain so don't work your way too far. Once past the easy flaky parts, it is time to stop. As you engage in the pin feather opening process with your parrot, you and your parrot will both be learning ways to cooperate better. The parrot will teach you which feathers are and aren't ok and you will have the opportunity to teach your parrot to be gentle in its warnings and pleasant in its requests for scratches. This is a good opportunity to train desirable pet behavior with non-food based positive reinforcement.
Santina came to me from the rescue with a lot of neglected pin feathers on her head. This gave me a lucky opportunity to jump start our relationship. Since she really wanted those pins scratched, I was able to gain her trust for touch/head scratches much more quickly. Also it was an opportunity to punish snappy behavior by discontinuing the pin scratching session. This has gentled the macaw while teaching me how she likes to have her feathers scratched open.
Santina helped me make a video about pin feathers for you. Kili & Truman's pins are so small that it would be difficult to share. They would be lost behind my fingers. But with Santina's feathers it should be easier to see what I am doing and then appropriately scaled the action to the size of your parrot.