What Is A Pin Feather?

What Is A Pin Feather?

 January 19th, 2011
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Photo from talkbudgies.com

Q: My bird’s head is covered with prickly little feathers.  Is this normal?

Janis K., Huntsville, Alabama

A: Yes, it is quite normal.  When a bird has a lot of feather regrowth following a molt, his head can be covered with small growths called pin feathers.

A pin feather is quite simply a new feather at the beginning stages of growth. They can be found on a baby bird as it feathers out or an older bird during feather regrowth following a molt.
The feather pushes through a follicle in the skin housed in a keratin sheath that serves as protection for the the feather as it matures. I remember being told years ago that the sheath contained nutrients that benefited the bird, and it would be just like Mother Nature to offer such a unique advantage to the act of preening. But since the sheath is made up of skin cells, I doubt that is the case.

Photo from featherme.com

As you examine these feathers, you will see that the base is pink in color. This is a live blood supply that runs up the length of the shaft nourishing it during development. This area around the blood supply is quite sensitive during feather growth and it is uncomfortable to the bird if the feather is disturbed. For this reason, many birds do not care to be touched during this time. As the feather grows, the blood supply recedes and settles at the base of the feather shaft.
When the feather is fully mature, your bird will remove the keratin sheath during preening. However, you might be required to assist in the areas around the head and neck since a bird’s beak cannot reach these areas and they are not so easily removed using the feet.

The way I generally do this is, when there is enough growth that I won’t be disturbing the sensitive area of the feather, I scratch a small section of the sheath away with my fingernail and the rest crumbles apart by rolling my fingers gently over it.

I like to bath the birds more frequently when they have new feathers coming in because it soothes their skin and the disintegrating sheaths make a lot of mess and dust.

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36 Comments on “What Is A Pin Feather?”

Candice  01/20/2011 1:30 am

My cockatiel LOVES–and I mean L-O-V-E-S–making me preen his head after a molt. I’ll reach in to see if he wants to step up and come out, and he bows his head down, shoving it against my fingers. I can stand there for close to a half hour, breaking apart the shafts of the pin feathers all over his head. And he’ll chatter and chortle and squeak and purr and melt my heart.

I try to preen my conure the same way after a molt, but he doesn’t like it because I accidentally pulled a whole feather out once. He tends to bite, so when he really needs a preening, I perch him on my knee or chest and hold his beak between my right forefinger and thumb while I preen him with my left forefinger and thumb. We’re all covered in dust afterward, so I spray them down and then dust myself off.

Dee  01/21/2011 2:37 am

lol.. you cant go near my moluccan cockatoo without her ‘bowing’ for preening… she has full run of the house, so every evening no matter where we settle in to watch tv, she will make her way over to my lap to nuzzle down for preening. I have a ‘pickin towel’ that i lay across my lap.. she’s learning that she must get it from my lil basket that i keep beside my chair, and then i’ll start. Even if she really doesnt need it.. i still go thru and at least massage and touch every feather on her body! its too funny~after the preening is over.. i get rid of the dusty towel.. and she goes over to my hubby for fist flying.. its her afternoon delight to hop on his fist and hold on while he ‘flys’ her rapidly for a few minutes!~GOTTA LOVE THE FLOCKERSIZE!~our lil love birds love fist flying too!

quaid  01/21/2011 2:31 pm

how to get rid of the dust from my african grey parrot ??



Claudette  01/21/2011 2:41 pm

I have a quaker parrot and she likes to bite. So, when she wants me to preen her, I’m usually shakey because I don’t want to get bit. So, I’m not much help to her.

Kim  01/21/2011 2:42 pm

My macaws moult about every 4 months. Is this normal? They are seemingly healthy in every way, have a varied diet of natural pellets, nuts, and veggies and fruits. They are not pickers, but approximately every 4 months, the feathers just fly off of them when they shake and fluff. Consequently they end up with quite a few of these pin feathers. They are under natural spectrum lights for 10 hours of the day, is that maybe why they are doing this so often? My Greys only moult once a year…

Patty  01/21/2011 2:49 pm

My Quaker also bites, but I’ve found a way to gently hold her beak while I preen the top of her head and neck

Julie Lane  01/21/2011 2:50 pm

Oh Chet, I wish you were in England! I keep all your emails as they are so full of good advice. However, one of my African Greys went very quiet over the holidays and despite two visits to the vet, we don’t know what is wrong with him (or her). He’ss stopped whisling and talking and the “bot bot” sound he still makes sounds a bit squeaky. I’ve taken on board your feeding tips, as we feed best quality parrot mix and he gets plenty of variety with fruit and veg. I will get organic pellets when I can find a good supplier in the UK.
Bertie is still eating and drinking his water, which has pro-biotic stuff from the vet in it. No enzymes in the droppings, as far as the vet can see (we are waiting for lab results). He’s just not the happy bird he was. We’ve had a lot of work done in the downstairs area recently, including new leather furniture, so we wondered if it could be that. Our other African Grey, Rosie, is as noisy as ever – singing and talking for England! They are in separate cages and we have moved her away just in case. Could our he be a she and is broody, or just hormonal, or could it be something else. Bertie is just over 4 years old.

Wendy  01/21/2011 3:00 pm

My ‘tiels love for me to preen them toward the end of their moting.

But on a cautious side… one night my birds went into night fright. I rushed into the room and turned on a light. This is not something I like to do at 2:30 in the morning, but, I settled them down and always take notice of each bird. They all seemed OK, no one seemed hurt and I went back to bed.

I woke 4 hours later and greeted the birds. Everyone was OK – or so I thought. About 2 hours later, I went to let them out and I noticed there was about 16 very large drops {approx 1/2″ diam} of blood on the bottom of the cage. Who’s bleeding? They all looked OK until one of the white faced ‘tiels (mostly white) turned around and I saw blood on her rump. I got her out of the cage and took her in the bathroom to further examine her. Vent is OK, but the rump the problem area. The bleeding had stopped, but there was a very large blood clot the size of my thumbnail. I left the clot for fear or removal to cause more bleeding. Called the vet and got her in ASAP!

After the exam, there were four pin feathers that were damaged in the night fright episode. Evidently they bothered her and she continued to pick at it. This caused the blood loss. They cleaned her up, removed the pin feathers and gave her a shot with an antinflamitory and Vit B & K. The area reduced back to normal in two days. She now sits on my shoulder as I type this~preening.

Take care of your bird. Pin feathers really bother the birds as they grow in and can be as dangerous if they are broken and cause bleeding.

Maxine  01/21/2011 4:12 pm

My sun conure is nervous and hyper alert, and isn’t comfortable with beiing handled, other than stepping up and running up to my shoulder, but he will let me preen him and give him head scritches as he hangs on to the outside of his cage. He closes his eyes and really enjoys it. I have to be careful with the feathers around the bottom of his neck , because they seem to be more sensitive, and if I’m not, he’ll scream at me. Yes, it does make a mess, but it’s worh it.

Chris  01/21/2011 4:13 pm

We have 4 parrots (sun conure, pineapple green cheek, maroon belly green & senegal). The Maroon belly won’t let anyone else preen him but me. I’m trying to get the senegal to help with it. I can start on him and then once he is in the mood I move the senegal close and she work on it. Once he realized I stopped and it’s just here he bites her. The back up and lightly bites my face and puts his head down. If I don’t start doing it again right away he bites me again and puts his head back down.
I was wondering if it is a good thing to keep trying to get him to let the senegal preen him or not. He wants to be preened so bad and I know I don’t get him as well as another bird does.

Grace  01/21/2011 4:46 pm

My sun conure likes to take cool baths when his pin feathers come in. He gets in his cup of water and flaps around, not really getting wet because he’s too big for that little cup! I’ll give him a bowl of cool water and he flaps away, cleaning and taking care of each feather. He’s always in a much better mood afterwards. He also likes when I help him preen, but he definitely lets me know when he’s had enough.

Heather  01/21/2011 4:55 pm

Could you try posting some pictures of when the pin feather is ready to be removed? I try scratching the ones on my bird’s head/neck and sometimes she loves it, other times they likely still are growing and she ducks away. I know for ones on her body, the tip of it will usually open, but I’m guessing that’s her doing and not the normal growth of the feather pushing out? I bathe her often when she has these feathers and try to help scratch them off after the bath hoping the casing is softened.

Donna Hamilton  01/21/2011 4:57 pm

Yes, birds are much more sensitive during the whole molt process. It’s as if it’s almost ‘stressful’ for them, as I notice my bird’s character changes to a certain degree. They are also more hungry when their feathers are breaking through, so I ensure that they have many more ‘treat foods’ and higher energy foods at this time. Spraying is a great way to help dislodge the old feathers (not only with the water going onto the feathers/skin) but when the bird preens it wipes the old feathers away. Keeping the cage clean during this time is a must, as there are a LOT of old feathers and a LOT of dust [dander] which if allowed to build up in confined areas can be bad for respiration.
Many people don’t know what a bird looks like in a molt…they think the bird is sick, as their appearance looks yuck (especially around the head area), so I like to take this opportunity to educate folk when they see my birds at this time.
If you have experienced your bird’s molt from year-to-year, it is also interesting how their molt [can] be influenced by climate change…I certainly have noticed earlier/later molts in my birds over the years.
Just to see this process makes me realise how marvelous Nature truly is!
(…one of my birds in a molt showing great photos, here: http://on.fb.me/gocx9Y)

Victoiria  01/21/2011 6:00 pm

My parakeet Pekachu just turned a year old in Dec. she went thru a molt and wouldn’t eat, play and loss some weight I was very upset thinking she was very ill. I stuck with her keeping her quite and warm and misting her with water. She is better. This was very stressful for her and myself. I had consulted with my Vet and he didn’t want to upset her more by bring her in for check up just feed her food she liked and keep her warm and quite. Will this happen all the time?

Svetlana  01/21/2011 6:41 pm

Our boy-Aqua loves when I preen him.

Joan Hamilton  01/21/2011 6:52 pm

I do the same with my cockatiel. In fact he insists that I preen his head and around his face for him. Since he doens’t have a mate, I do it for him. He will sit with his eyes closed and really enjoys it.

Bill Pilgrim  01/21/2011 7:53 pm

I have a little Galah, close on two years old. He was attacked by a rodent when a couple of days old and had the toes of one foot half removed. He fell against the wire of his cage one day and managed to jam his wing between two bars. I had to try to get his wing free quickly as he was screaming and biting at the wing. He had been a very loving bird, but now he is so chnabeable. He wants cuddle by standing on my forearm and burying his head betwen my hand and my body and making little noises with his beak/tongue. Often though he will suddenly stary biting quite hard. He has also started to pluck feathers at the top of his legs and stomach. He also has mmany pin feathers over his head. If he decides to leave his cage he often goes to a mirror that rests on the floor and touches his beah and at times his head with his reflection.

I am concerned as it is becoming rather painful to keep up the contack as he often draws blood.

Regards, Bill Pilgrim

Bunny  01/21/2011 7:56 pm

And remember the new tail feathers coming in are particularly sensitive being they are so large. I also help my Blue and Gold with the ones on his head as a lone bird is not able to reach them.

jody  01/21/2011 9:10 pm

I am sorry, but you have a bird and DO NOT know what pin feathers are? Did you do any research before you had a bird or buy a book that describes a bird in general?
Your job as “partner” is to preen for your bird as his/her mate is to take care of those feathers for him/her. GET a book and READ. or google it is all there for you. Pull up in in the web “preening”

Gerald Brede  01/21/2011 10:35 pm

Why when in the room a female enters and he gets overly aggresives with me and attacks even flying at me and drawing blood.!. Whats with that?.
He’s a whitefronted amazon about 19 yrs old. Any answers?.

Arson  01/22/2011 12:10 am

i roll them so the break up . not to close to the blood area on my cockatoos head to help break out the new feathers omg is this not a good idea ???? she cant prim her owen head ????

Brenda and Sammy Blue  01/22/2011 1:46 am

My blue crown conure, Sammy Blue, recently went through a full molt about a month ago. Prior to this he was not akin to being touched. He is a rescue bird, and fostered and adopted by me. What a blessing to both of us. I was volunteering at our local animal rescue league working in the bird room to socialize the birds waiting for adoption and was asked to foster Sammy Blue. Well, of course I did. He came in and almost died that day due to malnutrition and abuse with no feathers on his breast or back and wings misshaped as well as missing a toe and another toe unable to bend around the perch. He is 17 years old by the way. Anyway, the vet said I would be a “foster failure” and I was, I adopted him as she knew I would. So he’s gone through his molt and now all the pin feathers pop up. When he was on his playground, I was able to gradually touch his head by playing with his bell (his favorite toy) which allowed me to “accidentally” touch his head. After a day or so, he began to allow me to scratch his head a little until he realized he loved it, purred and now willingly steps up without even a command and sits with me in my lazy boy on a perch and will let me “preen” him for about 20 or 30 minutes until he’s had enough and wants back on his playground. I agree, it is a wonder of creation by God that allows us to have this relationship with his creations which benefits all. Chet, keep up your emails and blog as we all benefit from it. And thank you for your programs on training and understanding our feathered friends. Your website is so very valuable to newbies and those with experience!

Brenda Denysschen  01/22/2011 4:21 am

my Gambit, the cockatoo loves to eat the sheath, i m sure it must have some calcium in it, what do you think
regards Brenda

Barb  01/22/2011 1:24 pm

So, here it is mid-January, and my Blue Front is losing down and feathers and getting new pins! This has always been an April, May thing. What’s up! (as they say)…..

Don Weaver  01/22/2011 4:58 pm

Hi Chet,

My lilttle 3 year old Quaker parrot – “Peppy” – was sneezing, and picking his feathers constantly. My wife and I went to Wal Mart and purchased a small humidifier. Ever since we turned on the humidifier, Peppy has stopped picking his feathers and quit sneezing.

I rub Peppy’s head, neck and back when he’s molting and now since the humidifier has been on all day, he’s not picking and scratching his new feathers like he used to.

I am worried also about too much humidity in the air. Will too much humidity cause a sinus problem?

Name (required)  01/23/2011 3:17 pm

hi i resently adopted a male? greenwing that is about one year 4-5 mounths….old. i didn,t get a lot of info from them. they said it never got his flight feathers. did something happen to this guy or is this a genetic defect? joe

Katharine  01/23/2011 8:09 pm

my love bird, bakchoy seems to always have pin feathers, and he scratches A TON! Im worried… i bought some mite spray but i doubt its mites… i dont see any. He SOOO happy all the time, always out on my shoulder every day sleeping next to my neck when he wants, exploring my arm when active. He eats pelleted food so I know his diet is fine… i dont understand why he picks so much… and you all are talking about molts, but my bird has pins all the time… is this okay?

Rob  01/25/2011 5:52 pm

You cannot stress the importance of a good bath… Some owners suffer from feather dander allergies and their first thought is to get rid of the bird.
Frequent bathing can wash away the dander in a way that does not aggrivate the allergies not to mention the healthy benefits of having a clean bird. I bathe my double yellow amazon at least once a week sometimes more frequent when she is going through a molt and it sure cuts down on the dusting and sneezing when cleaning the house.
Preening pin feathers is a normal flock behavior and if your bird will accept your touching them will enjoy being cottled during a good preen. If the pin feathers are still sensitive, don’t push it and wait a day or two until the feather grows a little more then try again. If you can get the first 1/3 (from the top) of the feather sheath removed, nature will take care of the rest.
Be careful of those feather sprays designed to cut down on the dander. I am leary of oiling up the bird with a spray because who knows what is in those sprays that may harm the bird. Maybe if any one has any research on these sprays they could forward them to us… For now a nice warm bath makes the most sense…

Akum  01/25/2011 7:50 pm

The photo looks so cute!

Mary  01/25/2011 11:49 pm

My african grey is a feather plucker. She is continuously plucking her feathers and pin feathers grow in. This bird won’t let me touch them She is bald on her breast and under her wings. I mist her and she doesn’t like it.Then it seems that she is angry at me for misting her. She has a neck full of down feathers. could growing pin feathers be so uncomfortable thet she plucks them?

pri  01/30/2011 9:46 am

that was a really imp. information!!. was vry tnsd….. my budgie hit d one having pin feather so there was lil blood on her feathers…. n in the pin feather….!!! wot should i do??

Amanda S.  02/07/2011 2:21 am

Pin feathers always make me a bit nervous. My cockatiel broke a rather large blood feather once. Thankfully I was home and noticed it before she bled to death, but it was a traumatizing experience for both myself and Tiki 🙁

Mark  02/07/2011 2:53 pm

There is nothing more homely than a chick covered by pin feathers. Having had my parrot for all 25 years of her life, preening her head, cheeks, and neck is a big part of our daily interaction. Even if she doesn’t have any pin feathers, she loves the attention. She will lie on her back, on my lap, with her head backwhile I scratch her chin. She’ll do this for an hour. She’s a nut.

Caz  02/17/2011 8:17 am

I have a red crested Kakariki, he has a beautiful display of feathers, he went through a moult and then, without realising, I was stroking him in all the wrong places, the next thing |I know he pulled all his feathers out and became an ugly duckling almost over night,. He wanted to mate with me, He was terriblly depressed and I had to completely change the way I gave him attention. I had no idea that his neck and back was a no go artea, poor thing!! he became frustrated and lonely when I went to work, I thought he must have a mite, or something, but on a visit to the vets, he soon put me right. Thankfully, He is now growing his featherts back very nicely and with the help of Harrisons Bird food, my Kakariki has almost returned back to his former hansome self. But what I was going to say, was, He too, had these kind of ewhite spindly feather sheaths mainly they were noticeable on his head, but on further examination, he infact had them all over, the vet said it was perfectly normal after a moult or when new feathers are growing back.

Jada  03/05/2015 3:01 am

My 6-month-old cockatiel has recently developed many pin feathers. The tip of the shafts have been open. He has trouble opening the rest, so I try to help him open them, but I can’t seem to open them! Most of the time when I try to open them he squawks, shakes his head and scratches the area. He doesn’t seem to like it. What do I do?

Caroline  09/05/2016 3:23 am

We have been lucky enough to welcome Casper a 3 yr. old Blue & Gold male macaw into our home as I have always had a passion for this wonderful creature. After the initial biting fits to see how far I will let him go and not being happy with my walking away, things have considerably calmed down. This morning after a very cuddly day yesterday, he seems to be “choking” when I scratch his head gently, also I have tried to sort his pin feathers on his head but when I touched 1 he squawked in pain which really upset me as I don’t want to hurt him (obviously). Any advice would be welcome. Thank you.