Dr. Susan Orosz on Filoplumes: Essential Feathers for Mental Health

Hearing Dr. Orosz lecture is like eating a huge, delicious meal. It takes a while to digest. She served up another mental feast at the Wellness Retreat, held in Ashevile NC, October 21-22. Here is one tasty nugget I learned from her.

A filoplume is a type of feather that grows in clumps at the base of flight feathers. It’s small and has a long shaft. Here’s an excellent description. This feather, unlike other feather types, has no associated muscles, so a bird cannot move a filoplume independently. Instead, a filoplume is a sensory receptor attached to a nerve bundle, which provides information to the bird about the position of the feathers surrounding it, and by extension, the bird’s own position in space.

Think of a filoplume like a cat’s whisker. Around each flight feather are many of these whiskers, which give their owner a lot of information about where she is, how to navigate, and what to do next to continue flying or to land. When a bird flaps, those filoplumes go to work, sending her brain tons of information that she must process, and making her think and react in ways that challenge her.

Why is this important? Because a bird denied flight in our homes does not receive much of the filoplume’s message: She does not get to think about and figure out how to fly, perhaps the most essential part of what a bird is. She was meant to be challenged by the constant decisions that flight requires and without them she may be bored or crazy or both. Of course we can never know what our birds are thinking, but we can imagine how we might feel about the world if our legs were tied together from the time we were born. What would it feel like to crawl everywhere? What if you could only get somewhere when someone else took you there? And what if you could only interact with what someone else decided you might like?

How do we address this problem in our homes? Give your bird many opportunities to exercise. If she is not allowed to fly, give her a hanging gym or a boing to encourage swinging and play. Provide her with a cage that is wide enough for her to move around in – and give her plenty of out of cage time. Most importantly, remember how essential sensory stimulation and the opportunities for choice are for your bird’s mental health.

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6 thoughts on “Dr. Susan Orosz on Filoplumes: Essential Feathers for Mental Health

  1. my adopted gray (ten then, twenty-two now) came with butchered (a couple missing) flight feathers, well-established feather-picking, and pretty much cage bound — to an almost empty cage. things are way better now, lots of toys, lives in my home office where I also have my lovebird and small dog, lots of verbal interaction. she will go into the kitchen if I insist, perching a little nervously on her rolling play-gym (it lives beside her cage). however, she very much enjoys flapping! she’ll grab hold of the top of her cage door or the top of the cage and flap like crazy, or sometimes from the dowel I use to get her in and out of the cage, where she really gets going (and I whoop encouragement). this might be worth a try, maybe dipping your dowel or stick slightly to encourage spreading and then more flapping. sometimes I move around the room. I have high celings and hold her up as far as possible. she makes quite a nice breeze, and “the feathers fly” — little bits of fluff and dust go everywhere, along with anything not tied down. 🙂

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  2. At one time, I was encouraged to clip my Indian Ringneck Parakeet’s wings to calm her and keep her under control. She handled her visit to the avian veterinarian with poise until it came time for the wing trim. She cried out as if she knew he was taking her freedom from her. I cried as well–small, silent tears of regret and shame because I knew what I did wasn’t the right thing for her. Daisy’s flight feathers regrew and her beautiful ability to soar through the house returned. She’s a graceful flyer with a gorgeous landing pattern. I love to see it and I can tell she loves to do it. She wants that freedom and I can see a marked difference in her on the days when “daytime” and “playgym time” and the ability to fly from perch to perch is delayed. I believe that essential sensory stimulation you mention in your article is vital to Daisy’s mental health. It’s part of what makes her a beautiful, happy bird.

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  3. I used to have a cocketil several years ago. We lived in a house with a 24′ high ceiling and the whole front of the house was full of windows. I think sometimes we need to clip the wings for safety reasons. We kept Scooter’s wings clipped so she wouldn’t fly into the widows. She was an active bird and we gave her lots of toys and things to climb on. She would “chase” us around the house running after us and hopping with spread wings. She also loved to climb the carpeted stairs! We kept enough flight feathers for her in case she decided to flutter off the balcony…no crash landings please! Unfortunately, we lost her to a respiratory infection after 5 years of sharing her life. We now have a Green Cheek conure who is fully flighted. She chases us all over the house and goes from room to room deciding on which person she wants to be with! No high ceilings or huge windows to contend with!

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  4. amazing info about filoplumes- Jenny thanks for the knowledge. have always wondered why the cockatoos preen the little feathers at the base of their flight feathers- they will spread their wings so I can preen them

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  5. If you get a new bird of any kind do not assume that it will know how to drink from a water bottle. They may not an may not get any water at all. This could be DEADLY!! I had one that did this very thing. He got so dehydrated his eyes became dry and he had to blink slot and would even keep his eyes closed 10 -20 seconds at a time. Thank the good Lord I discovered this problem before he became seriously damaged. Don’t let this happen to your new birds. Sincerely, Jerry

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