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Q:  I received a hand fed, 8 week old cockatiel several months ago.  He is a great pet and has started to whistle all kinds of tunes.  However, I’ve noticed these little gray “needle-like” things sticking up through the feathers on top of his head.  He doesn’t seem to be bothered by them, but I’m concerned about them.  Should I be and, if so, what should I do about them?

A:  It sounds like your baby bird is growing pin feathers.  This is the beginning stage of normal feather growth.  As the feather grows out of the follicle, it is covered with a hard gray coating of protein called keratin.  This protects the developing feather and its blood supply as the feather matures.   If the pin feather is damaged or broken, it can bleed.  A broken “blood feather” will usually need to be removed.  Once the pin feather stops growing, the blood supply recedes from the feather shaft, the keratin coating will disintegrate, and the feather will unfold completely.  Birds will help remove the keratin by preening the feathers with their beak.  Many birds enjoy having the keratin removed from the pin feathers on the head by another bird or by a pet owner, but be careful, as developing feathers can be sensitive until the blood supply has receded.

Frank C. Boren, DVM

Dr. Boren graduated from the University Of Florida School Of Veterinary Medicine and has remained on the staff of Oradell Animal Hospital since completing an internship here in small animal medicine and surgery. Dr. Boren has a special interest in exotic and zoo animal medicine. He is the veterinarian for the Bergen County Zoo and is consultant for The James A. McFaul Environmental Center in Wyckoff, New Jersey. Dr. Boren sees appointments at Oradell Animal Hospital in Paramus and at our Hasbrouck Heights, New Jersey office.
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