Lately I’ve been looking at naked birds a lot. I’ve always liked naked birds, by which I mean birds without feathers. My favorite species of bird is the marabou stork, a grandfatherly looking bird with a mostly featherless head and an obscene appendage hanging from its neck. Once I was at the Bronx Zoo, and it started to rain, and while all the other animals took cover, the marabou stork just stood there, unperturbed, the surly old neighborhood crank who’s long past caring if he gets a little wet. Very good bird.
The marabou stork’s nakedness is natural, but there are other reasons for naked birds to be naked. Some birds are naked because they pluck their own feathers out. There are two major reasons for a bird to pluck itself naked. One is medical: The bird has some sort of condition, maybe an infection or a parasite or a disease or a bad diet. The other major reason is behavioral: The birds end up plucking out their feathers because of stress.
This is known behavior for captive birds. Science historian and writer Laurel Braitman, who witnessed a good deal of stressed-out animals while researching her book Animal Madness, says that she’s never met anyone who has seen birds compulsively plucking their feathers in the wild. “They tend to do it when something’s wrong,” she told Audubon in 2014. “More things tend to be wrong in captivity.”
Birds are generally smart. Kept in captivity, lacking proper entertainment and interaction, their brains seem to get the better of them. So some of them end up picking out the feathers that help keep them dry and warm and safe, and they wind up looking like something you’d find on a roasting spit. They can’t help it; stress is a terrible thing. They attack the very shelter nature had given them, something neurotics of all animal classes can relate to.
I am captivated by naked birds, by their trembling little bodies. They are captured beautifully by Oliver Regueiro in this photo essay, for example. Here is a cockatoo named Oscar, who is naked thanks to a condition called beak and feather disease. She has a good home and seems like a good bird. Apparently she has been called the ugliest bird in the world, a distinction that should really go to the potoo. Earlier in the day I discovered Rhea, a wonderful naked bird with a very intense social media presence. She is chronically naked, so nice people knit her little bird clothes to keep her warm.
Anyway, for some reason, I’ve found myself staring at naked birds more and more in recent weeks. There’s something about them that feels very relatable in this current moment. They are vulnerable without their bright plumage, stripped down to their almost unrecognizable but very birdy cores.
For many of them their vulnerability is a response to conditions imposed upon them by humans. But there are also communities of other humans who see the vulnerability and decide to do something about it—to knit clothes, for instance, to make the birds a little less vulnerable. Humans mitigating the damage humans have wrought. There is despair in that, and some comfort, too.