You examine your bird buddy and discover white flecks covering his skin and feathers -- could it be dreaded dandruff? Before you break out the dandruff shampoo, look closer to determine the source of the flecks. Most birds develop dandruff-looking flakes as part of their normal feathering process.
Your bird grows feathers similar to the way you grow hair -- more arrive to replace those that have fallen out. However, they typically appear first as thin, hard sheaths near the skin. The feather is maturing inside this sheath, called a pin feather. Although some birds are certainly divas when it comes to their looks, pin feathers are one reason your bird often pecks and pulls at his feathers; he's trying to break through the sheaths to allow the soft feather material to appear. The tiny, broken sheath pieces tend to hang around on your bird's skin or in his feathers for a few days, resembling dandruff.
Don't be concerned if your bird yelps with pain periodically while grooming, even if you're the one picking at the sheaths on the back of his head. Pin feathers are young and tender, and pecking or pulling at the sheath too hard can be painful for the bird -- kind of like when you pull out one of your hairs. However, it's not overly painful, nor does it truly harm the bird. He might not be happy with you if you are the culprit, but the help you're giving him grooming will quickly outweigh his outrage.
Some birds, such as cockatoos, cockatiels and African greys, display another dandruff-like symptom in the form of a fine dust called powder down. These birds have special feathers designed to disintegrate as they mature, helping waterproof other feathers. The dust might seem flaky, but it's perfectly natural and helpful to the birds.
The amount of powder down your bird can produce might surprise you. It can cover the bottom of his cage quickly and drift out into other areas of your house. If you own a dusty bird, spritz him daily with a small amount of water to tone down the dust, but be prepared to run your duster over your nearby shelves every few days. Don't use feather conditioning sprays; the powder down naturally conditions the feathers, so a spray can do more harm than good.