Understanding your parrot’s behaviour is crucial to developing and maintaining a positive relationship between you and your bird. Your parrot uses it’s body and actions to communicate to others (including you) how it feels, and what its intentions are. We can use a parrot’s behaviour to read what it wants and needs, as well as when it is in good health or showing signs of illness. Parrots are complex creatures and their behaviours often mirror this. Sometimes the messages a parrot gives out are fairly obvious, but others are much more subtle. We humans know only too well the consequences of misunderstanding what others are trying to communicate to us. Like humans, each parrot has its own unique character so behaviours between individual birds and between parrot species, can vary. Time and experience with your bird are both essential to developing your understanding of your parrot, but knowing and learning to interpret the basics is a good place to start.
Human eyes and bird eyes are different. We can’t control the movement of our irises (the coloured part controlling pupil size), but birds can. Unless your parrot has dark eyes, you will often observe its pupils dilating and contracting rapidly. This is known as “pinning” or “flashing” and can indicate several things including anger, fear, excitement at a favourite toy or food being offered, or extreme interest in something. Eye pinning is a good example of the complexity of parrot behaviour. Not only do you have to be aware of what is going on in your bird’s environment, you also need to look for other body signals it is displaying. In addition to eye pinning, if its nape (back of neck) feathers are standing up, and/or tail feathers flared outwards, a bite may follow!
Raised nape feathers can often be a signal for beware. If you observe this, your parrot may be agitated by something (check environment), or simply protecting its territory. If it’s accompanied by strutting movements or its eyes are flaring, be very cautious about approaching. If your parrot tips it chin up or lowers its head down this may signal an invitation to be tickled there. Some will lift their foot and “tweak” their head feathers. In tame parrots this often indicates they want some petting from their human and can be accompanied by them “meeting your eyes”.
Head bobbing describes a series of up and down movements and probably stems from infancy when begging for food. In adults it may still signify begging, but is more likely a behaviour to get attention or to say “I’m excited”. Don’t confuse this with the side to side head movements of cockatoos, often accompanied by erect crests and other “display” behaviours (e.g. wings extended, standing tall, swaying) as cockatoo excitement can quickly turn into aggression! The crest alone tells many stories. A raised crest can signify curiosity for something or somebody, excitement, pleasure, agitation or surprise. Again this behaviour shouldn’t be seen in isolation, but in the current context and environment.
Parrots use their beaks for many things aside from eating and drinking and behaviours associated with beaks can tell us much about our parrot companions, both positive and negative. Beak grinding, whilst it might drive you mad, usually says your bird is just fine. It’s a normal everyday behaviour that shows your bird is content, ready to go sleep at bedtime, or have a daytime nap. The noise comes from the upper and lower parts of the beak sliding side to side against each other, and may serve to keep your bird’s beak trimmed and sharp. Grinding differs from the beak clicking heard in some species. Here the tip of the top of the beak is rubbed over the bottom half. One click may be a greeting or acknowledgement of something nearby, but a series of clicks may be an agonistic cue and should be treated as a warning.
Parrots like to keep their beaks clean so don’t be surprised to see your companion wiping it’s beak after eating or drinking. They will wipe their beak on anything suitable: their branches, aviary mesh, cage bars, your clean t-shirt…….. It is sometimes thought that parrots mark their territory through beak wiping, something you might observe if you have other birds in the vicinity or when a new bird is introduced to a home or aviary. Parrots bite! They do this for a variety of reasons and rarely does it occur without a change in the immediate environment, your behaviour, or the behaviour of another bird or animal in the vicinity. Biting cannot therefore be seen in isolation. Many things cause a parrot to bite including, fear, anger/frustration, over-excitement. They may be defending their territory, food dish, or even a favourite toy. It’s up to you to work the why and attempt to remedy the situation, especially if you think your parrot might be trying to control you. A gaping beak and a crouched stance or a forward movement is a reliable sign that your feathered friend is likely to inflict some flesh wounds!
Biting is not all bad though. Parrots bite toys, perches, furniture and furnishings (be warned) through their explorative and playful nature. They use their beaks like an extra foot to grip when climbing or simply to steady themselves on perching places, and these are all normal behaviours. Chewing behaviours are generally positive ones. Aside from maintaining their beak condition, chewing may be seen as the captive parrots’ alternative to foraging behaviours in the wild. Captive parrots need stimulation and things to interest them. Providing them with suitable objects that can be chewed and stripped is not only essential for their physical and psychological well-being, but helps to avoid them wrecking and ingesting harmful or inappropriate materials. Other beak related behaviours include beak sparring or jousting with another parrot. Here two parrots will lock beaks and push and pull each other. This is usually seen as social play in young birds, but in adult birds it may be fuelled by aggression and attempts at dominance.
Many people living with a parrot mention their parrot is regurgitating food to them. Between two adult parrots this is part of the bonding process and is part of courtship. In mated birds this is commonly seen and of course this is how parents feed their young. If your bird flares its eyes, bobs its head and extends its neck towards you, expect to receive the contents of its crop! Don’t be disgusted – accept it as a sign of affection. This behaviour is however quite distinct from a bird vomiting, where the head is shaken vigorously from side to side and the crop etc. contents is sprayed outwards. If your parrot is doing this then you should be seeking medical advice. If your bird has its beak open and its breathing is faster than normal then this can be seen as panting. This could be caused by numerous things such as stress, illness, overheating or tired after excessive flying. The correct steps should be taken to alleviate this including removing the source of distress, or if illness is suspected taking your parrot to an avian vet. Final beak behaviour. Some parrots close their feathers around their beaks often obscuring the tip part. Common in cockatoos, your parrot does this when it is content, chilled out or going off to sleep.
…….but they can also tell us how our parrots are feeling. Parrots wing flap even when they are not flying. Sometimes your bird may grip a branch or cling to aviary mesh and simply flap as if wings were going out of fashion. There are several reasons for this including exercise, to show pleasure, or to just to gain your attention. Some birds will lift their wings upwards or outwards in a slow exaggerated movement similar to how humans enjoy a good stretch. This might be a greeting or they could be letting you know they are about to start some activity. Some parrots do “V-wings” where they lift their wings over their back from the shoulder and flick primary feathers in and out from the wrist joint. This behaviour has been interpreted as the parrot’s greeting to its human, or to another bird it is familiar with. On the other hand drooping wings in an adult parrot may suggest your bird is unwell. However if your parrot has just indulged in a bath he or she may droop their wings to allow drying, or is perhaps temporarily tired from their exertions.
Wing flipping (quick short movements of the wings against the body) can occur for several reasons. It can be to simply allow feathers to fluff up then lie down correctly in place. Accompanied with hunched shoulders and/or head bobbing, flipping of wings may be an attention seeking device or that your parrot wants fed (seen more in young birds). Wing flipping is also seen as part of mating behaviour and if directed at you is best discouraged. If this behaviour is encouraged with a female bird it can promote egg laying, which is not advantageous for a tame human imprinted parrot as this can lead to serious health problems. Wing flipping can in some instances also be an indicator of anger in a parrot, or that that they are in some pain or distress.
Parrots also communicate through body language. If your parrot stands with a rigid body, head held high and with feathers erect as if standing to attention, then they are probably telling you or another bird that this is their stomping ground. However if your bird’s body appears relaxed but attentive, they are simply showing they are content. A quivering bird can signify several things. They may be cold or they may be frightened, but in some birds they may just be looking for attention or a tasty treat. Although wild parrots are rarely seen on their backs, some tame parrots like to do this during play. In contrast to a relaxed parrot on its back, one which also has pinning eyes, a rigid back and an open beak is terrified, and is prepared to defend itself.
If your bird lowers its head, lifts it wings and has a relaxed body then the likelihood is it is trying to gain your attention. If it crouches its body and lowers its head it probably wants you to pet it. Humans new to parrots are often concerned when their bird becomes all fluffed up and perhaps stands on one foot. Often head and face feathers are also raised except for the top which stays flat. This shows your bird is may want to sleep and should be left to do so. One particular body posture to be wary of is when a parrot is holding in its feathers tightly, appears very alert and has staring eyes. This is a bird that may fly at you or another bird and strike with its feet or beak. It may make contact or simply attempt to drive another individual away. You may see your tame parrot drop its wings slightly downwards and outwards, at the same time as it pulls in its body feathers very tightly. This may be accompanied by chuckling and huffing noises with is beak half open. This is a parrot that is sexually aroused, and whilst it may seem cute and even “baby-like”, should not be encouraged.
As well as essential to flight, your parrot’s tail can tell its own tale. If your bird is flipping its tail then it is either happy, pleased to see you, or perhaps grateful for a nice treat. Similarly if he or she is tail wagging they are probably greeting you and may have already fluffed their feathers first. An alternative explanation is that they are about to poop! This tail action can sometimes be seen before they go from engaging in one activity to the next, or just to rearrange their plumage. In the same vein, parrots preen their tail frequently. In many parrots a preen gland, which secretes oil, is located just above the tail. Parrots go to this spot during preening sessions to obtain this oil with their beak, then transfer it to feathers in other areas.
Whilst all these tail behaviours are positive, beware of tail fanning as this is often seen in conjunction with other aggressive cues. Like other parrot display behaviours they want to show you their size and strength. Some birds will rapidly fan their tail in and out suggesting they are agitated or excited. Combined with raised nape feathers, eye pinning and a tall stance, this should be seen as potentially threatening behaviour. A bobbing tail accompanied by heavy or fast breathing may be a sign that your parrot has some kind of health issue. In this instance please seek the advice of a vet. If however your parrot has been tearing around its aviary or your living-room, then a bobbing tail and rapid breathing are normal and will soon settle back to normal.
As you can see parrot behaviour is complex. It can vary from the downright obvious, to incredible degrees of subtlety. Understanding your parrot’s behaviour can give you some insight into his or her world view. By paying attention to your companion’s behaviour you will through time tune into their needs, emotions and health. These behaviours are not learned behaviours, they are innate. Our parrot companions came equipped with them for good reason. It’s up to us to be familiar with them, understand and respect them, in order to foster happy and healthy relationships with these beautiful creatures.
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Luescher, A. U. (2006). Manual of parrot behavior. Oxford,UK. Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
Schmid, R. (2004). The influence of the breeding method on the behaviour of adult African grey parrots. (Doctoral dissertation), Institut für Genetik, Ernährung und Haltung von Haustieren, Abteilung Tierhaltung und Tierschutz, der Vetsuisse-Fakultät der Universität Bern.
Z.J. Interpreting Parrot Behavior. Retrieved from www.eppa.ca/meetings/parrottalk.doc