|Interpreting Parrot Behavior
By: Jessie Z.
Reading your bird’s body language
i. Tail wagging. Here, the tail wags back and forth very rapidly. This is different from tail flaring (next item). Parrots often wag their tails after fluffing their feathers out as a greeting. A parrot that rapidly flips its tail is most likely happy to see you.
This behavior also occurs after the parrot is finished with one activity and is about to begin another. Generally, this is only seen in a content parrot. Many also do this just to rearrange their feathers. Many cockatoos also do this when they are about to eliminate.
ii. Tail flaring. Here, the feathers on the tail fan out. Some parrots, like lineolated parakeets, will rapidly fan their tails in and out. This indicates that the parrot is excited or agitated. In some cases, this indicates that the bird could bite. If the tail flare is combined with an erect posture, erect nape feathers, and pinpointing eyes, handling the bird would be very unwise.
iii. Tail preening. Parrots spent a lot of time preening to keep their feathers clean and in good shape. A bird that is preening its tail is likely very comfortable in its surroundings. Nervous parrots will not preen their tails or wing feathers because they cannot pay close attention to what’s going on around them while they are doing so.
A parrot’s preen gland is located just above the tail. This is why parrots often rub their beaks on that spot while they are preening. They get some preen oil on their beaks and rub it on their feathers. Some Neotropical species, such as certain species of Amazons, Pionus, and Brotogeris lack the preen gland. Pair bonded parrots often preen each other.
Parrots often preen their owners as well. If your parrot gently chews on your hair, beard, ear, or shirt, this is likely what it’s doing. It means the parrot really likes you! This behavior is less common in parrot species that do not pair bond all year, such as ringnecks and Eclectus parrots.
Beak Grinding. This is a normal behavior. Parrots often grind their beaks when they are content or sleepy. You are most likely to see this behavior at the parrot’s bedtime. This behavior likely functions in keeping the beak trim and sharp.
ii.Beak Clicking. Some cockatoos and cockatiels rub the tip of their top mandible over the bottom one. This odd habit should not concern the owner.
iii. Beak Wiping. Many parrots like to rub their beaks on their perches. This is to either get food off the beak or to keep the beak polished.
iv. Regurgitation. This is an indication of affection. A parrot that regurgitates food from its crop to its owner is one that regards its owner as its mate. Mated birds often feed each other by regurgitating food into each other’s beaks. In many parrots, it is only the male that regurgitates to the female. He does this to court her, and when she is on the nest incubating eggs and cannot gather her own food. This is very uncommon in species where both parents take turns with incubating eggs, such as many white cockatoos.
Birds bob their heads rapidly before regurgitation. Some birds will even regurgitate onto a favorite toy or mirror.
v. Panting. The bird is overheated, stressed, or tired after exercise. If the bird is panting because it’s overheated, place the bird in a cooler area. If the bird is panting because it’s stressed, immediately place the bird somewhere it can relax. Parrots can dies of stress quite easily.
vi. Biting. The bird is frightened, or it’s guarding its territory, or it’s trying to control its owner. Baby parrots also use their beaks to explore things, and most parrots use their beaks to steady themselves while climbing or walking on a perch.
vii. Jousting. Young parrots often play by sparring with their beaks, similar to the way dogs will jaw-spar. However, if your parrots do this, make sure it’s just playing. Do not allow different sized birds to interact this way.
viii. Feathers Over Beak. Cockatoos have mobile feathers under their beaks and will fluff them over their beaks when they are relaxed and content where they are.
ix. Chewing. Parrots chew more than normal during the breeding season because they are cavity breeders and often need to hollow out a tree stump to use as a nest. They also chew for enjoyment. Parrots should be provided with plenty of chew toys.
i. Flashing or Pinning. This is only visible in parrots with light-eyes.
If a parrot shrinks and enlarges its iris, it is excited, surprised, agitated or angry. You must consider the rest of the parrot’s behavior and the situation it’s in to determine how it’s feeling. Many parrots (especially Amazons) pin their eyes when playing, vocalizing, eating a favorite or new food, or when angry. If the eye pinning is combined with erect nape feathers and a flaring tail, the parrot may bite and should be left alone.
ii. Eye Contact. Direct eye contact can be frightening or threatening to a nervous or shy parrot, although well-socialized parrots do not mind this. Parrots will often turn their heads to one side and stare at an object with one eye if they are very interested in it.
iii. Blinking. Nervous birds often do not blink when looking at an object/human/animal that is making them nervous.
i. Head bobbing. Baby birds bob their heads when begging for food. Some adult birds will still do this to beg for food or attention, or then they are excited. Very excited “displaying” cockatoos will bob and sway their heads while their crests are up. Depending on the cockatoo, it may not be wise to handle the bird while it is displaying. Some are more likely to bite when very excited. Cockatoos will often raise their crests when they are surprised, excited, interested in something, agitated or happy.
ii. Chin-up. Some birds to do this to indicate they’d like to be petted. Others who enjoy having their necks scratched will lower their heads to be petted. Finally, some birds will slowly scratch their heads with their foot to indicate they’d like to be petted.
iii. Nape Feathers Up: The bird is guarding its territory or is agitated. Do not handle the bird until it calms down, especially if the bird is also strutting and pinning its eyes.
i. Tapping. Many male cockatoos do this. This is a display of strength or dominance. Effectively, the bird is saying, “This perch here is mine!” The bird may want the owner to back off, but this is often just a bluff. Some cockatoos do this to get their owner’s attention. Male black palm cockatoos, (a large black bird from northern Australia, New Guinea, and Indonesia) will often take a large stick and bang it on a tree to let other birds know that a certain nesting spot is taken.
i. Stretching. Birds often stretch the wing and the leg on the same side of the body at the same time. Many do this to greet their owners and start a new activity. Bonded parrots will do this in unison.
ii. Flipping. This refers to when the parrot slaps its wings against its body. Baby parrots will flip their wings against their bodies when begging for food. Adult parrots (especially Quakers) may do this to indicate they want food. If so, the body will be flattened out. If the body is erect, it is a sign that the parrot is annoyed, angry or frustrated. If this behavior is combined with eye pinning and tail flaring, do not touch the bird. It probably does not want interaction.
g) Body Posture.
i. Body Flat, Wings Quivering: Begging behavior.
ii. Tail up, Wings Quivering, Whining: In female parrots, this is an invitation to breed. Do not touch the bird.
iii. Body up and Rigid, Head Up, Head Feathers Flared, Strutting: A territorial display or very agitated bird. Do not touch!
iv. Quivering: The bird is cold or scared, or it is a Quaker seeking attention or treats.
v. On Back, Beak Open, Eyes Pinning, Body Rigid: This is a very frightened bird! Lories and many Neotropical parrots do this when they are very terrified and are ready to fight. Do not confuse this with play. Some parrots (especially many Caiques, Conures, and Poicephalus) like to play on their backs. In that case, the bird will clearly be more relaxed.
2) Biting: Why do Birds Bite?
a) The Bird is a Baby.
Baby parrots use their beaks to explore the world and to test things. This behavior should be discouraged. However, a dramatic response (loud yelling or laughing) may encourage the behavior. Harsh punishment also won’t work. Teach the bird “step-up” so you have more control over the bird. Be sure to practice step-ups with your parrot every day. Some parrot behaviorists recommend “laddering” a bird if its being nipping. This involves making the parrot do several (6 or so) step ups in succession between your two hands. You can also try the “earthquake” method. Shake your arm or body when the parrot nips to distract it. Do not, however, cause the bird to fall.
Some books may recommend giving the parrot a time out in its cage. This often does not work because the parrot may forget why it’s in the cage by the time you’ve gotten it in there.
b) Parrot is Territorial.
Some parrots will guard their cages, play stands, or favorite person. It is often a good idea to teach such a parrot to step up on a stick. That way, you can remove a cage-guarding parrot from its cage without being bitten. Many birds become quite territorial during breeding season. Male Amazons are particularly prone to this because in the wild they are the ones who build and guard a nest.
c) Parrot Does Not Want to do Something.
The parrot is trying to control you. If you show fear and always back off, the parrot will become even more aggressive. Be sure to do step-up practice daily so you can better control the bird.
d) Redirected Aggression
This can be a problem with parrots on shoulders. If the bird sees a rival person come in, something annoys it, or it becomes startled by something, it may bite its owner. In this case, the bird may not mean to bite the owner, but rather it became aggressive and just bit the nearest target. If you let a bird on your shoulder, be sure it is trustworthy and that it always gets off when you tell it to.
Frightened parrots will generally try to flee from danger, but if they cannot, they will bite whatever is scaring them. Never punish a very shy, fearful parrot.
f) Parrot is Overstimulated
This is common in the very active parrots, such as Amazons, Cockatoos, Caiques, and Conures, although any bird may do this. During playtime, the bird may become very excited and then bite its owner because it’s not thinking straight. Let an overly excited parrot calm down before you pick it up to avoid bites.
3) Feather Picking: Why?
This is one of the more frustrating problems a parrot owner can face. Feather destruction by overpreening, shredding or plucking, is a symptom of another problem rather than being a disease itself. It’s most common in Cockatoos and African grays, and it is also common in Quakers, Conures, and Eclectus parrots. And, although it’s been seen in all parrot species, it is rare in Amazons, Pionus parrots and Poicephalus parrots. It can often take some detective work to figure out what’s wrong.
a) Health Reasons
i. Giardia. The presence of this intestinal parasite can cause a parrot to shred the feathers just below its neckline.
ii. Skin Problems. Itchy skin, external parasites, feather cysts, or a skin infection can all cause discomfort that could cause a parrot to destroy its feathers. Many pet stores sell flea, tick and lice remedies for parrots. Never use these without receiving advice from a vet. External parasites are not common in house birds.
iii. Malnutrition. A bad diet can give a parrot dry, itchy skin that may cause it to pluck or shred its feathers.
iv. Bad Wing Clip. If the parrot was clipped too severely and cannot glide to the ground if it slips, the resulting anxiety could cause feather plucking. It you’re not sure how to clip a bird properly, consult someone who does and get his or her help.
v. Psittacine Beak and Feather Disease. This is a viral disease that causes the feathers to look very abnormal. If the bird’s head feathers look bad, this could be the cause.
vi. Internal Pain. If a bird picks at one spot, this could be the cause. For example, a bird with fatty liver disease may pick at the skin above its liver.
vii. Zinc toxicity. Heavy metals can be toxic to parrots. Very old cages may have bits of metal flaking off. If the parrot ingests these, it may become ill.
viii. Allergies. These can cause dry itchy skin.
b) Psychological Reasons (These are the cause of most feather destruction problems)
i. Grief. Parrots may pluck if the lose a favorite person or mate.
ii. Stress. A number of things can cause stress. For example, an anxious shy parrot may feather pluck if it’s placed in a noisy area with nowhere to go where it feels safe. If a pet parrot starts destroying its feathers, try to determine if anything in the environment changed when the problem started.
iii. Boredom. A parrot with nothing to do may feather pick because of boredom. Make sure the bird has a big cage, and lots of toys, and that it gets plenty of time out of the cage.
iv. Overpreening. The parrot may not be preening its feathers properly, or it’s doing it too much.
v. Hormones. Some female birds pull some breast feathers out of their chests during the breeding season. They do this to create a brood patch, or a warmer spot on the skin, to use to incubate eggs. However, this is not common in pets. Other birds may pluck out of frustration with not having a mate.
4) Screaming and other Vocalizations.
a) Contact with Flock Members. Parrots in the wild often screech so they can
keep track of each other. They primarily do this at dawn and dusk. Mated pairs sometimes “duet” and vocalize together.
Sentinel Behavior. This has been seen in African grays, cockatoos, and Pyrhurra Conures. Parrots often scream in response to something they perceive to be a potential threat.
d) Wants Attention. Parrots will vocalize to get attention.
e) Mating Season. Parrots will screech more often during mating season to advertise their territory and to attract a mate.
How to Respond to a Screaming Parrot:
-Note that all parrots make some noise. Behavior modification is only needed if the parrot screams non-stop for long periods of time. Some parrots, such as Aratinga Conures, Nanday Conures, Patagonian Conures, Amazons, Macaws, and Cockatoos are known for being quite loud.
a) Don’t Yell Back. This will reinforce the behavior.
b) Be sure the Environment isn’t too loud. Loud households often produce loud parrots. Place the parrot in a quieter area, but make sure that the spot is not too secluded, and that the bird will still receive lots of attention.
c) Teach it a New Sound. Encourage the parrot to whistle, talk, trill or beep when it wants attention.
d) Toys, Attention. Make sure the parrot has enough to do and that it isn’t too lonely.
e) Provide White Noise. Play a radio quietly to mask other sounds that could be bothering your parrot.
f) Anticipate the screaming. Figure out when the screaming usually starts and provide a distraction. For example, give it a shower at that time so it’s busy preening.
Here is a list of magazines, books and websites to help you learn more about parrot training and behavior.
Bird Talk: http://www.birdtalkmagazine.com/bt/
Bird Times: http://www.petpublishing.com/birdtimes/
Companion Parrot Quarterly: http://www.companionparrot.com/
Birds for Dummies
by Gina Spadafori, Dr. Brian L. Speer
Companion Parrot Handbook
by Sally Blanchard
Guide to Companion Parrot Behavior
by Mattie Sue Athan
Guide to a Well-Behaved Parrot
by Mattie Sue Athan, Michele Earle-Bridges
My Parrot, My Friend
by Bonnie Munro Doane, Thomas Qualkinbush
by Bonnie Munro Doane
The African Grey Parrot Handbook (Barron's Pet Handbooks)
by Mattie Sue Athan, Dianalee Deter
The Alex Studies: Cognitive and Communicative Abilities of Grey Parrots
by Irene Maxine Pepperberg
The Conure Handbook (Barron's Pet Handbooks) by Anne C. Watkins
Liz Wilson’s site (has articles about parrot behavior): http://www3.upatsix.com/liz/
Parrot House: Parrot behavior articles: http://www.parrothouse.com/behavior.html
Birds N’ Ways Library of Articles: http://www.birdsnways.com/birds/articles.htm
Alex Foundation: Research on African Grays: http://www.alexfoundation.org/
Complexities of Feather Picking: http://www.companionparrot.com/articles/complexities.html
Feather Picking from Parrot Chronicles: http://www.parrotchronicles.com/fall2001/
FAQ on Biting, Aggression, Screaming: http://www.naturalencounters.com/faqnew.html