Interpreting Parrot Behavior

By: Jessie Zgurski

  1. Reading your bird's body language

  2. a) Tail

    i. Tail wagging. Here, the tail wags back and forth very rapidly. Thisis different from tail flaring (next item). Parrots often wag their tailsafter fluffing their feathers out as a greeting. A parrot that rapidly flipsits 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 contented 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. Thisindicates 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 spend 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 surrondings. Nervous parrots will not preen their tails or wing feathers because they cannot pay closeattention 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 whyparrots 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.

    b) Beak

    i. Beak Grinding. This is a normal behavior. Parrots often grindtheir beaks when they are content or sleepy. You are most likely to see this behavior at the parrot's bedtime. This behavior likelyfunctions in keeping the beak trim and sharp.

    ii. Beak Clicking. Some cockatoos and cockatiels rub the tip of theirtop mandible over the bottom one. This odd habit should not concern the owner.

    iii. Beak Wiping. Many parrots like to rub their beaks on theirperches. This is to either get food off the beak or to keep the beakpolished.

    iv. Regurgitation. This is an indication of affection. A parrot thatregurgitates food from its crop to its owner is one that regards itsowner as its mate. Mated birds often feed each other byregurgitating food into each other's beaks. In many parrots, it isonly the male that regurgitates to the female. He does this to courther, and when she is on the nest incubating eggs and connot gatherher 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 willeven regurgitate onto a favorite toy or mirror.

    v. Panting. The bird is overheated, stressed, or tired after excercise.If the bird is panting because it's overheated, place the bird in acooler area. If the bird is panting because it's stressed, immediatelyplace the bird somewhere it can relax. Parrots can die of stress quiteeasily.

    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 toexplore things, and most parrots use their beaks to steady themselveswhile 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 dothis, make sure it's just playing. Do not allow different sized birds tointeract this way.

    viii. Feathers Over Beak. Cockatoos have mobile feathers undertheir beaks and will fluff them over their beaks when they arerelaxed and content where they are.

    ix. Chewing. Parrots chew more than normal during breedingseason because they are cavity breeders and often need to hollow outa tree stump to use as a nest. They also chew for enjoyment. Parrotsshould be provided with plenty of chew toys.

    c) Eyes.

    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 behaviorand the situation it's in to determine how it's feeling. Many parrots(especially Amazons) pin their eyes when playing, vocalizing, eatinga favorite or new food, or when angry. If the eye pinning iscombined with erect nape feathers and a flaring tail, the parrot maybite and should be left alone.

    ii. Eye Contact. Direct eye contact can be frightening or threateningto a nervous or shy parrot, although well-socialized parrots do notmind this. Parrots will often turn their heads to one side and stare atan object with one eye if they are interested in it.

    iii. Blinking. Nervous birds often do not blink when looking at anobject/human/animal that is making them nervous.

    d) Head

    i. Head bobbing. Baby birds bob their heads when begging forfood. Some adult birds will still do this to beg for food or attention,or when they are excited. Very excited "displaying" cockatoos willbob and sway their heads while their crests are up. Depending on thecockatoo, it may not be wise to handle the bird while it is displaying.Some are more likely to bite when very excited. Cockatoos willoften raise their crests when they are surprised, excited, interested insomething, agitated or happy.

    ii. Chin-up. Some birds do this to indicte they'd like to bepetted. Others who enjoy having their necks scratched will lowertheir heads to be petted. Finally, some birds will slowly scratch theirheads 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 isalso strutting and pinning its eyes.

    e) Feet.

    i. Tapping. Many male cockatoos do this. This is a display ofstrength or dominance. Effectively, the bird is saying, "This perchhere is mine!" The bird may want the owner to back off, but this isoften just a bluff. Some cockatoos do this to get their owner's attention. Male black palm cockatoos, (a large black bird fromnorthern Australia, New Guinea, and Indonesia) will often take alarge stick and bang it on a tree to let other birds know that a certainnesting spot is taken.

    f) Wings.

    i. Stretching. Birds often stretch the wing and the leg on the sameside of the body at the same time. Many do this to greet their ownersand start a new activity. Bonded parrots will do this in unison.

    ii. Flipping. This refers to when the parrot slaps its wings against itsbody. Baby parrots will flip their wingts against their bodies whenbegging for food. Adult parrots (especially Quakers) may do this toindicate they want food. If so, the body will be flattened out. If thebody is erect, it is a sign tht the parrot is annoyed, angry orfrustrated. 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 aninvitation to breed. Do not touch the bird.

    iii. Body Up and Rigid, Head Up, Head Feathers Flared, Strutting: Aterritorial display or very agitated bird. Do not touch!

    iv. Quivering: The bird is cold or scared, or it is a Quaker seekingattention or treats.

    v. On Back, Beak Open, Eyes Pinning, Body Rigid: This is a veryfrightened bird! Lories and many Neotropical parrots do this whenthey are 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 willclearly be more relaxed.

  3. Biting: Why do Birds Bite?
  4. 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 dramaticresponse (loud yelling or laughing) may encourage the behavior.Harsh punishment also won't work. Teach the bird "step-up" so youhave more control over the bird. Be sure to practice step-ups withyour parrot every day. Some parrot behaviorists recommend "laddering" a bird if it's being nippy. This involves making theparrot 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, causethe 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 inthe 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 cagewithout being bitten. Many birds become quite territorial duringbreeding season. Male Amazons are particularly prone to thisbecause 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 backoff, the parrot will become even more aggressive. Be sure to do step-uppractice daily so you can better control the bird.

    d) Redirected Aggression.

    This can be a a problem with parrots on shoulders. If the bird sees a rival person come in, something annoys it, or it becomes startled bysomething, 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 thenearest target. If you let a bird on your shoulder, be sure it istrustworthy and that it always gets off when you tell it to.

    e) Fear.

    Frightened parrots will generally try to flee from danger, but if theycannot, they will bite whatever is scaring them. Never punish a veryshy, 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 hisowner because it's not thinking straight. Let an overly excited parrotcalm down before you pick it up to avoid bites.

      Feather Picking: Why?

    This is one of the more frustrating problems a parrot owner can face.Feather destruction by overpreening, shredding or plucking, is asymptom of another problem rather than being a disease itself. It'samemost common in Cockatoos and African grays, and it is also common in Quakers, Conures, and Eclectus parrots. And, althoughit's seen in all parrot species, it is rare in Amazons, Pionusparrots and Poicephalus parrots. It can often take some detectivework to figure out what's wrong.

    a) Health Reasons

    i. Giaria. The presence of this intestinal parasite can cause a parrotto shred the feathers just below its neckline.

    ii. Skin Problems. Itchy skin, external parasites, feather cysts, or askin infection can all cause discomfort that could cause a parrot todestroy its feathers. Many pet stores sell flea, tick and lice remediesfor 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 maycause it to pluck or shred its feathers.

    iv. Bad Wing Clip. If the parrot was clipped too severely and cannotglide to the ground if it slips, the resulting anxiety could causefeather plucking. If you're not sure how to clip a bird properly,consult someone who does and get his or her help.

    v. Beak and Feather Disease. This is a viral disease thatcauses the feathers to look very abnormal. If the bird's head featherslook 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 desease 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 is they lose a favorite person or mate.

    ii. Stress. A number of things can cause stress. For example, ananxious 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.

      Screaming and other Vocalizations.

    a) Contact with Flock Members. arrots 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.

    b) Sentinel Behavior. This has been seen in African grays, cockatoos, and Pyhurra Conures. Parrots often scream in response to something they perceive to be a potential threat.

    c) Wants Attention. Parrots will vocalize to get attention.

    d) 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 load 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.

    Resources:

    Here is a list of magazines, books and websites to help you learn more about parrot training and behavior.

    Magazines:

    Bird Talk: http://www.birdtalkmagazine.com/bt/

    Parrots: http://www.petpublishing.com/birdtimes/

    Bird Times: http://www.petpublishing.com/birdtimes/

    Companion Parrot Quarterly: http://www.companionparrot.com/

    Books:

    Birds for Dummies
    by Gina Spadafori, Dr. Brian L. Speer

    Companion Parrot Handbook
    by Sally Blanchard

    Guide to Companion Parrot Behavior
    by Marrie Sue Athan

    Guide to the Well-Behaved Parrot
    by Mattie Sue Athan, Michele Earle-Bridges

    My Parrot, My Friend
    by Bonnie Munro Doanne, Thomas Qualkinbush

    Parrot Training
    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 Pegt Handbooks)
    by Anne C. Watkins

    Websites:

    Liz Wilson's site (has articles about parrot behavior): http://www3.upatsix.com/liz/

    Parrot House: Parrot behavior articles: http//www.parrothoujse.com/behavior.html

    Birds N' Ways Library of Articles: http://www.birdsnways.com/birds/articles.htm

    Complexities of Feather Picking: http://companionparrot.com/articles/complexities.html

    Feather Picking from Parrot Chronicles: http://www.parrotchronicles.com/fall2001/

    FAQ on Biting, Aggression, Screamingh: http://www.naturalencounters.com/faqnew.html