While Parrots might be considered to be rather noisy, babbly creatures, they do most of their actual communication through body language, not voice. This is crucial for us humans to understand if we ever want to successfully communicate with our Parrots, so we need to learn to pay attention.
This is not as easy as it sounds. For whatever reason, humans in many (most?) industrialized nations have ceased to pay attention to the body language of our own species.
We know that people lie, and most of us have read that one can identify a liar by changes in his/her body language – yet we continue to put our faith in words, not watching for physical signs that deliver a much clearer message.
The subject of body language in Parrots is an important one, but also one that is fraught with problems. It is one thing to discuss body language in humans, dogs and cats … as each is a single species.
Parrots are quite different, as the current count lists over 350 different species of psittacine birds. This throws quite a monkey wrench into the entire mix, making an article about “Parrot body language” virtually impossible to write.
The other problem is the complexity – because, for instance, feathers raised on one part of the body can mean different things, depending on whether or not feathers are also raised elsewhere on the body.
Yet here I am, trying to write about Parrot body language.
So, first of all, a crucial disclaimer: Every time I have discussed Parrot body language in lecture, there are always people in the audience who assert that THEIR Parrot does not show thus-and-so in THAT way. And I am certain that is correct.
But I am not discussing their Parrot, I am discussing Parrots in general. (I do not, after all, even know their Parrot.) As a result, all an article like this can do is offer some generalizations, many of which may or may not apply to an individual bird. Individuals are, well … individual.
The best I can hope is that readers will grasp not only the importance of the subject of psittacine body language, but more importantly, the subtleties. Perhaps then Parrot people will start paying attention to what it appears to mean when their own birds hold their feathers in a particular way, or their eyes look a particular way.
Several years ago I gave a “Parrots 101” type of lecture at the first annual conference of the International Association of Animal Behaviour Consultants (www.iaabc.org) and my audience was predominantly composed of dog and cat behaviour consultants.
Afterwards, my favourite feedback came from Pam Johnson-Bennett, one of the top cat behaviour consultants in the world (https://www.catbehaviorassociates.com/). She said my lecture had given her tremendously valuable perspective on her own clients.
Previously, she would get so frustrated with people who could not apparently see what she thought was blatantly obvious in the body language of their cats. However, in my lecture she found she could not see the subtleties of Parrot body language evident that I pointed out in my photographs – an illuminating and perhaps humbling experience.
No, this body language stuff isn’t easy in any species of animal!
Using those same slides of Parrot body language, I have been interested in the responses of different audiences within the Parrot world. Avian veterinarians – especially inexperienced ones – often could not see the subtleties at all, frequently asking me to show various slides over and over as they struggled to grasp what I was pointing out.
However, when my audience was composed of experienced Parrot breeders and owners, the reactions were dramatically different. Experienced Parrot people had absolutely no difficulty, for example, in recognizing the various warning signs that mean DON’T REACH FOR THAT BIRD!
I would like to thank my colleague and friend Kashmir Csaky for her valuable assistance in the writing of this article, as she generously shared her article on this subject with me. She said it well in this quote:
“The learning history of the individual [Parrot] has a tremendous impact on body language. If we want to predict behaviour, we must first observe the individual. Then we can use our knowledge of the various behaviours we have seen in different species to further predict behaviours.
The experience of the individual, the species, the age and health of the Parrot all influence body language. In many cases, we can only distinguish between positive and negative emotions. The following descriptions are merely a guide.”
Sight & Vision
A Parrot’s vision is remarkably different from ours. Like many avian species, their ability to see into the ultraviolet spectrum enables them to see colours we cannot even imagine, and their eyesight is much keener than ours.
But what is also exceedingly important is how different their vision is in terms of frames per second. Humans apparently cannot see movie film frames changing as long as the film is moving at more than 16 frames per second. Less than that and the human eye can see the flicker as the frames change, as in the jerkiness of old movies.
Use UV lights to help them see effectively.
However, a bird’s eye can apparently see 2-3 times more frames per second than the human’s, enabling them to see, for example, the continual flicker of fluorescent lights. Humans cannot see that flicker until it slows way down as a bulb burns out.
My personal theory is that this vision capability enables them to see MUCH more subtlety than we humans can – in much more detail, as it were. So they likely can see even the tiniest change in body language – giving them plenty of time to respond to slight feather position changes in other birds, as well as minuscule changes in a human’s face.
The language of feathers is extraordinarily complex and often difficult for mere humans to interpret. Unlike we mammals who have no conscious control over the hairs on our bodies (such as the hairs on our arms), birds have voluntary control over the movement of their feathers. This enables them to respond quickly to temperature changes but also to express themselves in breathtaking subtlety.
Generally speaking, if a Parrot’s feathers look soft and fluffy, the bird is likely relaxed. If they are stiffly erect, the bird is on alert and potentially aggressive. If they are extremely tight to the body, the bird is afraid and therefore potentially aggressive if cornered.
That said, there are endless variations.
Ms. Csaky said it well:
“When Parrots are relaxed and comfortable, the feathers on their head are smooth and lie flat to their heads without looking slicked down. If they are mildly excited and anticipating something pleasurable the feathers may be slightly raised at the crown and or the nape. “
However, if a Parrot’s head feathers are held tightly flat or spiked above the beak with the nape feathers erected, use caution (especially with Macaws and Amazons). This bird is likely to bite so the human should back off.
Cockatoos are renowned for raising their face feathers around their beak as a sign of relaxation (a.k.a. fluffy face), and avian veterinarian Daryl Styles calls that “covering the weapon.”
Raising all the head and body feathers might be an example of the “I’m too big to swallow!” defensive-aggressive posture. If all the feathers are raised, the bird may also rock from side to side.
Csaky describes baby birds well:
“Baby birds may demonstrate similar expressions with their feathers. However, their bodies will appear limp and they may flip one or both wings while vocalizing. This is a solicitation for food. Chicks that lunge at people and grab them with an open mouth are not attempting to bite. They are hungry.”
With crested birds, an erect crest indicates an alert and totally engaged bird – and depending on circumstances, fear and/or aggression can easily follow. A semi-erect or lowered crest indicates relaxation.
Unlike mammals, many birds (including Parrots) have voluntary control over the dilation of the eyes and often use this capability for display. When they contract and dilate their pupils rapidly, (eye pinning or flashing), they are excited – but that excitement can be positive or negative. A Parrot’s eyes might flash wildly when it is feeling highly aroused and aggressively territorial, and also when it is eating an especially luscious treat.
African Grey Parrots can change the shape of their eyes by controlling their lids. If their eyes are wide and round, they are likely surprised. If their eyes look squinty, they are likely annoyed and prone to aggression. Or they are sleepy.
Parrots like Macaws have bare facial patches and can blush rather like humans. However, do not be confused by the variety of colours of facial patches of different Macaw species.
Green-winged, Blue and Yellow, Scarlet and Blue-throated Macaws have white facial patches, while militaries have pink facial skin and Hyacinth Macaws have yellow facial skin. Again, blushing is a sign of excitement and more information is needed to judge whether this is positive or negative. However, to my knowledge, Macaws do not blush from embarrassment!
A Parrot’s wings can be an important component of their body language. Opened wings can increase a bird’s apparent size dramatically – another component in the previously mentioned I’m too big to swallow defensive-aggressive stance. According to Csaky, “Wings held away from the body are usually an indication of negative emotions” such as aggression and/or fear.
However, many Parrot species often raise their wings high above their backs in what is called a wing lift and this is a greeting.
A frightened Parrot holds its feathers tight to its body and may hold its wings that way, too. Parrots may also hold their wings out in a slightly horizontal position and quiver them. This often indicates the bird is ready to fly away from a perceived threat, or it might be a solicitation to be picked up by a favoured human. Greys might also stretch their necks out when they are afraid (and the actual length of a Grey’s neck can be rather startling).
A calm and comfortable Parrot keeps its wings relaxed by its sides, and a Parrot whose wings are drooping down might be tired or ill.
A Parrot’s grip can say a lot about its feelings. A tight grip can indicate fear. A slightly wide stance can indicate relaxation, or it might indicate illness if the bird is weak.
Parrots also use their feet to politely push away another Parrot – or human – that it feels is too close. The human who repeatedly ignores such protestations will likely get bitten and deserves it.
A foot that is lifted to a human usually means, “Please pick me up.” However, that same foot extended through cage bars can lead to human fingers being grabbed and bitten.
As an interesting aside, Cockatoos often use their feet totally differently from other Parrot families. Most Parrots pick things up with their beaks and then transfer the objects to their feet.
Cockatoos often pick things up with their feet first, and then transfer them to their beaks. In the wild, Palm Cockatoos have been filmed using broken sticks to drum loudly on dead trees, likely as a territorial display. Other Cockatoo species might stomp a foot as an aggressive warning.
Parrots that sway back and forth might be dancing … or they might be warning off something they find threatening. If they lean away from something, they are disallowing contact. In general, a comfortable Parrot’s stance is erect, with softened feathers.
Repetitive behaviours such as circling the cage, running the beak up and down the cage bars, tossing the head back and forth, and pacing back and forth might be categorized as stereotypical behaviours or stereotypies. Stereotypical behaviours indicate the Parrot is suffering from extreme boredom.
A Lack of Body Language
In some cases, older Parrots whose body language has been ignored for years might cease to use the nonverbal warnings of body language and go directly to a bite. These birds can be encouraged – with patience and consistency – to use body language again when humans are exquisitely aware of the bird’s feelings, instantly withdrawing in response to the slightest change in the bird’s feathering and/or posture.
By so doing, a Parrot can learn over time that its body language is finally being noted, teaching it to use such natural communication methods again.
Learn more about training and behaviour here.