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Birds use their whole body, their eyes and their feathers to communicate messages to others. These messages can be obvious and almost any animal could interpret their meaning. Other body language signals may be subtle and experience will be needed to interpret it correctly.
Many species have their own body language, specific to them, like an excited Macaw blushing on the white face, or an angry Amazon fanning his tail. Many body languages cross the bird-species border.
Communicating with your bird by observing and interpreting her body language will make your relationship much easier and satisfying for you both. And bird watching becomes an absorbing pastime.
Observing a Parrot’s body language is a pleasure (sometimes). Interpreting what the bird is communicating is an art, a skill and partially a science.
I don’t think there are scientific proofs as to what a particular Parrot means when it puts itself in a particular stance and arranges its feathers in a particular manner. But some general guidelines can help.
There are positive signs and negative ones. And signals that be interpreted one way or another or can be positive to start with and turn out to be negative. One observational skill you need to develop is to realize that one signal may have different meanings.
There is more about body language here.
Eye pinning is a good example. African Greys pin their eyes. The large black pupil narrows to a point then enlarges itself in a matter of seconds. This often happens before talking or when interested in a new food. Greys that pin their eyes generally speak human words but not all Greys that pin will speak English.
They may also pin when they are becoming anxious or aggressive and maybe about to bite.
I enjoy trying to interpret what my birds are telling me in non-verbal communication.
Here are some examples of body language both positive and negative from my own birds. Have you seen similar with yours? Playing, greeting, curiosity, reflection are all emotions I believe our birds show us.
This is easy to spot. After his outside flying session Benni the young Blue and Gold Macaw is put into the aviary. I see him sometimes on his favourite perch with on leg held to his chest and his head tucked under one wing.
During our evening Parrot time Perdy Lesser Sulphur Crested Cockatoo will sit on the knees of her favourite person Wal totally relaxed and fall asleep. It is a rewarding example of trust between you when a bird falls asleep on your body.
On warm nights I can go quietly into the aviary and see the Rock Pebblers in the branches of a small fir tree fast asleep.
Again a state easy to recognise. Cockatoos when relaxed bring their cheek feathers forwards lying against the beak. Perdy (like other Cockatoos) will open and shut her beak rapidly. She will do this with someone she likes like. It seems to be her way of saying hello.
The Greys will perch somewhere. They are quiet, calm and they do not look at you. I have never found a satisfactory explanation for beak wiping. My Greys do it on the kitchen divider when they do not want to interact with me.
In an alert state: the Greys will make eye contact with eyes wide open. They sit up straight. The Cockatoos will raise their crests; they don’t make a noise. Wings are held loosely against their side. They often lean forward. Feathers are tight.
Birds show much curiosity if they are at ease and unafraid. Going into the bird room first thing in the morning, the birds make eye contact, they lean forward, coming closer.
The Greys often put their head on one side. Something I have noticed that wild birds in the garden do also.
In my bird room a converted conservatory, the birds sleep on the canopy not in cages. Only Benni Macaw sleeps in a cage. Once I open it, he will fly to me and thump down onto my shoulder. I believe it is curiosity that brings him.
Greeting and Petting
The Greys and the Perdy will stretch a wing when they first see me in the morning. Even the aviary Parakeets who are not tame will sometimes do that.
There is more about petting here.
Cockatoos ask to be petted far more than Greys. Perdy will land on a favoured person with quivering wings, held out and shaking. We try to avoid petting too much particularly in the spring or summer. Perdy has been capable of flying to me to warn me
‘Get away from Wal – NOW!’ And has even nipped me on occasion.
When Wal, whom unfortunately she perceives as her mate, is not there, she doesn’t nip. The Greys when they want to be stroked are less troublesome. They lower their head to be scratched.
The Greys show excitement in various ways. Wings stretch out in greeting. Feathers fluff up. It is difficult to describe the exact difference between feathers fluffed up in with pleasure and feathers fluffed up in aggressive mode.
Whenever I have been away for a day, Artha greets me with her feathers fluffed up. Perdy the Lesser Sulphur Crested raises her crest. Bobo the Umbrella will raise her crest and dance.
It is said the birds who talk pin their eyes - that amazing sight when the pupils dilate and contract. Some Parrots do this when they're excited about something they like, such as a new toy or good food. But a Parrot whose pupils are pinning in and out is excited and that excitement may slide into bite mode.
Some Parrots blush — the Blue and Gold and the Buffon's Macaws, for example. It's not for the same reason that humans blush, however. It's more about excitement then embarrassment.
But it is also a sign of mating behaviour. Benni Macaw is fond of my friend Della. When she visits he blushes.
This is not hard to spot, crouching on the perch, lifting tail - maybe a slight waggle.
When you see this posture before the bird poops you can take him to the desired place and use a key word or gesture.
I have never managed to potty train the Greys indoors but when they are on an outing wearing their harnesses they will ‘go potty’ on request if I time it right and observe them closely.
Photo Credit: Della Collins
Miserable and/or unwell.
Bird is inattentive. Does not make eye contact. Keeps both feet on perch. Feathers fluffed up, Tail straight down. Maybe tail wagging. Body postures slumped. If your bird exhibits these sign and is fluffed up on the bottom of the cage, it is showing signs of illness.
Wing drooping is a signal that needs to be looked at with other signs. In an unwell Parrot it indicates something is wrong. I have seen this rarely with my pet birds.
I have had aged rescue birds die in the aviary. Their illness showed up in their body posture. Fluffed up and generally on the ground. Wings drooping in a listless bird, indicates illness.
Bigboy, an elderly Timneh rescue, spent 8 happy months in the aviary. But in the ninth month his wings were drooping for a week. The vet advised watching him. There was nothing to be done. Bigboy flew to me one morning and died in my arms. He had a stroke.
A frightened bird is easy to spot. Its feathers will be slicked tight to body. Eye contact. Parrots pulls itself in. May growl. Tries to escape and fly away.
Casper Grey for some unknown reason fears horses. When he is close to one he exhibits all the signs of fear and growls loudly. Once I realised this I never take him near a horse.
Fear of horses does not seem to be an instinctive Parrot fear because Artha Grey used to ride on the pommel of my saddle. And Benni has been known to buzz the horses that graze in the next field, land on a back and swoop away.
There is more about fear in Parrots here.
Photo Credit: Della Collins
This generally shows itself with the feathers fluffed up. As feather fluffing can also be a mating signal or a friendly sign, you need to know the bird well. An aggressive birds enlarges its body size appearance as much as possible. Beak opening.
Those species with crests raise them. And angry birds can shriek or scream depending on species. Bites are not that hard to avoid. Birds generally give plenty of signs. A cock Amazon will double in size, pin his eyes, fan his tail and show you in no uncertain terms that he intends to guard his hen to the death.
If I ask Artha to step up from a perch and she slicks her neck feathers down and sidles to the other end, I know she’s saying, ‘Not now.’ Ignoring signals may easily lead to escalation and an eventual bite.
The body language gives clear signals. Head bobbing, regurgitating. Wings held out quivering. Wing drooping can be part of a mating dance; the hen may crouch lower on the perch and waggle her tail suggestively.
If your Parrot is displaying mating behaviour to its mate and you are anxious for chicks these are positive signs. But should your female Cockatoo be panting and quivering next to her chosen human mate, someone may be in line for a bite.
An amorous Cockatoo can fly at anyone else or even bite the chosen person to get them to avoid the presence of a rival.
A sensible practice is to avoid any petting that resembles mating behaviour. So you don’t stroke Cockatoos under their wings. I think full body stroking of pet Parrots is something to avoid.
It can be a bit disconcerting. African Greys and sometimes other Parrots will dig up the newspaper or innings on the cage bottom like a hen. And if you are unlucky may do it to your Persian carpet.
Greys in particular do this because digging is part of their natural wild behaviour. If you don't mind the mess, you can give your Grey a sandbox to play in. Most of my aviary birds like Rock Pebblers and Princess of Wales Parakeets will scratch on the ground. So will the Cockatoos.
And finally what about our body language?
How should we approach our Parrots? Our eyes are set in the front of our heads like predators that they instinctively fear. With a shy or frightened bird simply looking at it sideways is less threatening.
And then our voices. We tend to yell at a screaming bird which instead of helping it to stop screaming simply reinforces it. Birds love noise and hardly distinguish between ‘Wow, awesome, wonderful’ and ‘get off there, you horrible nuisance.’
And what sounds do we make? Shushing isn’t a good idea. I have proved for myself that with my Greys a hiss upsets them. A hiss is like a shushing sound. They are born with a fear of snakes so we should not imitate snake-like behaviour. Instead of shushing, speaking quietly and calmly gives better results.
And keeping our distance. Going up to a bird’s cage with outstretched finger is aggressive to the bird. Your finger can represent a beak and be seen as a threatening gesture. Approach a bird sideways and keep a good 30 cm distance between you until you are friends.
Get more advice on training and behaviour here.
Photo Credits: All Dot Schwarz unless otherwise stated.
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