Parrot Love: Reading Bird Body Language

Does a Parrot “Enjoy” Companion Life?

Those of us who live with companion parrots are increasingly under scrutiny, even attack from the animal rights movement especially in Europe and California. While aviculturists probably receive the lion’s share of criticism, in many places, even ordinary bird owners are sometimes called upon to defend the practice of living with feathered companions.

On occasion, bird owners disagree on avian care such as to trim wings or not to trim wings, cage liners that go unchanged for a few days, fresh fruit and vegetables not served on a daily basis, or a myriad of other “slights” can swamp a conscientious parrot person in guilt. Is it any wonder that those of us who live with birds can sometimes feel guilty or defensive? This guilt can have devastating effects on the relationship between the parrot and its person, up to and including giving up the bird.

The word “happiness” may be some what “anthropomorphic” – a term applicable only to human behavior.

However, animals, especially birds, are perfectly capable of communicating enjoyment of their own well-being. A bird that does not exhibit behaviors typical of healthy individual and/or social adjustment can be called “unhappy,” and if a bird is unhappy, certainly re-homing is a humane and caring option. But bird-keeping isn’t rocket science. Regardless of some of the rhetoric now being bandied about, birds are not difficult to accommodate. Just as bird body language can clearly indicate something wrong, it can also demonstrate that it is absolutely right, in spite of what might be considered less-than-perfect husbandry. When feeling worried about the adequacy of care provided to our parrots, responsible owners can look for behaviors indicating health and comfort.

While many well adjusted parrots will exhibit some or many of these behaviors, not all birds display all of the following activities.

Vocalization: Although a frustrated bird might scream, an unhappy bird or a bird that does not feel well won’t vocalize at all. Most avian vocalizations, whether singing, talking, or simply unintelligible chatter obviously indicate the feelings of well-being we humans associate with happiness.

Preening: A healthy parrot keeps its feathers in order, but a bird that does little except preening may be experiencing boredom or failure of independence.

Bathing: Most parrots relish showers or bathing in a bowl; many of them enjoy daily bathing. A bird that does not take an occasional head dip into a clean water bowl may not be feeling well.

Stretching: A happy, satisfied parrot will stretch in several different ways. The bird might raise both shoulders at the same time. Perhaps the wing and leg on the same side of the body will be stretched in unison followed in a short while with a stretch on the opposite side of the body in a mirror image.

Flapping: Many companion birds like to hold on tight to the cage or perch and flap their wings. This is not an unhappy bird behavior.

Tail Wagging: When a healthy, happy parrot is anticipating a different activity, it may wag its tail feathers vigorously. This behavior resembles a giggle in humans and may be done after a less than pleasant activity such as falling off the perch or toy during play. It indicates that the bird is ready to proceed to the next activity.

Beak Grinding: A sleepy parrot grinding the upper and lower beaks together with eyes closed or nearly closed is showing contentment. This is a self-comfort behavior and has no ill effects on parrots which may or may not have actual effect on the beak.
The word “happiness” may be somewhat “anthropomorphic” – a term applicable only to human behavior. However, animals, especially birds, are perfectly capable of communicating enjoyment of their own well-being.

The Fluff Up or Rough Out: Temporarily ruffled feathers by a parrot that is not in a drafty environment or exhibiting concurrent signs of illness demonstrates well-being, interest, or contentment. This behavior is often accompanied by a tail wag or even a brief whole body shake. A bird with fluffed out feathers who doesn’t feel well may stand on both feet and exhibit other indications of discomfort.

Sleeping on one foot: An unhealthy bird may need to grip the perch with both feet. A healthy, well-balanced bird usually pulls one foot up under the belly feathers when sleeping. When a bird has been resting in this position, their foot becomes warm or even hot which to humans may not feel normal.

Toy Play: Parrots are not unique in having the luxury of play behaviors as adults, but very few adult animals use toys for play.

Tongue Wiggling or Tactile Use of the Tongue: Tongue wiggling can be an invitation to pet. The tongue is a sensory organ in a parrot, and parrot that allows petting of the tongue is usually enjoying a happy interchange, although even a sick parrot might allow tongue petting by a favorite person.

Beak Wiping: Although a parrot might wipe its beak off on a perch or cage accessory if it has an accumulation of food remnants, often, when this is done, it’s an expression of happiness relating to that which is being wiped, whether it’s a perch or a person.

Eye Flashing MacawPinpointing or Eye Flashing: A quick narrowing of the pupil, causing the iris to enlarge indicates interest or excitement by a healthy parrot. Pinpointing often indicates motivation to vocalize, like foot tapping it can also be accompanied by territorial aggression.

Dancing or Head Bobbing: A dancing, head bobbing parrot is usually expressing energy and well-being. Head bobbing behavior may escalate to courtship or sexual behavior.

Leaning or “Begging”: A parrot flattening itself and leaning toward something or someone is expressing a desire for that object or person. If the bird can fly, this behavior probably precedes the flight.

Flying or Following: A bird that is willing to follow you around the house on wing or on foot is either delighted with your company or stalking you, but either a following or stalking bird is a self-confident, healthy avian.

Beak “Chattering”: Tongue wiggling in cockatoos and some other parrots is often accompanied by a rapid up and down movement of the upper beak. This behavior is a clear happiness behavior, although a few mischievous birds might use it as a solicitation to pet, then bite for the fun of it.

Tapping: Tapping with foot or beak against a perch, wall, toy, or human is a signal or a territorial display that may be accompanied by aggression in a mature bird, however, it is certainly an indication of well-being in these still part wild creatures.

Sexual Motivation: While biting and other territorial behaviors might accompany sexual displays and masturbation, these are usually an indication of a healthy, happy bird.

A sick or maladjusted bird will engage in few or none of the behaviors mentioned above. If you are concerned that your bird isn’t demonstrating a sense of well-being, take it immediately to an avian veterinarian. Once the bird is determined to be healthy, then examine and enrich the bird’s physical and social environment. Birds are the personification of joy. Feathered bliss is both obvious and contagious, and sharing the happiness of birds is the essence of life for those of us who keep their company.

By: Mattie Sue Athan
Photo credits
painted by: Shernya Vininsky

Mattie Sue Athan
IAABC Certified Parrot Behavior Consultant, Award Winning Author. Her Barron’s book, Parrots, won the Best Non-Fiction Book Award from the Oklahoma Writers’
Federation. She also released the novel Parrots in the City, one bird’s struggle for a place on the planet. Here she joins Jon-Mark and JoAnn Davey to document the status of wild monk/Quaker parrots and their reintroduction into North America.

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