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Parrot Body Language

A happy, playful Senegal Parrot
A happy, playful Senegal Parrot

Companion parrots can learn to mimic human speech and may use their speech in proper context: many birds say “Hello” when the phone rings and say “Night, night” or “Time to go to bed” just before lights out. Birds use their natural vocalizations and various body postures to communicate with friends and foes in the wild as well as with their humans in captivity. Learning to understand a companion bird’s body language is a critical component of getting along with your parrot.

Vocalizations

Vocalizations can be used to attract potential mates, identify and protect territory, and maintain social contacts. Singing, whistling and/or talking are frequently signs of contentment and may be practice for birds learning to mimic human speech. Some birds thrive on an audience and will put on a virtuoso performance when being watched, however other birds may become shy and quiet when others are watching.

Chattering can be quite soft or extremely loud. Soft chatter can be a sign of contentment or practice for birds learning to mimic human speech. Loud chatter can serve to get attention or remind you that (s)he is there. In the wild, birds often chatter immediately before going to sleep to connect with other members of the flock.

Growling can be either a sign of contentment or an indication of annoyance. The immediate environment and other body language should be considered to determine what the bird is communicating. Generally speaking, it’s considered best by many not to handle growling birds as they typically do not want to be touched.

Clicking the tongue against the beak may be the bird’s way of entertaining themselves or a request to be petted or picked up.

Wings

Flying in place (wing flapping) is typically a behavior of happiness and or attention getting. Red, a Scarlet Macaw at WPR will indicate a desire to bathe by vigorously flapping his wings while on a tree stand indoors. A friend who takes her bird to work with her reports her macaw will sit on the back of her desk chair and enthusiastically flap her wings to scatter papers from the desk as a display of humor.

Wing flipping is a behavior with multiple meanings including: pain or anger, or a desire to rearrange the feathers so they’re “just right”. Wing flipping accompanied by hunching shoulders and head bobbing is a means of getting attention and often means the bird wants to be fed.

Wing drooping occurs in very young birds as they are learning how to properly fold and tuck in their wings. In older birds, however, wing drooping may indicate illness. Drooping wings after exertion or typically indicates tiredness and after bathing is to help the feathers dry.

Feathers

Birds will fluff or ruffle their feathers during preening. This assists with removal of feather dust or dirt and also helps to return the feathers to their normal position. Birds may fluff their feathers to relieve tension and to cope with cold by trapping air in the spaces between the feathers (close to the body) just like a feather quilt. A bird which persistently fluffs their feathers may be ill and should be seen by your veterinarian.

Birds such as Cockatiels and Cockatoos have large, expressive crests. A raised crest indicates excitement, contentment or alarm and should be interpreted in conjunction with other body postures, vocalizations and the immediate environment.  

Tail Feathers

Tail wagging may indicate that the bird is happy to see you. Tail wagging can also be a precursor to defecation and can be helpful if you are trying to housetrain your bird.

Tail flipping is a general sign of happiness and is typically observed when the bird is happy to see you, gets a treat or plays with a favorite toy.

Tail bobbing together with rapid breathing following strenuous exercise is the bird’s way of catching their breath. If this behavior is displayed without activity it may indicate respiratory distress or infection and should warrant a visit to the vet.

When a bird fans out its’ tail it is displaying either aggression or anger. This behavior demonstrates the birds’ strength and vitality and should be taken seriously.

Beak and Head

The inside of the upper mandible is serrated in most parrots. Grinding the lower beak against the striations of the upper beak is done to cleanse the beak, typically before bedtime. Additionally, many believe birds grind their beaks to keep them in best condition.

Beak clicking is most often observed in Cockatoos and Cockatiels. A single click in conjunction with constricted (pinned) eyes is usually non-threatening and typically indicates a greeting or acknowledgment of something. Multiple beak clicks (particularly with constricted eyes) is a warning that you are wise to heed.

Biting communicates negative emotional states such a defense of territory, fear or anger. A crouching and hissing bird with an open beak is unequivocally preparing to bite.

Birds regurgitate partially digested food from their mouths, esophagus and crops to feed young chicks and as part of the process of bonding with a mate. It is a sign of great affection in the bird world.

Bobbing of the head back and forth or up and down is usually a sign of wanting attention.

Postures

A bird with a relaxed body with head and body erect is considered happy and content. A rigid body with head and body erect and feathers flared indicates territorial ownership. A crouched bird with head tipped downward towards you is a request for petting or being scratched. Parrots are prey animals, and exposing their vulnerable neck is a sign of great trust.

A head down, crouching bird with constricted eyes, a rigid body, flared tail feathers and ruffled body feathers is giving a warning and won’t hesitate to bite if it feels provoked or crowded – even in the most minor way.

Body language is used by all parrots (and other birds) to communicate with others. Some displays may be crystal clear while others can be extremely subtle and must be learned over time by experience. Understanding what your bird is telling you with its’ body language will substantially and unequivocally improve the quality of your relationship.

Today's picture is a happy Senegal Parrot lying on its' back in an owner's hand and playing with its toes

Please consider volunteering at Wilton Parrot Rescue (“WPR”). WPR is an entirely volunteer organization funded solely by voluntary contributions. Regardless of your level of familiarity / comfortability with parrots you can learn about parrots while you make a contribution to the welfare of our birds, help to socialize them and, ultimately, find a good and loving home. Visit our website (www.wiltonparrotrescue.com) for more information about volunteer opportunities and a volunteer application.





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