UNDERSTANDING YOUR BIRD'S BODY LANGUAGE
by Theresa Jordan
One of the most important aspects in creating and maintaining a
successful relationship with an avian companion is the ability to understand
your bird's vocalizations and body language. Birds learn to communicate with
us through sounds, behavior and actions. Using their body language and
vocalizations they can "tell" us when they are happy, content, frightened,
sick, hungry, tired, angry, or ready to be held and cuddled. The ability to
communicate is a vital element in any relationship, and it is of utmost
importance that bird owners learn to interpret the meanings of their birds
sounds and behaviors in order to successfully tame, train, and provide them
with the very best of care.
While the actions of one particular bird or species do not necessarily
mimic the meaning of the same action in all other birds, we have found there
to be a general similarity in the actions and meaning of some basic avian
behaviors. If your bird exhibits any of the following behaviors, try to
ascertain exactly what your feathered friend is trying to tell you, and
respond (or refrain from responding) accordingly.
Flashing, dilating pupils can be a
sign of aggression, excitement, nervousness, or pleasure. Pay close
attention to other behaviors that accompany flashing/"pinning" pupils in
order to correctly ascertain the reason for this particular behavior. In a
bird that is exhibiting additional aggressive behaviors such as tail
fanning, this behavior means "Back Off!". If you persist in attempting
contact, you may get a nasty bite for your trouble. Your bird may also be
exhibiting this behavior in response to another bird, animal, or human in
the vicinity that is disliked.
Even in a household without dogs, some birds will
"bark" in excitement, during a "chatter" session, or in an attempt to
display their dominance over their cagemates or other birds in the
An indicator of aggression, growling is sometimes
accompanied by dilating pupils and raised feathers on the back of the
neck. It generally means that a bird does not want to be approached. In
these cases it is best to retreat and wait for the bird to calm down
before attempting any contact.
Very similar to the growling sound, but not usually
accompanied by dilating pupils. Bird's body is usually relaxed and
feathers are fluffed up. This behavior indicates contentment.
Rapid "clicking" of the tongue against the
beak which generally means "I want to be friendly, I won't hurt you". This
invitational behavior is most often seen in cockatiels and cockatoos.
Beak clicking is a sharp, consistent
"clicking" sound used when a bird feels threatened, or is protecting a
particular object or space. Often accompanied by neck stretching and
sometimes the raising of a foot, it is a signal that the bird is defending
territory or possessions, and is trying to ward off the "intruder".
Approaching a bird exhibiting this behavior will most likely result in a
This is similar to the sound of a child
grinding his teeth at night, and is a result of a bird scraping the lower
mandible against the upper mandible. It is usually a sign of a bird
feeling secure and content. This will often be heard after your bird
settles in for the night, right before he drops off to sleep, and
sometimes during sleep.
We've observed three separate reasons for this
activity. When done in the presence of another bird, it is usually an
attempt to tell the other bird that it is intruding on personal territory.
When done while alone, it usually indicates one of two things: the bird is
trying to dislodge something stuck to his beak, or the beak wiping is a
displacement aggression activity. Displaced aggression means that the bird
cannot perform the activity he would like to and is aggravated, which he
displays by wiping his beak on another object. We've observed this
particular cause and effect in a jealous Amazon who is over-bonded to his
male owner, and never fails to bite the owner's wife when given the
opportunity. Whenever the bird is caged and observes acts of affection
between the owner and his wife, the bird commences beak wiping and
With young birds, there is often a "teething stage"
encountered where the youngsters will "beak" almost everything it comes in
contact with. A bird's beak is filled with encapsulated nerve endings, and
is used to experience sensation, texture, taste, resilience of objects,
etc. In these instances, the "beaking" cannot be considered as biting but
as experimentation. "Beaking" of human fingers, which may lead to biting
later, can be gently discouraged by redirecting the bird to an appropriate
toy or other approved chewable item.
With older birds, biting is
obviously the most definitive form of showing displeasure. Biting birds do
so for a reason. The bird may be feeling threatened, frightened or
startled. Birds will bite during display; to protect their nest; or when
the owner is doing something the bird disproves of. Birds may also bite
their mate or beloved human in an attempt to protect them. A bird's
instinct is to flee when faced with an intruder, and in an attempt to
encourage his "mate" to flee, may bite at the owner as a way of
encouraging this. Biting can also be caused by displaced aggression; when
unable to bite the desired object, your bird will bite the closest thing
at hand. When encouraging a bird to step up onto your hand, do not
misunderstand an open beak aimed at your hand as an attempt to bite. Birds
almost always "test" a perch before stepping onto it to ensure its
stability, and will touch his beak to your hand before stepping onto it.
Whistling, Singing, Talking
These activities are usually
indulged in when the bird is feeling safe, secure and content in his
surroundings. Expected times are during the early morning hours when the
sun rises, and at dusk when the sun is going down, but also occur anytime
the bird is feeling especially exuberant and happy!
Birds sneeze for the same reasons we do: dust,
nasal irritation, small bug or down feathers up the nasal cavity. Some
birds will sneeze if this behavior has been positively reinforced. If the
sneezing is accompanied by nasal discharge, your bird should be seen by an
When done in the presence or in close
proximity to a human, it normally means that the bird has chosen you as
it's mate, and wants to feed you! This action is also sometimes performed
on a favorite toy or other object. Bonded birds show their affection for
each other by feeding each other, and accomplish this by regurgitating
food. This activity consists of bobbing the head up and down to bring up
food from the crop, and depositing it into the mate's mouth. This is also
the manner in which parents feed baby chicks.
Loud chattering or crowing is usually heard at
dusk, when bird(s) are settling down for the night. It is believed to be
an attempt to make their presence known to other birds, or possible to
re-establish relationships among the flock. Soft chattering is often how a
parrot amuses itself, and is normally a sign that the parrot is feeling
safe and content. This muted chatter is also heard when a bird is
practicing speech; words and phrases can sometimes be heard if you listen
Craning the Neck
This is simply a bird who is trying to see
what activities are going on around him! Usually accompanied by a distinct
widening of the eyes and the body being held very still.
Characterized by the "snaking" of the head from
side to side in a fluid motion. Appears to indicate excitement, a quest
for attention, or be a display behavior. My severe macaw, Bo, performs a
similar activity where he jerks his head around at a 30 degree angle and
looks at me sideways. He will hold this position until I jerk my head in a
similar fashion. He then responds by jerking his head in the opposite
direction, and again holding that position until I respond! It has become
an enjoyable game to him, and he will do this when he is trying to get my
Jousting and beak fencing in some
species (most notably Amazons) is thought to be related to sexuality; in
others it is thought to be simply a form of play or "rough-housing". Birds
will pretend to attack each other and grab each other's beaks. This is
excellent exercise and birds appear to have a great deal of fun with this
activity. This behavior very rarely ends in any injury, and is often
followed by mutual preening.
A bird who is pulling his wings in close to his
body, has his head lower than the perch and sometimes bobbing slightly,
and is leaning forward with quivering or flapping wings is getting ready
to take flight. This behavior is often displayed when a bird is questing
for attention, and will often attempt to fly to you if you do not give
them the attention they are seeking.
A bird that is standing still
with his head lowered/tucked in front of you, with head feathers puffed
out, is probably asking to be scratched! As opposed to the similar
aggressive posture (see "Crouch Stance" below), a bird that wants to be
scratched or is asking for attention will be relaxed in posture, whereas
the aggressive stance will be distinguished by tension in the body and the
slight elevation of the nape and back feathers, but not the head feathers.
A panting bird is overheated, overexerted and
uncomfortable. Birds that are not used to flying and have regrown their
flight feathers will often do this when they take their first few flights.
If you notice a non-flighted bird panting, make sure that your bird's cage
is not sitting in direct sunlight for extended periods, and be sure to
provide plenty of fresh water regularly.
Preening is the activity that a bird conducts to
keep his feathers in top condition. It consists of running feathers
through their beaks from the base to the tip to straighten and clean them.
Some birds have oil glands at the base of their tails, and will take some
of this oil and run it through their feathers, creating a "sheen" and
protectant that repels water instead of absorbing it. Preening is also a
social activity; birds will preen one another to remove feather sheaths
that they cannot reach by themselves. Birds may also attempt to "preen"
their humans hair.
Preening should not be confused with feather
biting or plucking. A feather-biting bird will bite his feathers and snip
them off at the base, close to the skin or directly at the feather
follicle. A plucking bird will pull and pluck the feathers out completely.
(Plucked feathers will grow back more quickly than those that have been
cut off at the base.)
This is normal in younger chicks who have not
yet learned how to hold and tuck their wings in. Likewise, birds who have
just been bathed or misted may hold their wings down while drying. If
neither of these situations is applicable, the bird may be overheated and
attempting to cool itself, or may be feeling poorly. Drooping wings
accompanied by sitting on the bottom of the cage is indicative of a sick
This is a sharp, flicking movement of one or
both wings and is usually indicative of annoyance or displeasure. Another
cause of wing flipping could be that one of the feathers is out of place,
and the bird is "flipping" the wing in an attempt to realign it before
preening. In this case, holding the bird aloft on your hand and slowly
dropping your hand a few inches will encourage the bird to flap its wings,
and will assist in realigning the feather.
Wing and Body Quivering
Quivering wings usually indicate
fear, nervousness, uncertainty, or distrust. Birds displaying this
behavior should be spoken to softly with a reassuring tone of voice before
attempting to initiate contact. A quivering of the entire body, and
especially the abdomen where you can see the abdominal feathers shaking,
is usually a normal attempt to adjust to a marked change in the
temperature of the environment.
Wing drumming is wonderful exercise for birds.
This activity is often observed when birds are released from their cages
after a long period of confinement, or in the morning when first taken out
of the cage. Often they will stand on the top of the cage at the front
edge and drum their wings, sometimes so strongly that they elevate
themselves a few inches or even take flight.
In some species wing
drumming is also a warning that the bird is protecting its territory.
Invading birds who ignore this warning are often chased by the "drummer"
with his beak open and ready, and/or bitten.
This behavior is characterized by a
ruffling of the head feathers, fanning of the tail, wings extended in full
display and a very distinct strutting walk. It is easily identifiable in
Amazons and Cockatoos, and is sometimes accompanied by dilation of the
pupils, head bobbing, and loud vocalizations. Cockatoos (and other birds
with a crest) will also throw their crest feathers up while in display.
These behaviors are usually brought on by attempts to attract a mate, or
as a show of territoriality. Attempts to handle a bird displaying this
behavior should be avoided as it will almost always result in a severe
a) Toward person or another bird with head
down: This aggressive behavior is designed to frighten the
intruders into leaving.
b) Toward person or another bird with head
up: This behavior usually denotes pleasure in the human's or
other bird's presence, and can be taken as an invitation to play, preen,
On one foot: Shows that a bird feels
comfortable in his surroundings and secure in his environment. A secure
bird will sleep with one foot tucked up to his abdomen and his head turned
around and tucked into his back feathers.
A bird that is crouching with his head down
and pointed forward, tail feathers flared, body feathers ruffled or
"hackled", and exhibiting pupil dilation is one angry fellow! DO NOT
approach a bird who is exhibiting this behavior, as it means, "I am big,
mean, and mad; if you come any closer I will bite you!"
"Defensive to the Death"
Birds that feel extremely
threatened but cannot fly or otherwise escape will roll over onto their
backs, with claws extended and beaks open to bite. This behavior emulates
"I will fight you to the death". Often seen in Amazons.
Tail bobbing, in and of itself, is not
necessarily a sign of sickness. Some birds bob their tails while they are
talking or singing. If the tail bobbing is evident only while your bird is
inhaling/exhaling, then it could be a sign of sickness.
This behavior is characterized as an aggression
indicator, and denotes definite displeasure. A bird that is fanning his
tail is upset and angry, and this behavior is a prime indicator that a
bite will almost certainly follow if you continue the activity that caused
the fanning. This could be as simple as an unfavored person approaching
the cage, or a contact activity that the bird has tired of.
This generally is a sign of contentment and
happiness, especially at seeing a favorite human, or during an especially
enjoyed activity. Consists of a quick "wag" of the tail feathers back and
Like humans, birds stretch to relieve tension.
This is especially important for them since they spend so much time on
their feet. Birds will stretch one foot and the opposite wing at the same
time, which improves circulation and and refreshes muscles.
Being a quaker breeder, I have to throw this one
in. "Quaking" is species-specific behavior exhibited by baby quakers who
either have not weaned yet or have recently weaned. (Some people say this
is where the name "Quakers" originated). This behavior consists of almost
continuous head-shaking, sometimes accompanied by the wings being flapped
rapidly while held close to the body, (not extended out in the usual
Another similar behavior is the "head bobbing", which
birds do when they are hungry and want to be fed. This behavior is
exaggerated to an almost frenzied manner when being handfed, and sometimes
makes the handfeeding formula fly everywhere except in the bird's mouth!
Quakers normally outgrow this behavior by the age of 2-3 months, but will
still sometimes exhibit it occasionally as adults when they become
over-excited or are feeling especially vulnerable.
is far from complete, as there are many more behaviors that are not only
species specific, but individually specific also. Hopefully this list will
alert you and assist you to become more aware of your bird's body language,
to learn what each behavior means for your particular bird(s), and
ultimately lead you down the path to an enriched, rewarding relationship
with your avian companion(s)!