Cuddling Your Bird: The Pros and Cons

Ché and Esteban, Hahn's Macaws, photo by Ben Coulson

I’m guessing the majority of you probably enjoy a cuddle with your parrot now and then, whether it’s a big hug right to your chest or your face, or perhaps just offering them a nice snuggly head scratch. Whilst ‘snuggle time’ can be beneficial to both you and your bird, there are some pros and cons to be aware of.

Because the parrots I work with at the Tropical Butterfly House are not my own pet birds, we have a strict ‘no fussing’ rule – this includes no cuddling, stroking, or even ‘baby-talk’ with the parrots. They have a very long life-span, longer than most of the bird handlers/trainers will be there working with them; so by not encouraging any close bonds with particular people, it’s hoped that it will be easier for the birds to begin working with someone new if needed, and that they will be less distressed by one of their trainers leaving.

If you are wondering if this is difficult for me, the answer is yes! It would be lovely to give little Ché and Este a head scratch now and then, but it is primarily for their benefit that I don’t.

Alfie, Green-winged Macaw, photo by Ben Coulson

Also, you may think it’s a bit harsh and that the parrots need a little love and affection, but the flock do have each other for that kind of companionship and for mutual preening. I’m there as a ‘professional’ to train and provide the best care I can; I just have to face the daily battle of resisting Alfie, the Green-winged Macaw (who, I have to admit, I have a BIG soft spot for) trying to sneak a cuddle with me! He will either lean against my arm when I’m holding him and look up at me with a baby face, or sometimes even dive on my back when I’m not expecting it and try to snuggle his head right into my neck! Very difficult to resist as you can imagine!


The ‘cuddle provider’ is likely to be the bird’s favourite person. This can sometimes make it trickier to socialise your bird with other people, though, such as family members or close friends. If everybody offers (and is allowed by the bird) to cuddle/head scratch, then it’s fine, but if only one person does this, everyone else may find the bird less co-operative with them.

Jinx, Blue-throated Macaw, enjoying some fuss! Photo by Birdtricks

Mating behaviour

ESPECIALLY during breeding season, petting anywhere other than the top of your bird’s head may inadvertently trigger an ‘over-friendly’ and inappropriate reaction. All kinds of behavioural challenges can come about as a result of your bird thinking you’re a potential mate, and then being ‘turned down’ by you in that way. Put simply, if they appear to like it *a bit too much* then stop and definitely don’t try to pet your bird if they’re already in an excited mood! The image below is from Jamie’s post on Spotting Inappropriate Parrot Body Language.

Camelot Macaws, Comet and Tusa, photo by Jamie Womach

Read your bird’s mood

As we all know, parrots like it best when something is on their terms; cuddling or stroking should always be when you’re both happy about it. Trying to stroke or cuddle your bird when they’re not in the mood is likely to annoy them or even provoke an aggressive reaction, so it’s important to read your bird’s body language carefully to ensure they will welcome your touch.

Tolerating touch

If your bird is quite used to being touched, this can be pretty helpful for practical things; for example, being able to lift your bird’s wings to check a possible broken feather, and for lots of other ‘health-checks’ and in case of an injury. However, it is also possible to train your bird to tolerate touch using positive reinforcement without cuddling/stroking if it’s not right for you or your bird.

Ruby, Green-winged Macaw, giving me a kiss, a behaviour trained for the shows (and yes, wayyy too much tongue ha!)

Protecting feathers

Parrots regularly preen to keep their feathers in good condition, so, in theory, protective oils on the feathers that may be removed or disturbed by stroking them, will be replaced during the next preen. However, it’s advisable to be sensible and not constantly stroke them for long periods of time. Also, I might be stating the obvious a bit here, but ensure your hands are also clean – you don’t want to deposit your lovely perfumed hand cream or anything else on your bird’s beautiful feathers, do you?!

Can you cuddle birds of prey?

Raptors or ‘Birds of Prey’ are not exactly ‘cuddly’! I’m sure you wouldn’t be surprised if I told you that not many people would attempt to cuddle a bird like a Hawk or a Falcon – you would be likely to get yourself injured! However, a kind of ‘stroking’ can actually be helpful in manning a bird of prey.

When working with a young bird of prey or socialising a bird with a new person – manning is very important; it’s basically the process of getting the bird to feel settled around you. The process of manning a bird of prey may include just walking around holding the bird on a glove, working near to them so that they regularly see you, feeding them whilst they sit on a glove, and even stroking them gently on their chest. Birds of prey, though, don’t want to be cuddled or stroked, they’re not social in the same way as parrots and similar birds.

Mellow, British Barn Owl

There are exceptions, though. Just like some parrots and other pet birds may not want to be cuddled or stroked; some birds of prey have been known to enjoy it! Mellow, one of our British Barn Owls, is an old boy at around 18 years old (usual life span is up to 20-25 years without the threats of living in the wild) and has retired from flying in displays now. As you can see from the picture above, Mellow is one of the exceptions and actually quite enjoys a gentle head massage!


Eberhardt Kalmar Huhn

In late November of 2015, I acquired a pigeon. She was 18 to 20 days old when I found her in the underground parking garage at work. When I saw her sitting next to her car-flattened sibling, I tried to be stoic and I told myself that I needed to let nature take its course etc, etc; but when I saw her still sitting there the next morning, she caught my heart. I ran to work, grabbed a small box, and went back down to the garage to collect her. I brought her home to my tiny Santa Monica apartment, and hoped that my girlfriend would be accepting of her. Lucky for me the little bird brought out motherly instincts in her! We spent two weeks thinking of a good name, and finally settled on Clover, because she’s lucky to be alive and we’re lucky to have her. Over the last 8 months, she has confirmed that she is a “she,” and she has taught a non-bird person that birds are really intelligent, very curious, exceedingly loving, and pigeons (this little hen, at least) prefer to initiate any touching. I have not been one hundred percent respectful of her wishes: she is unable to preen her head and neck, so especially if new feathers are coming in I give her a hand. Oh and she has to be part of the “flock” all the time. I learned very quickly, and early on, that the only time that she goes into the cage is to get food and water, and when I put her to bed for at least 10 hours of total darkness (I really would love to get that much sleep myself!). Of course I find poopies all over, but thankfully there is no smell, it’s quite ready to pick up. it reminds me of my bloodhound, Cody, who died almost 20 years ago: if you own a bloodhound, you will always carry one or more rags… (ask an owner of you don’t understand). And that has made me sensitive to, and accepting of those non-stop little poopies!

Eberhardt Kalmar Huhn

Birds need companionship, so if you do not have multiple birds, you must handle them and talk to them for extended periods of time EVERYDAY. To leave them sitting all day alone would be cruel and will cause them to become depressed and to start feather plucking. If you don’t have the time to scratch your birds head for a few hours a day, please do NOT get a bird.


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