I wish it were possible to do a blog post that would define, once and for all, the body language of parrots. Heaven knows we get asked for it enough. How cool would it be to be able to tell someone that when your bird does this, it means this?
Unfortunately, such a post will never come to be. There are too many considerations that prevent it:
- Each species of parrot has its own ways of expressing themselves.
- Each bird has its own personality.
- Each owner and home provides a different environment.
Each of these things has an impact on how the individual bird will react to certain things, and that means that there is no one set of rules for all birds – even all bird within a single species.
For example, it is easy to say that a raised crest in a cockatoo means it is excited. This is true enough of ALL cockatoos. However, “excited” means different things:
- There is excitement that comes from a pleasing situation such as when you walk in the door from work.
- There is excitement that comes from stimulation perhaps during play.
- There is excitement when there is the perception of a possible threat such as when there is a sudden noise or motion.
- There is excitement associated with anger.
Each of these circumstances will result in a raised crest but all have a different origin and will bring about a different conclusion. In the end saying a raised crest means excitement means nothing at all to the novice trying to learn body language.
Pinning eyes is an example for those of you with crest-less birds. Pinning eyes signals excitement and can represent a flash of anger or say that “breakfast looks delicious today”. You have to assess the situation as much as the bird’s demeanor to reach a conclusion. It is all but impossible to instruct anyone about their bird’s body language.
There is one signal that speaks very loudly in a universal language that transcends all boundaries of species and personality type – the shape of the eyes.
Cockatoos are notoriously hard to read. Their body language is sometimes so subtle that it is entirely missed. I have always directed the confused owners of cockatoos to their eyes because they will always give away their intentions, but I have come to realize over the years that the eyes are the “tells” of all parrots.
We look into the eyes of our fellow humans for clues that can tell us about their mood and trustworthiness. A parrot’s eye can yield similar information. The shape of a parrot’s eye is round. When that shaped changes, it should be considered a facial expression and we should study it for clues.
One thing I have noticed is that their eye expressions are not so different from our own.
A squinty or slitted eye will tell you that a bird is having serious misgivings about its environment.
When a bird is angry, the eye might remain round but there is focused intensity to their glare. Sometimes there is what appears to be a “furrowed brow” above the eye of an angry bird.
This is a shot of the first meeting between Bondi (RB2) and Theo (G2). You can see by their slightly raised crests that they are being vigilant with each other – and the concern in their eyes is telling me that they are wary of the situation.
A closer look at wariness:
This is a relaxed Bandit looking up at something that is not worrisome.
This is Bondi with something overhead that she wishes would go away. See the difference in the shape of her eye?
This is a look from a different species of bird (quaker) that doesn’t care for the new toys overhead. Same look!
Remember when I mentioned a furrowed brow?
There is one other description of universal body language – the last thing you will see right before you are bitten:
The eyes will be perfectly rounded – the bird is not showing the expression it would while assessing a situation, it is simply intent on reacting to what it sees. The eyes will be directly on its target (usually the body part closest to the bird). The bird will be facing you, somewhat pitched forward with its head slightly extended and lowered. All of its feathers will be flat against its body in a streamlined position that allows it fast forward movement without any resistance.
I do not have any photos of this. I would not be sticking around for long enough to take a picture.
The best way for you to come to understand your bird’s body language is to study it. Pay attention to where your bird’s eyes are focused and watch the way he reacts to what he is looking at.
If a cat darts through the back yard, look at your bird’s eyes so that you can see what his “alarmed” look is. That look might morph into an angry look as the bird realizes there is no danger, but is annoyed at the distraction.
You will hear people say all the time that the only way to learn about body language is through experience, but all the experience in the world won’t help you if you aren’t paying attention to details.
Patty Jourgensen specializes in avian health, behavior and nutrition and has been working with and caring for rescue birds since 1987.
Great article, and very interesting. Our observations: We have a large (and unusually social) cockatoo hybrid (M2+Triton) and he’s all about “feather-speak” and eye shape. For him, squinty almond-shaped eyes are his ‘love eyes’. When he gets a new treat or reward or leans in firmly to be scritched or snuggled he gives us the lidded, almond eyes. Similarly both he and our Goffins hide their lower beaks when they are feeling shy or uncertain about something. It’s their “I’m harmless and non-threatening because I have no beak” look. You can tell when the scary moment is over because the lower beaks get uncovered. Some parrots use this for contentment (which ours do too) but far more often it seems to be an insecurity thing. The hard-and-clean look (feathers slicked down tight) language is pretty common to most birds too – it’s the low-drag preparation for flight posture and is often anger/defensiveness or any other situation that might require instant flight. Our M/T2 will typically ruffle and settle all his feathers when he’s casually prepping for flight; “Ok, Let’s go!” We were recently amazed to discover that it was pretty easy to read/understand the feather language of wild birds in the yard or park. That tail flash of annoyance when a hawk misses his sparrow. The preen-ignore state where a bird is mad and angrily turns his back on you and furiously preens himself (much like an angry cat). We are all overly familiar with mammal body language and so this is a whole new world for us. Thanks!
I’m fairly versed in reading my two birds’ body language; when they’re alarmed, they lean back, squat low on their legs and stretch out their necks as far as they can. My cockatiel also stretches his crest out as tall as he can with this, and my conure flattens his feathers close to his body. When he’s excited, my conure hunkers low, leans on his belly a bit and bobs his head down. With each bob, he blinks once. But this motion could mean he’s happily excited, or getting ready to bite if the feathers on his head are slightly raised. When my cockatiel is ready to bite, he bows down forward (the same motion as when he wants to be petted) and tilts his head to one side (though when he wants to be petted, his also bows his head down to offer the back of his neck for rubs). Sometimes I mistake this motion for him wanting attention (like everyone else does), and when you offer your hand, he opens his beak, hisses, and moves to one side or the other very quickly. With my conure, it’s harder to know when he’s going to bite. Sometimes he doesn’t hunker down with his head feathers ruffled. Sometimes he just perches like normal, watching you, and because his eyes are so dark you can’t see his pupils pinning (same with my cockatiel) unless there’s light shining directly on his face. And because my conure’s hostile reactions are so fast, I always tell visitors that he bites so they stay away from him. Because the last visitor who tried to pet him got her finger sliced open. He reacted too fast for either of us, so to prevent any more incidents like that, I tell any new visitors that he bites so they don’t stupidly stick their fingers in his cage or put their hands flat on the bars. Plus, if he can’t bite them, he bites me and my fingers are already covered in scars from being bitten by him. When he bites, he bites to draw blood, no ifs ands or buts.
This is not about behavior<My name is tanya my senegal lives in northern utah and i would like to know what kind of wood is safe for him need new perches and toys.I am not able to afford the toys on line and we do not have a good avian store here.petco is 300 miles from me, any tips would be great.Thank you. p.s.s the body language really dose say alot.
I have had many, birds over my life time and I swear the body language ad eyes are the clues we look for. I can tell when my gray is extremely happy, I think he smiles. I know crazy but the skin around his eyes kind of goes back when he is pleased. When he is curious his head feathers ruffle a bit. When he tastes some thing he likes his eyes dilate from big to small. And then there is the the focus thing. When its some one new in our B&B paying a lot of attention he ruffles as if to say do not come close I don’t know you. As he relaxes the feather’s get less ruffled until we can see the I am curious look on him at which time he usually kind of mutters a soft but unsure hello.
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