“I have adopted a male Eclectus parrot and I have a question about cuddling and petting. I have been very cautious about it so far because I have read that with their hair like feathers they don’t like to be pet like other birds. However, when he is relaxing with me he seems to want to cuddle and be pet, but I don’t want to upset him. I would like some advice about what he may or may not like. As far as cuddling, he likes to rest his beak on my chin, but he has a tendency to try to chew on me so I tend to not go along with that. He does fluff up when doing this, I am just not sure how to touch him without upsetting him…”
I received the above question and I thought it worth discussing, if only because Eclectus parrot bites hurt!!! The reality is that not all birds like to be touched. I usually answer this sort of question with the advice of sticking to head and shoulder petting in order to avoid triggering hormonal responses. If you want to learn how to avoid that sort of response my best advice is to check out the Spring Horror-mones course because that is explained there in more detail than I can fit into a blogpost. The above question also raises the interesting question of what does it mean when your parrot ‘fluffs up’? It’s an interesting question because I could post that in a bird forum somewhere and get dozens of different answers. It’s an important signal that we get from our birds, especially if you want to pet them!
Before I get into this, I just want to make it clear that I’m talking about when a bird ‘fluffs up’ in response to a stimuli of some sort. I’m not talking about when a bird is sitting quietly somewhere ‘fluffed up’. When a bird is doing this persistently or at an abnormal time – it can be a sign of illness and the bird usually needs veterinary attention fairly quickly after it is showing that symptom.
I’ve talked before about how birds use light to communicate. This is particularly relevant for any species that has fluorescent colouring. To our eyes, their feathers appear to change colour as the bird manipulates the angle of their feathers in order to reflect different amounts of light. It’s one of the reasons why I love fluorescent coloured birds – we get a whole range of subtle signals from our birds that duller coloured birds can’t exhibit.
It’s not just the fluorescent coloured birds that use the angle of their feathers to communicate though. Many cockatoo owners talk about the way their birds ‘fluff up’ when they ‘want a cuddle’ and you’ll hear macaw owners say the same thing. Well ‘cuddling’ is a human term, so I’m not convinced that we can be sure that’s actually what they want, but it can definitely be a sign that they’ll be receptive to our idea of a ‘cuddle’. The fluffing out signal often triggers mutual preening when they do it to each other. However, sometimes it can very confusingly mean the bird doesn’t want to be touched and may in fact be a warning that they’re about to bite.
As an example, my Blue and Gold Macaw, “Fid” has a tendency to raise every feather on his head in combination with all of the black feathers around his eyes when he is approachable for a head scratch. He even seems to do this when he’s going to scratch his own head. When I reach towards him when he does this, he leans in towards my fingers, effectively pressing his head against my fingers for a firmer scratch. I’ve never seen him display any aggression while his feathers are loose/erect like that. He’s always calm when his feathers are on this angle.
Similarly, when Morgy (one of my galahs/Rosebreasted Cockatoos) fluffs out her facial feathers at me, I can tell she’s approachable for some sort of friendly interaction (usually a scratch on the head, but sometimes just to be picked up). It isn’t a failsafe signal though. I have to notice the angle of the rest of her feathers and the position of her shoulders/wings in order to be sure. A full body fluff out is a definite warning sign of pending aggression.
It makes sense. If a bird were faced with some sort of prey/threat – they would have a better chance of surviving if they appear bigger. Size might scare off an opponent. Furthermore, if prey attacks, chances are that loose feathers mean that the prey simply gets a mouthful of feathers, rather than getting hold of skin or an actual body part. This gives the bird a better chance of pulling free to escape. So fluffing out can be a fear response and where we’re concerned a fearful bird is far more likely to bite than a comfortable one.
I have never seen my male Eclectus parrot “fluff up for a cuddle”. Every time I have observed Pepi fluffing up – I have interpreted it as a warning of some kind. I’ve noticed that if I put him into a fresh cage set up, he climbs in and immediately fluffs out all of his feathers for a second, shakes himself and then moves on to another visual signal (sometimes a calm signal, but not commonly). It makes sense that a new environment triggers fear. He displays this ‘signal’ at other times too, but it usually seems to be when he slightly off-guard or wary about something. I wouldn’t classify ‘fluffing up’ here as an aggressive behaviour, but it is often an early warning sign that aggression could follow and definitely not a time to try for a cuddle.
As the original question at the start of this post says, there is a physiological reason why Eclectus parrots don’t fluff up for a ‘cuddle’ in the way that other species do and it does relate to their feather type. The feathers on an Eclectus’ head and neck are fine and more hair-like. They don’t get pin feathers in difficult to reach places in quite the same way that a cockatoo does.
I’ve noticed that my galahs often seem to need each other’s help with breaking open the keratin sheath of their pin feathers from their head and neck area. They help each other spread the resulting powdered keratin through their feathers. Interestingly, galahs noticeably fluff their faces out at each other when they want that sort of attention and I think this is the behaviour that humans interpret as ‘wanting a cuddle’. It’s the same thing with my Blue and Gold Macaw – he fluffs up as he scratches at pin feathers on the back of his neck and also seems to look for that help. Meanwhile, Eclectus parrots don’t need or want help in this way, in fact if you’re ‘helping’ an Eclectus break open feather sheathes, you’re very likely to be damaging the feather.
The other problem with ‘cuddling’ your bird is that you want to avoid triggering hormonal behaviour. As seen in the picture of my galahs above, mutual preening seems to be part of the mating ritual for some species of birds.
When my Rainbow Lorikeets ‘fully fluff up’ it is usually the beginning of some sort of hormonal display, directed at each other. It is often accompanied by a bobbing action and some hissing. They are extremely nippy when they’re like this and it wouldn’t be wise to try and handle them. That said though, if this signal is directed at me, they’re usually hyper-aware of any signals I give. I find it is a good time to cue a talking command as they usually follow the cue and it diverts them from aggressive or hormonal behaviour.
The trick in most species seems to be to notice which feathers are being fluffed at you and the position of the wings, in order to determine whether or not the bird is likely to bite. I can continue to try and describe it, but the reality is pictures are going to make what I’m saying a lot clearer. Scroll through the pics below of my galahs Merlin and Cocky Boy and compare them to some pics of my Eclectus Pepi and you will have a better understanding of what I mean.
In contrast to the above pics, Pepi (my eclectus) has uses colour as well as feather and wing position as mood signals.
As one final note with an Eclectus parrot there is one other signal you need to recognise as it’s a common one that I’ve seen numerous birds display. It’s an exception to the tense wing rule. This is a sign that your bird wants to interact:
As opposed to this crouched position:
So in my long-winded way that’s me saying that the safest way to touch a bird is about learning his/her signals and not triggering hormonal behaviour. I can touch all of my birds all over, just not all the time. I’ve achieved that through recognising their signals and developing some basic trust between us through trick training. They all tend to prefer their head/neck area for petting but I let them move towards me rather than force it.
I personally have a preference for fluorescent birds because you get so many more signals to watch for, but that said, even my cockatoos give signals. If you get their signals right, your’re less likely to experience any bloodshed and any training or interaction will be a lot more pleasant for all!
Mel Vincent works as an animal rehabilitator out of Australia.