What Does It Mean When My Bird Fluffs Up?

Male Eclectus Parrot

“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!

An early warning sign of potential aggression shown in the colour change of a male Eclectus. His head becomes a brighter green than the rest of his body.

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.

Galahs/Rosebreasted Cockatoos preening each other.

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.

My Blue and Gold Macaw, Fid, fluffing out for a head scratch.

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.

Morgy fluffing out her face feathers at me, telling me she's receptive to a head scratch. 

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.

Fid wanted my earring (badly) and kept lunging for it (his feathers are in tight and he is eyeing it). Morgy wasn't overly happy with being so close to a lunging Macaw (note she is fully fluffed and watching Fid). Pepi isn't overly happy about the situation either (note his head and neck are very bright, his body is darker and he's starting to show more red under his wings).

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.

A full body fluff from Pepi is not a sign he wants to be touched.

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.

Mutual preening/hormonal behaviour in galahs. The male is on top and they'll bite if you interrupt! 

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.

My female Rainbow Lorikeet "Lori" in a full "fluff out" display.

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.

Merlin is very calm in the above picture, the cheek feathers are fluffed - I’m quite sure I could put my hand up to him and give him a head scratch.

Cocky Boy's crest feathers are up and his tail is fanned and he is completely approachable for a cuddle. His wings and chest feathers are relaxed.

Merlin is alert and playful in this pic but he’s quite calm (despite the crest raise). I can tell this from the position of his wings. The ‘shoulders’ are quite relaxed, he’s holding them a lot lower in comparison to the early stages of alarm.

Merlin's crest is raised, his cheek feathers are fluffed out, but he’s holding his wings rigidly and he is eye-balling me. This is the first sign that he isn’t quite comfortable. He’d still step up in this state, but it wouldn’t take much to trigger a bite.

More feathers are starting to raise and the wings are poised for flight. This is a definite alarm signal, and Merlin would only step up at this stage if he perceived that I was going to help him get away from whatever is alarming him. So my best chance would be to bring my hand in from behind his left shoulder, allowing him to step away from the 'threat'.

Full alarm mode now - he’d bite any hand that goes toward him. A better approach at calming him is to remove the item he’s concerned about - not try to remove him. He flew off shortly after this was taken.

In contrast to the above pics, Pepi (my eclectus) has uses colour as well as feather and wing position as mood signals.

Pepi's green colour is uniform, the red under his wings is barely showing, his shoulders are relaxed. He is completley approachable at the moment.

This is a side view of Pepi when he is calm and approachable. Again note the uniform colour. No red or dark blue feathers are visible.

Shoulders fluffing up are the start of a warning signal. Either they will return to normal and his colour with stay constant, or his head will get brighter (be warned).

A side view of the start of a warning colour change, note the raised shoulder feathers and the slight colour lightening of his head in comparison to the body.

He's alert and will step up at this stage, but he's starting to show the red under his wings. His neck is extended. This is the equivalent of the galah's version of crest raised and wings slightly up.

Front view of the earlier picture. Compare this to the front calm view - note how visible his red is? Definite warning sign there.

He's not at all approachable at this stage, but the scary part is people do interpret 'fluffing up' like this as a desire for a cuddle (in another species it might be). 

As a final attempt to warn me he's going to lunge, the red disappears and his feathers get pulled in tight, his head goes bright and his body gets dark. This is the last stage before a tantrum.

The tantrum. He bashes with his flapping wings, kicks bites and scratches. Not fun!!!

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: 

Note the uniform green colour, he'll flap his wings slightly. He is definitely happy to be picked up.

As opposed to this crouched position:

His colour is not uniform, the red is visible, he may even flap his wings a little and while he is in a 'pick-me-up' style crouch, if you miss the colour signs - he is going to bite.

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.


Susan Stambaugh

I also have a male Eclectus, 8 1/2 yrs old. I hand fed him from when he was only 4 wks. He has never liked to be petted or scratched. One thing he does love though is hugs. He puts his beak on my shoulder (open beak) and I put my arm around him, surrounding him with my arm until my elbow is almost level with his head (on my shoulder). I kiss him then put him down. He loves this and I’ve seen him accept other people’s hugs too. But not petting, no, he wants nothing to do with that. Since this breed is one of the few (or only?) birds of the parrot species to have feathers that almost seem like hair, I believe it is this. Maybe preening is more of a job for him than it is for other birds and he wants to keep his “do” straight. The cockatoo on the other hand, with the amount of power, the cuddling may be associated with “getting rid of the itch.” They may simply itch more than other birds.

Susan Stambaugh
Kathy Helton

I always ask my Goffin’s Cockatoo if I can pet him. If he’s interested he’ll bow his head toward me and raise his crown. If he’s not in the mood I’ll just talk with him. Sometimes that will result in him hopping on his perch and turning away to watch the large birds eating on the golf course Fairway or he may simply take a nap. I respect his wishes. in regard to puffing his feathers he has two distinct modes. If I tell him how pretty he is he’ll do a semi-fluff and strut for a few moments but if something really frightens him he looks like the creature from hell. I was using an artificial fur duster on a long pole to dust my teapot collection above the kitchen cabinets and when he spotted it he instantly went into Monster mode that I had never seen before. I Immediately dropped it to the floor and made a show of kicking it out of the kitchen. It was too upsetting to put him through ever again. We learner a lesson about feather puffing too.

Kathy Helton
Susan Cox

I had a vos maeri female Eclectus for many years and, unlike many Eclectus hens, she was the most loving bird I have ever had the fortunes of loving. She would allow me to cuddle her much like a cockatoo would and she loved it when I would do “raspberries” on her breast. So maybe it just depends on the bird. The one endearing feature about the Eclectus, I am told, is they will sit and stare at their care giver adoringly for hours. I can’t tell you how many times ppl would comment on that very thing while she sat with me. I had to have Chloe put to sleep a couple of years ago as she began having a serious of strokes and had lost the use of her legs. She was a year shy of being 20. She was a very special bird and I miss her even now. The Eclectus parrot is indeed a special specie of parrot.

Susan Cox

i agree parrot fluffing can mean different things as everyone stated. what i find interesting when fluffing is the eyes. i have a umbrella cockatoo and lilac crest amazon, two compleotely different birds. when they fluff, it is the shape of the eye that shows if affection or stay away . notice your birds eyes, round pinpointing , the bird is probably on alert or can get agressive. Or when the eye is softer not as round almost sleepy looking, the bird wants affection. pretty interesting as i have noticed with other parrots as well.


Leave a comment

All comments are moderated before being published