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
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 household.
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.
- Tongue Clicking
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
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 nasty bite.
- Beak Grinding
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.
- Beak Wiping
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 agression 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 aggressive behavior.
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 avian vet.
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 actiivity 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 closely.
- 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.
- Head Snaking
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 behaviour. 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 attention.
- Jousting/Beak Fencing
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.
- Lowered Head
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.)
- Wing Drooping
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 bird.
- Wing Flipping
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
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.
- "Display" Behavior
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 bite.
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, or pet.
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.
- Crouch Stance
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
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.
- Tail Fanning
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.
- Tail Wagging
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 forth.
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 manner).
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.
This list 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)!
Winged Wisdom Note: Theresa and Alan Jordan are the authors of "The Beginner's Guide to Ringneck Parakeets" and "The Quaker Parakeet HandBook" and have been raising birds for 8 years, specializing in quaker parakeets. They are also the creators of the Quaker Parrot Information Center website.