Reading Parrot Body Language: An Essential Skill

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Why is it so important to be able to read your parrot’s body language? Because a finely honed ability to read body language is necessary to a relationship that works. Body language is the only way your bird has to communicate with you. You can’t just blunder along as you live with your parrots, not understanding what they are trying to tell you. If you do choose that route, you will be one of those people who post pictures of their most recent bites on Facebook.

A Complicated Art

Reading body language is an art, and is especially complicated with parrots.  Dogs may be different breeds, but they are all the same species.  This means that, as a veterinary technician, I don’t have much trouble understanding when a dog is friendly or thinking about biting me. The signs will be basically the same, whether a Chow or a Chihuahua stands before me.

Parrots, however, are all different species and come from many different regions of the world.  Moreover, they live differently, in terms of how they flock.  This impacts the way they communicate.  New World parrots that derive from the Americas, tend to have more overt, obvious body language.  Consider the typical Amazon who warns that a bite may be coming by fanning his tail, raising the feathers just slightly on top of his head and pinning his eyes. That body language is hard to miss.

These parrots often live in smaller family groups in mixed-species flocks. This overt body language they have evolved makes sense then. If a group of Orange-winged Amazons shares a hectare of land with a family group of Blue-headed Pionus, peace will depend upon mutual understanding.  Contrast this example with that of the African Grey. Aggressive grey

Generally speaking, these birds live in very large single-species flocks, even when breeding. Their body language tends to be much more subtle, which makes sense given how closely they flock together. Warning signs from an African grey may be only the look in his eye and slightly raised feathers across the shoulders and the back of the neck.

 The Value of the Talent

Please don’t come away with the idea that the only purpose of reading body language is the avoidance of bites. That is important, but reading body language accurately will not only allow you to avoid many other problems, it will improve the quality of your relationship with your bird. Let’s examine some of the benefits. Reading body language correctly can help you:

  • Know when a parrot is receptive to begin a training session.
  • Know when your parrot is showing signs of illness.
  • Identify the environmental conditions that help to relax your parrot.
  • Avoid the development of a biting problem.
  • Develop a relationship of mutual trust.
  • Identify when a parrot is too hot or too cold.
  • Recognize a potentially dangerous situation.
  • Avoid the development of a pair bond.
  • Prevent phobic or severely fearful behavior from ever developing.
  • Know when your parrot is about to have a dropping.
  • Identify problems related to a lack of compliance before the behavior really becomes a problem.

A Dearth of Resources

   I twice went through a fairly exhaustive search of Google Images, hopeful to fill this post chalk full of body language examples. I found not much worth including. Perhaps cataloging body language in parrots is such a daunting task that we have made little progress to date, in terms of developing resources for caregivers. After all, it takes an expert in reading body language who is also an accomplished photographer and can set up an environment correctly in order to elicit the desired photographic image.

Never mind.  I will describe to you what I know for sure and over time we will begin to build a collective understanding.

Simple and Positive Signals

    There are some simple, easy-to-read, examples of body language that might be a good place to start. I’m sure you have already observed them.  Have you seen your parrot wag his tail from side to side?  This has been described as a “happiness behavior,” a greeting, and a sign that the parrot is ready to go on to the next activity. No matter the exact meaning, it is believed to be a sign of well-being.

Another greeting is reflected when a parrot stretches out one wing and one leg on the same side. That is a sign of feeling good as well. Others will raise their shoulders just slightly and then bring them down again.  This too serves as a greeting and is a sign of well-being.

The Basics of Reading Body Language

    Let’s discuss the different components of body language. The signs observed must all be taken into account together when attempting to understand your parrot. These are the things I look for:

  • The look in the eyes. Parrots have very expressive faces, much like people. If you focus on the look in your parrot’s eyes, you will get important clues as to what is going on with him.  Observe and use your intuition and common sense.
  • Feather position is a very important clue. A scared parrot will have all feathers slicked down tightly against the body. A relaxed parrot will have a bit of air trapped in those feathers on the torso. A fanned tail can be a distinct warning. A parrot with chest feathers very fluffed may be either too cold or sick. A cockatoo with crest feathers raised is either excited or considering an aggressive move. A cockatoo whose facial feathers have moved forward to partially cover his beak is relaxing.
  • Beak movement is harder to read and understand. However, if a parrot is approaching one of your body parts with his beak open and neck extended, it is best to remove that body part until you can better assess his intentions. A larger cockatoo who clacks his upper and lower beak together quickly and repetitively, is either thinking of you with an inappropriate level of love or is thinking about causing you harm.
  • Stance and movement are major clues that parrots offer to help us understand what is going on with them. If a parrot is leaning away or moving away from you, that is a sure sign that you had better stop and rethink the interaction you were intending to have. That is a clear indication of a desire to avoid contact and must be respected.
  • Skin color can be another indicator of heightened arousal. Macaws are a good example of this, in that when aroused their facial skin may turn pink or red. While this is not usually an indicator intended aggression, it certainly does indicate heightened arousal. I would recommend caution in interacting with any parrot in such a state.

All of these indicators must be taken into account when reading body language. We must also take into account the environmental triggers present. Body language signals in one context might mean something different in another.

For example, my Moluccan Cockatoo will clack his beak together when interacting with me because he loves me a little too much. He had a pair bond with his first owner and would like to recreate that with me. However, when my friend Chris comes over, he also clacks his beak, but with a different body posture and intensity of facial expression.  He intends her bodily harm.

Simple Tips

   While parrot body language may be complex, the ability to read it is just a matter of developing further the skills that we already have – the ability to focus, observe carefully, analyze and use common sense.  We can all learn to read body language well and we must. Here are some simple guidelines:

  • Focus well, ignoring nearby distractions.
  • Closely observe your parrot and ask yourself: “What is he trying to tell me?”
  • Be open-minded. It’s easy to assume that you know what a behavior means. However, body language can be confusing. For example, we have all seen parrots lean forward and flutter their wings. Most folks think this means that the parrot wants to go somewhere else. I think this stems from the fact that for so long we have cared for parrots with clipped wings. However, fully flighted parrots will display the same behavior, without taking off in flight.
  • Set your own agenda aside. We must take our cues from the parrot. If you read body language that indicates your parrot does not want to interact with you at that time, honor that. Stop and rethink things. That might be the time to decide that additional training is needed.

Summary

    Your bird will develop a great deal more trust in you if you pay attention to what he is trying to tell you and honor that. Read all the signs together and take into account the environment in which the body language is being offered. Consider all possible meanings.

Always work hard not to scare your parrot or insist in having your own way. In the beginning, simply try to ready body language for its most practical applications.  Try not to get bitten. Be emotionally and intellectually present when interacting with your parrot.

I once heard Barbara Heidenreich say something very profound.  “If your parrot is aware of you, you must be aware of your parrot.” Parrots are always amazingly aware of us.  We owe it to them to be amazingly aware of them. Beyond that, we owe it to them to honor what they tell us.

  

 

Loss and Lessons

191When I entered Tani’s bird room, my eyes fell immediately upon Gracie. A female Red-lored Amazon, she sat on a table in a small parakeet cage with a single perch. Tani was a breeder from whom I purchased pellets for my own birds. Gracie had been relinquished to her that morning by a stranger who could no longer keep her.

A Pathetic Sight

She was a pathetic sight. Deformed toes worked hard to balance on the ¼-inch perch. Cholesterol deposits impaired her vision. Her plumage could only be described as “scruffy” at best, indicative of a seed diet and lack of bathing opportunities. “I don’t know what I’m going to do with her,” Tani lamented. My heart overrode my brain and in a split second I said that I would give her a home. That was a decision I never regretted.

Her story was even worse than her appearance. Gracie had begun to bite the owner in her first home and was thrown against the wall, after which she began to have seizures. She was taken to a veterinary clinic to be euthanized. Instead, one of the receptionists agreed to adopt her. Fearful that Gracie might have a seizure that would cause her injury, this well-meaning woman kept her in that 12-inch parakeet cage for several years.

Homecoming

Once home with me, it took some time before Gracie regained enough strength to be able to live in an appropriately sized cage. We gradually moved her up from one cage to another, each larger than the last. She never did try to interact with enrichment much, but she converted easily to a diet of pellets, whole grains, vegetables and a bit of fruit.

Finding a Friend

After several years she and Harpo, my Double-yellow Headed Amazon, formed a strong pair bond. I placed their cages next to each other in my bedroom. Harpo was fully flighted; Gracie never chose to fly despite having full wings. Harpo had the ability to fly anywhere he wanted, but he rarely left Gracie’s side. They seemed happy to sit side by side, cocooned in their affection for each other.

Signs of Illness

A few years ago, Gracie developed symptoms of an upper respiratory infection. Her inability to use her feet with much coordination made it impossible for me to medicate her by mouth with antibiotics. She could not step up and any attempt to place a towel over her caused her to launch herself off her cage in a panic. I medicated her in her drinking water, the only option open to me.

She had several bouts with similar symptoms and would appear to improve with antibiotics. However, the “infection” always came back. Eventually, her breathing became visibly more difficult. During the nights, I would wake to hear her breathing and I observed more tail bobbing, a symptom of labored breathing. My heart grew heavier and my anxiety for both her and Harpo deepened.

What else could be done for her? What if I couldn’t save her? What would Harpo do if he lost her? Would I need to adopt another female Amazon? Was the stress of getting her into a carrier for yet another vet visit worth it?

The Only Option

One night recently, she became dramatically worse, despite the fact that she had been drinking water with Baytril for a few weeks. In the early morning, she fell off of her cage because she was so weak. That decided me.

We took radiographs, which revealed many cloudy “nodules” in her chest. A phone call to the local pathologist was very discouraging. Her suggested rule-outs were either aspergillosis or tuberculosis, neither of which would have been possible to treat, given the limitations Gracie herself posed.

I could only remember the words of a veterinarian with whom I once worked, who had declared the inability to breathe freely as the worst form of suffering. Gracie was euthanized that day, gently and humanely.

Harpo Learns the Truth

I wanted to give Harpo a chance to understand what had happened, so I brought her body home with me that evening. He first viewed her remains from a few feet away. He regarded her with eyes pinning, then came to sit by her body for a couple of minutes. After that, he then moved back to his own cage and never approached her again.

Knowing it was the right thing to do, I had a necropsy performed. To our surprise, Gracie’s struggles to breathe were caused by a large tumor on her thyroid gland.

Three Lessons for Us All: Lesson One

I write this account because losses like this often bring with them some very important lessons. Gracie’s passing has gifted us with three of them. The first concerns the value of necropsy, both to parrot owners and to the veterinary profession. I have always had a necropsy performed on any parrot who dies in my care.

I consider this as critically important for the future health of the other birds in my flock. Should the necropsy reveal a potentially infectious disease, I would have information that could allow me to better protect my existing birds. Further, it could impact future decisions regarding the adoption of others.

There is also value to the veterinary profession. Avian veterinary medicine is still a relatively young discipline and there is much we don’t know about disease processes in parrots. The well-known and invaluable reference “Avian Medicine: Principles and Application” reports that “Thyroid neoplasia (cancer) is rare in birds.” Were we all to embrace the need to contribute to the knowledge we have by committing to necropsy when losses occur, our body of knowledge could grow much more quickly.

In addition to the value of the medical information we receive, necropsy has the potential also to contribute to our own emotional healing. I don’t know what’s worse, losing a parrot suddenly or making the decision to euthanize. We suffer and we grieve in a manner that only one who has also lost a bird can understand.

And, we feel guilty. We torture ourselves with the idea that perhaps it was somehow our fault. In Gracie’s case, her diagnosis came as a huge relief. There was nothing I could have done to save her and I prevented her further suffering by making the courageous decision to end it. I was able to take myself off the “guilty hook.” My sense of loss was enough to deal with.

Lesson Two

Gracie’s second lesson for us is critical to our social relationships with our parrots. Too many times we assume that we know what our parrots are feeling and experiencing. We observe behavior and interpret this in most cases by seizing upon the first explanation that occurs to us. In fact, most of the consultations I do for behavior problems have as an element the very wrong assumptions the owners have made about their bird.

I had assumed that Harpo would be completely lost without Gracie. He would now live as a single Amazon in a household full of African Greys. How would he manage? Would they bully him now that he as alone? How could I keep him happy, now that he would be mostly alone in the bedroom. I considered  looking for another Amazon to keep him company, even though I don’t really want to add another parrot to my household.

Harpo’s behavior since Gracie’s passing has been eye-opening. He never spends time in the bedroom anymore. He flies frequently, exploring the environment and interacting with enrichment. He talks more often. He gets along with the greys well.

Had Gracie been cramping his style? Did his loyalty to her keep him tied to his cage in the bedroom when he really wished to be hanging out in the living room? We will never know and it doesn’t really matter.

The important lesson here is that we should never be sure that we understand what our parrots want or need. We should never believe that we know how they feel. The most we can do is to observe their body language carefully and do our best to make informed decisions based upon what they tell us. Harpo has shown me clearly that another Amazon isn’t necessary at this time.

Lesson Three

Gracie’s last lesson has to do with resilience. The dictionary definition of resilience is, “The ability to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness.” Both Gracie and Harpo fit that description and I believe that most parrots do. Despite Gracie’s early difficulties, she recovered to the extent that she was able and lived a full, happy life. She was approximately 25 years old when she died.

Harpo now has the chance to expand his own horizons. He’s getting a lot more exercise and is now able to visit the outdoor aviary for sunshine and fresh air. He was previously reluctant to do so because it required leaving Gracie’s side. Harpo is tough and he will be just fine as he relies upon his own resources to make sense of his new reality and opportunity.

`Pam