Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Parrot body language

I recently went through old pictures I had saved on the computer, which provided the impetus for this post. I've mentioned before how important communication is in parrot-human relationships. Parrots are complex creatures, with wants and needs, and when we can understand what they are trying to tell us, and allow them to have an influence on their lives, everyone is much happier!

A few days ago, I was trying to have a conversation with Thomas. He was distracted and not paying attention. I had to repeat myself at least three times, which really frustrated me. Imagine how parrots feel when they keep trying to communicate with us, but we don't understand them! No wonder they end up biting or screaming in an attempt to get their point across!

While some parrot communication is verbal ("want some" and "come here" are frequently heard in our house), the vast majority is not. Parrots are prey animals and, as such, are very conscious of body language and what it means. They spend their lives watching us and picking up on signals we probably don't even realize we're giving off. When I'm reading in the living room, I'll often lift my eyes from the book and notice that all six parrots are watching me.

Every parrot is an individual, so while there are some common behaviors/postures, it's important for you to watch your bird to pick up on the subtleties. I have a friend with a grey. The grey will put his head down and beg for head pets. If his eyes are closed, that's what he wants. But if his eyes are open, he's laying a trap in order to bite my friend. Similarly, with Rocky, if I offer him food, I have to watch his beak carefully. If he opens his beak to take the food and he sticks his tongue out, he really wants the food and will take it nicely from my hand; if he doesn't stick his tongue out, I'll get bit, so I place the food somewhere else, out of his reach, and he has to come over to get it.

I've mentioned it before, but clicker training is a great way to pick up on your bird's communication patterns. It's also helpful to keep a journal so you can notice patterns.

In my experience and opinion, some species are easier to read than others, as are some individual birds. For me, macaws, amazons, and caiques are open books. They are so expressive and wear their emotions externally. Greys took me a little longer to understand -- they tend to be more subtle than the flamboyant South American species -- but I feel confident that I can generally understand new greys that I meet and that I can specifically understand the two greys that live in my house. On the other hand, cockatoos baffle me. My most severe bites have all come from cockatoos at the rescue, to the point where I try to avoid handling them as much as possible (don't worry; there are plenty of other volunteers who handle the cockatoos!)

Here are some pictures taken of my flock over the years that demonstrate some body language:

When Max starts scratching her own head, especially when she turns her head upside down, that means she wants me to come over and scratch her head:
She doesn't do this as often now that she can fly, but when she puts her foot up, that means she wants someone to pick her up:
This is one of my favorite Stella pictures. When a prey animal exposes their neck and isn't looking around, they're extremely vulnerable. She wouldn't do this unless she was comfortable!
Calypso was eating when I disturbed him to take this picture. He wasn't happy. His feathers are slightly puffed out and his eyes are a little red. I'd risk a bite if I tried to pick him up when he looked like this.
Max is telling Stella to stay away. I'll also hold my foot up to Rocky to communicate to him, in a way he understands, to not come by me. Stella ignored the body language and approached further; Max flew away. However, if she weren't able to fly, the fight-or-flight response most likely would have resulted in her attacking Stella and one or both of them might have been injured.
Rocky is calm and happy. His eyes are not pinning, he's not blushing, his feathers are neither puffed out nor extremely slicked back. It's rare for me to get a photo of him like this since he usually likes to threaten me, but he's on Thomas's lap and happy.
In this picture, he's almost exactly the opposite. If Thomas tried to pick him up, he'd probably get bit. His wings are out, showing me how big and scary he is; his beak is open, ready for an attack; and his feathers are puffed out. Beware!When a parrot leans towards something, that generally means they want some. Similarly, when they lean away, sometimes accompanied by turning their head and not looking at something/someone, they don't want to go there.
Here is Stella, a day or two after she came to live with us. She is standing tall, in an uncomfortable position, with a wary look on her face. She is scared as she doesn't yet know what to expect in our house.Just a few days later, also in the shower, you can see she has a more relaxed demeanor. Parrots love routine, and she's starting to understand the routine in our house.
Here's Beeps in attack mode. His eyes are flashing red, his feathers are lifted, and he's marching around. Anyone who attempts to handle him like this will definitely get bit, and he might launch an attack even if someone is not trying to handle him.
I took this video last week, with a post like this in mind. We had spinach as part of our dinner. The greys and caiques love cooked spinach; Rocky does not like it. In this video, I offer him some and he pushes the spoon away. Very clear communication. But I keep at it -- imagine how frustrated I am making him!

These are just some examples of parrot body language, including some ideas of what to look for.

I really hate getting bit (is there anyone who doesn't?) However, living with six parrots means there's a chance of being on the receiving end of a bite, especially since we handle all of the birds frequently. By learning to read their body language, therefore opening up lines of communication, we've greatly reduced the bites, and I think our parrots are happier for it. I know we are!


Meg said...

This is a great post! I am always watching my parrots' behavior. After being around them so long, I find I am picking up on things that I am not even sure how I know! It is interesting how different people are able to work with different species. Yaz was a bit of a challenge for me - I had never worked with a conure before. Now, it has been almost a year, we are really in tune with each other (he was always in tune with me, I was the slow one) and I can not imagine living without him.

Stephanie said...

Great post! I also pay attention to body language - in fact I think that the ability to pick up on these cues is usually what will make or break a person in terms of their suitability to be a parrot parent. Anyhow -- Lucy is the first Pionus I have ever known so it was interesting learning her cues. She often puffs up all her feathers when she sees me - a happy cue. However, an unhappy Pi is also very fluffy - just in a different way. That photo of Beeps reminded me of Lucy because if her legs are all puffy but her body is not - watch out! Pi's also stomp their feet when they are angry. It's kind of funny to watch!

Anonymous said...

Ooooh, I really like this post!

Good one!

Pamela said...

Great post, thanks!

Shannon Ryan said...

Hi Mary, Another excellent post full of useful info to help us communicate better with our parrots. Thank you! Birds and humans are so much happier when we communicate with one another, which does require a lot of give and take and learning - both ways. But gee, the rewards are fantastic!

Beloved Parrot said...

Excellent post, Mary.

The change in Stella is astonishing; you done a remarkable job with her.

Anonymous said...

excellent post. ... could you tell me what it means when an african grey looks like he is yawning....just standing with his mouth open?

Anonymous said...

thank you for this blog, i found it really usefull, being a new parrot owner of a 2nd hand parrot i didn't want to cause her to be overly aggressive, as she started being agressive after the 1st wk, now gettin bit is rarer as i've shown this to my son and his been bit alot less, as he fusses over her less now, but she will still go to him, or stalk him as we call it, as when his on the sofa she'll waddle across to him, head down alittle then hop onto him, he says hi there angel an she replies with a chirp an flies back to what she was doing.

so thank you for your time in making this post.