Parrots have large, expressive eyes that appear to never blink due to a third eyelid (nictating membrane).
Eye pinning is the contraction of a parrot’s pupils from large to small. Coupled with the nictating membrane, which sweeps across the eyes, fearful parrots can focus on a threat indefinitely.
Pinning the eyes can signify excitement in parrots. For example, you may notice a parrot pinning its eyes when you return home after being out all day because it’s so pleased.
At the other end of the spectrum, some parrots pin their eyes when angry or stressed out.
What Is Eye Pinning in Parrots?
Known as ‘eye flashing’ or ‘eye blazing,’ eye pinning involves a parrot noticeably constricting the pupils from the normal size. It’s most common among African greys, Amazon parrots, and macaws.
Nature explains that parrots frequently pin their eyes while issuing verbal commands. Parrots can voluntarily change the shape and diameter of their pupils by controlling their striated muscles.
Parrots have good eyesight. Their eyes are positioned on the sides of their head, giving them a wide field of vision of close to 300 degrees. Parrots only have a small blind spot behind their heads.
Wild parrots pin their eyes to examine their environment or assess threats or food/water sources.
Captive parrots may pin their eyes in response to something you introduce to their environment. Expect the parrot to narrow its eyes as it focuses intently on something it doesn’t recognize, assessing how it feels about it and whether it needs to take evasive or defensive action.
It’s likelier the parrot will pin its eyes involuntarily, typically as an emotional response. Eye pinning is most commonly associated with excitement. The iris will expand (known as mydriasis) or contract (known as miosis) based on sensory stimuli.
Parrots often sleep with one eye open, which is called peeking. All birds embrace this sleep style, especially when human families are active in the home and making noise.
Peeking means that half the parrot’s brain is still active while the other half sleeps, enabling the bird to remain partially alert. According to Scientific American, this is called unihemispheric slow-wave sleep.
According to Current Biology, unihemispheric sleep is connected to eye pinning, where the pupils vary in size based on where the parrot is in the sleep cycle.
If the parrot is asleep in a non-REM sleep state, the iris and pupil will retain a state of mydriasis. Miosis quickly occurs when a parrot enters REM sleep and begins to dream.
Why Do Parrots Eyes Pin?
As discussed, eye pinning in waking parrots is frequently an expressive response to external stimulation driven by the bird’s instincts. There are various reasons why a parrot pins its eyes:
Happiness and Excitement
Behavioral Processes claim that parrots sometimes pin their eyes when reunited with a favorite person (usually someone caring for them, but it can be someone else) after a period of separation.
Be sure the parrot’s happy to see you, and it’s safe to approach, like the following:
- Head bobbing.
- Chirping, singing, or chattering.
- Wagging the tail feathers.
- Flapping the wings on the spot.
- Fluffing the feathers.
If you’re confident the parrot is pinning its eyes as a demonstration of joy, this is the ideal time to greet them and show mutual affection through petting and play.
There can be a fine line between an excited and an overstimulated parrot.
Consistent eye pinning can be a warning. If the parrot is too wound up, approaching it is risky because there’s a risk you’ll get bitten if you get too close.
Overstimulation shouldn’t be confused with aggression. In the latter case, the bird is outright agitated and angry. In these instances, biting will be willful, while overstimulation will be a gentle nip.
Play is an example of how overstimulation can arise in parrots. The bird should involve you in the game if you’re playing fetch. If the parrot grows possessive and territorial, hissing or growling while pinning the eyes, it’s necessary to give it some space.
Thankfully, overstimulation is easily resolved by slowly retreating and speaking in a low, calming tone for a moment or two. Overstimulated parrots quickly calm down, and you can resume where you left off. Once the parrot is calm, its eyes will cease pinning.
Interest And Curiosity
Parrots have a complex relationship with novelty. They’re naturally curious but prone to neophobia – an innate fear of the unfamiliar, which can lead to reactive aggression.
As explained by Applied Animal Behavior Science, early experiences are connected to managing neophobia in parrots. Birds that were given lots of new experiences as chicks are less likely to be afraid of new and unique objects and experiences in adulthood.
If the parrot is prone to eye pinning each time something in its environment changes, such as introducing new toys to a cage or decorating a room, give it time to adjust to the alterations.
Let the parrot accept change through eye pinning from a safe distance.
Anger or Stress
Eye pinning could be a non-verbal sign of stress or agitation. The parrot may be excited to see you but resentful that it has been left alone or feels annoyed because you’ve been giving someone else attention.
As with eye pinning due to excitement, additional posture and vocal cues will warn you if the parrot is pinning its eyes in anger or frustration.
Check for the following, alongside rapid mydriasis and miosis of the eyes:
- Head dropped and not bobbing.
- Feathers are slightly fluffed, especially around the neck.
- Tail feathers spread and not wagging.
- Wings slightly away from the body and not flapping.
- Body shaking and swaying.
- Beak slightly open to increase intimidation.
- Hissing, growling, or screaming.
This suggests that the parrot is annoyed and frustrated, as the eye pinning denotes focus. If a parrot is annoyed, give it space until it becomes more settled.