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parrot behavior guide

20 Everyday Parrot Behaviors (And What They Mean)

Last Updated on January 29, 2024 by Carrie Stephens

Parrots communicate through the sounds they make and their body language. To comprehensively meet your parrot’s care needs, you must learn what these vocalizations and behaviors mean.

Chirping and clicking with the tongue are signs a parrot is happy, as is purring during petting.

Parrots whistle when they want attention, cry when upset, and squawk when frightened. They also hiss, growl, and click their beaks to warn others.

Contented parrots perch on one leg, tilt their head when they see you, bob their heads, and wag their tail feathers. Some parrots also quiver with happiness while being petted.

Angry parrots fluff their feathers and stare with narrowed eyes, warning you to stay away. If you ignore these warnings and approach, a parrot may lunge or bite.

How To Understand A Parrot

Parrots rarely express their desires and concerns with speech. Learn what different parrot sounds mean and what is communicated through body language.

Parrot Verbalizations

Parrots can develop a vocabulary that sometimes exceeds 1,000 words. As intelligent as they are, parrots don’t always understand the meaning behind their language.

Instead of focusing on words, listen out for sounds and understand their meaning:

Chirping and chattering:“I’m feeling relaxed and content – feel free to say hello.”
Clicking the beak:“I’m in charge here – don’t enter my space.”
Clicking with the tongue:“I’m excited – I’m about to be fed or let out of the cage.”
Crying:“I’m lonely, afraid, or upset.”
Hissing or growling:“Stay away – I’m stressed and will bite.”
Purring:“I feel safe and happy.”
Squawking or screeching:“Something is wrong – I don’t feel safe and happy.”
Squeaking:“Something scared or startled me.”
Whistling:“Give me some attention.”

Common Parrot Body Language

Parrots rely on body language and non-verbal cues to express their complex emotions and wishes. To maintain a positive relationship, understand the meaning of these physical cues:

Drooping the head:“Pet me.”
Drooping wings:“I’m drying off from a bath,” or “I don’t feel well.”
Head bobbing and tail wagging:“It’s great to see you.”
Head tilt to left or right:“Hello friend, do you have something for me?”
Perching on one foot:“I feel relaxed and content – I might take a nap.”
Perching on two feet:“Something is wrong – I’m stressed, or my feet hurt.”
Plucking feathers:“I’m stressed and need help.”
Running or flying in the cage:“I have lots of energy – let me out of my cage.”
Staring, dilated eyes:“I’m overstimulated – approach with caution.”
Stretching the neck:“I see something suspicious, and I want a better look.”

Common Parrot Behaviors and Their Meanings

We’ve provided a cheat sheet of common parrot body language and verbalizations, but anybody rearing companion birds needs a more detailed parrot behavior guide.

Here’s a summary of common parrot behaviors to recognize and understand:

Eye Pinning

Eye pinning, also known as eye flashing or eye blazing, is a reaction to external stimuli. It results in the parrot rapidly dilating and constricting its pupils.

Parrots usually pin their eyes in response to fear, anxiety, anger, curiosity, or excitement.

Beaking

Parrots don’t just use their beaks to gain access to food or defend themselves from predators. Often, the beak is used as a third hand to secure its balance when feeling unsteady.

They also use the beak to assess the integrity of structures before mounting or climbing.

Beak Wiping

Parrots may wipe their beaks to preen their feathers or remove excess food remnants. Sometimes, it’s a way to communicate with other parrots or cope with stress.

Biting and Nipping

Parrots only bite humans in extreme situations. Veterinary Clinics of North America: Exotic Animal Practice stated that parrots don’t bite each other during fights and conflicts.

It may bite if a parrot sees more subtle attempts to communicate ignored or misunderstood. This usually starts with a warning nip but could be a severe bite.

If you think a parrot is agitated based on verbal cues and body language, don’t approach until it’s calm.

parrot body language

Bobbing the Head

Head bobbing is usually associated with juvenile parrots. This signifies happiness and pleasure, usually seen when the parrot is offered food or believes it’ll be fed.

As parrots reach adulthood, some keep bobbing their head to show contentment. You may notice that the parrot bobs its head when it sees you.

If it also wags its tail, the parrot is greeting you with undisguised enthusiasm.

Bouncing on the Spot and Wagging The Tail

Similar to bobbing the head, this is a sign of unqualified excitement.

If a bird starts to bounce on the spot and wag its tail feathers when you enter the room, you can approach, communicate, and provide petting.

Breathing Through an Open Beak

Parrots should always breathe with their beak closed.

If a bird keeps its beak open, listen for warnings of labored breathing. It may be that a parrot has a respiratory illness, bacterial infection, or is eggbound.

Chewing And Grinding The Beak

Parrots like to chew and often gnaw on their perches and other decorations to keep their beaks trim. They also grind their beaks, especially before sleep. This signifies a parrot is relaxed and happy.

Digging and Scratching

Digging and scratching the floor is a wild instinct for many species, especially African grays.

Provide a safe place if you want to indulge the parrot’s drive to dig and scratch. Try letting the parrot play in a sandbox or fill a cage with shredded paper to dig into.

Drooping the Wings

Drooping wings are common among parrots that have recently bathed or played in the water. This is intended to let the water run off the wings and feathers, expediting the drying process.

Wings constantly remaining down could suggest a parrot is overheating or unwell.

Feather Plucking

Feather plucking is a profoundly concerning behavior in pet parrots.

The Journal of Exotic Pet Medicine discovered that feather-destructive behavior occurs in around 10% of captive birds. This is an act of self-mutilation, implying that a parrot is highly stressed.

If a parrot is forcibly removing feathers, don’t just hope it goes away. Do the following:

  • Move the cage to a different room.
  • Remove unfamiliar objects from the parrot’s line of vision.
  • Establish a better sleep schedule.
  • Reduce background noise in the parrot’s territory.
  • Check the ambient temperature, ensuring the parrot is comfortable.
  • Spend more time with the parrot if it’s alone most of the day.
  • Spend less time together if a bird is growing overstimulated by human company.

Share your observations and findings with a veterinarian.

Fluffing The Feathers

Fluffing up feathers has various meanings, but the most common explanation is removing dirt, dust, and debris following a bathing or a preening session.

If the puffing of feathers is accompanied by head bobbing and tail shaking, the parrot expresses happiness in seeing you.

The puffing of feathers is intended to attract your attention. Reward this with positive encouragement, such as verbal interaction, playing together, or petting.

Some parrots puff their feathers when they feel threatened to make themselves appear larger.

Growling, Hissing, and Purring

A parrot that’s growling or hissing is afraid and stressed. Approaching a parrot in this state will result in being bitten. Stay out of range and understand what may have caused this adverse reaction.

Occasionally, a parrot makes a purring sound akin to a cat. You’re likeliest to hear this during petting because it suggests the parrot feels contented and affectionate.

Hiding in The Cage

Parrots usually love interacting with their owners, so something is amiss if they hide from you. While they may cover themselves while sleeping, a waking parrot shouldn’t shy away from you.

If a parrot hides from you, consider if you’re holding something unfamiliar or have changed your appearance drastically. Parrots are neophobic, the fear of new or unknown things.

If you can’t determine the reason for a parrot’s fear response, move out of sight and observe from afar. Watch the parrot go about its business and look for triggers causing unrest. 

Preening

Parrots are proud of their appearance, so preening is part of their routine. However, a bird will only undertake this grooming regime when it feels safe.

Most parrots manage their hygiene, but others want assistance. This can be a bonding exercise. A parrot will only ask a human to assist with preening if it trusts you implicitly.

Quivering

A quivering parrot will spark concern, especially if you’re concerned it’s having a seizure.

In reality, many parrots quiver as a sign of contentment, especially when being petted. Listen out for soft purring while you bond with the bird.

Regurgitating Food

When a parrot regurgitates food on you, it shows care for you. Parrots regurgitate food to feed their young, which shows love and care. The parrot wants to share its meal with you.

There’s a difference between regurgitation and vomiting.

Regurgitation is passive, usually followed by excited head bobbing. Vomiting takes longer, features more unpleasant noise, and involves involuntary spasms. The food will also be partially digested.

While regurgitation is natural, vomiting indicates toxicity or another health concern.

how to understand a parrot

Running Back And Forth

While parrots spend most of their day in a cage, they need regular exercise and time outside the cage. Most experts recommend allowing a parrot out of its cage for 2-4 hours.

If a parrot is running around, flapping its wings, or flying inside its cage, it wants to burn off some energy. The longer a parrot remains confined, the likelier it is to injure itself.

Standing on One Leg

Parrots stand on one leg, especially on a perch, when happy and contented.

Many parrots choose to sleep in this position, so don’t be surprised if you observe it immediately before bedtime or if a nap soon follows.

If a parrot is perching with both feet, note its demeanor. Check the parrot’s feet for inflammation because it could have bumblefoot.

Tilting the Head or Stretching the Neck

A parrot tilting its head to one side signifies happiness. It’s pleased to see you, so it’ll respond well to petting and communication.

The meaning is more cautious if a parrot isn’t tilting its head by stretching its neck. The parrot has seen something unfamiliar and is unsure how to react, so it stretches its neck to get a better look.

If neck stretching is paired with squawking or screeching, identify what’s upsetting the parrot and remove the object or person from its vicinity.

For the human-bird relationship to work, you must understand how parrots communicate. Recognizing parrots’ sounds and body language is fundamental to creating a harmonious living arrangement.