Parrots are wonderful birds. Their beautiful plumage, their intelligence, and the strong bond they can form with their owners make them irresistible for a lot of pet owners. Although information about these birds is easily available on the Internet, a lot of owners have serious problems with their parrots. Two of the main reasons these problems arise are that owners find it difficult to read the body language of their birds and that they don’t recognize how their own behavior influences the behavior of their bird. Considering that more than 80 parrot species are regularly kept as pet birds all around the world and that every species has its own behavior and body language, we must keep in mind that problems might occur through the humans and parrots misunderstanding each other’s behavior.
During my work as a parrot behavior consultant, I see many different species and can observe the reactions of the birds while they interact with their owners. Most owners are not aware that parrots and parakeets have a different impression of their environment than we humans have. Parrots and parakeets have their eyes on the side of their head, which offers them a nearly total view of their surroundings. They only have small blind spots in front and below their beak, and in their neck area. Parrots and parakeets see a different picture with each eye, and this is why they move their heads when they observe a new toy or food they are offered. Many owners don’t recognize the reason for this movement, so when they offer their bird a small toy or a treat and the bird does not react in the way expect they are disappointed.
In common with most predators, we humans have eyes in front of our heads, which gives us a stereoscopical view of the world. A lot of parrots find it very intimidating when we look at them directly face to face. I have found that Macaws in particular can show aggressive behaviors when they meet a stranger who stares at them, so I always recommend that owners avoid staring at their birds, and instead turn their heads a little bit to the side. I never look at birds in the first 30 minutes when I do an in-home consultation; this helps the bird get used to my body language and my face.
Parrots and parakeets see ultraviolet light and some can react strongly to different colors. Some birds ignore certain colors, and some prefer certain colors. I once met a female cockatoo who totally ignored blue but loved red toys. African Grey parrots seem to prefer orange, yellow, and red when they choose toys, but individual preferences might occur.
Parrots communicate a lot with their voices and are known for their ability to mimic language and use it referentially. Communication through language and tone of voice influences the behavior of a bird a great deal. New World parrots easy get agitated when they are reinforced with a high voice. In particular, Amazons and Macaws can show pin-pointing (contraction of the iris), raise their head feathers, and become highly aroused. Female owners with very high voices might have problems with these birds due to their vocal pitch. I recommend that these owners try to lower their voices when they interact with their parrots, especially if they keep Amazons. In contrast, African Grey parrots might benefit from high voices, especially when they need to be reinforced in different situations. I have noticed that a lot of male African Grey parrots don’t accept treats as reinforcement during training sessions and seem to prefer reinforcement with a high voice.
I believe that parrots see their owners as strange-looking birds and this means they interpret our biology and movements in the same way they would interpret the body language of their fellow flock members. This explains a lot of behaviors that bird owners tell me they find bizarre or confusing. For example, a lot of owners have told me that their birds find it irritating when the owner changes their glasses, their haircut, or even their clothes! But we must remember that in the wild no bird changes its plumage from one moment to the next. When owners change their clothes or cut their hair, this might be very intimidating for their parrot and lead to aggressive behaviors. Therefore, I advise owners that they should make sure that the bird stays in the aviary or the cage before they see their owners with a new haircut or new, colorful clothes. If the bird shows signs of anxiety or aggression the owner can take steps to avoid conflict and help the bird feel safe and secure before trying to make direct body contact.
If parrots do see humans as a special kind of bird, then our hands and arms are equivalent to their wings. Wings are used for flying, mating behavior, and to create isolation. When birds are at rest, their wings are usually closed at the back. No parrot uses its wings in front of its body, gesticulating while vocalizing. We humans use our hands a lot while we talk, and we enjoy lively people who express their feelings while they tell a story. Parrots and parakeets can get nervous when they are confronted with people who gesticulate a lot. This is a behavior they might not understand, and that might lead to lunging when the owner does it in front of the bird. My recommendation is that owners try to avoid gesticulating in front of their birds, especially if their parrot has a biting problem. It is crucial that the owner learns to observe their own body language and calm down while interacting with their parrot.
Parrots seem to see us as “strange-looking birds” from the shoulders up, whereas everything from our shoulders down is perceived by the parrot as more like a tree that can walk. When parrots do attack humans, they tend to focus on the head and neck; they don’t tend to attack the hip, the knee, or the arm. Therefore, it might be very intimidating for parrots when a hand is moved to their body for a “Step up” when the bird is not used to hands. Through the eyes of a parrot this looks like a perch that moves, which could seem potentially hazardous—no wonder birds can get nervous about stepping onto hands. If a bird moves away from a hand, or raises its foot to make the hand move away, this is a signal for the owner that the bird is not used to this “perch.” It helps for owners to understand that the bird should be taught to feel more in control of the situation, for example that it might be less stressful if the bird moves to the “hand perch” instead of offering the bird the hand.
In this video, you can see Coco the 4-month-old Blue-fronted Amazon moving away from his owner’s hand. At this time, Coco had just arrived in his second home and, although he was then very young, he already had a history of biting. Coco’s new owner learned how to use positive reinforcement and clicker training, and to respect Coco’s body language. Because of this commitment, Coco was able to get over his fear of humans, and learned that he was in control of his social contacts. This picture was taken 6 months later.
Parrots use their beaks to preen themselves and each other. We humans pet our birds by tickling them or stroking them. Many owners reported that they stroke their parrots and suddenly these birds attack their owners and bite them. Parrots can’t stroke each other because beaks can’t stroke. In this video you can see a young Amazon that enjoys being tickled, as evidenced by fluffing the head feathers, but he moves away when the owner tries to stroke him. If lunging occurs during stroking sessions the owners might be encouraged to avoid stroking their parrots and tickle them instead. If the parrot shows any sign of discomfort the tickling should immediately be stopped.
Taking video of owners while they interact with their parrots might help the owners to observe the reactions of their parrots to their own body language and to avoid problems in the future. I believe that a lot of parrots live under conditions of learned helplessness, and therefore it is important to teach owners that they should give their parrot the ability to choose the kind of social contact they feel comfortable with. This may include realizing that the owner is not the parrot’s favorite person. In this situation, the consultant is in charge to improve the relationship between the parrot and the owner. This topic will be addressed in another article.
Hildegard Niemann MsC (Biology), and Certified IAABC Parrot Behavior Consultant (No 338), is the author of books and articles about parrots and parakeets, offers online consultations, phone consultations and in-home consultations. She organizes workshops, seminars, webinars and gives international lectures. Her website is www.papageien-training.de.