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Avian Behavior Guide

Written by Karine, TaffyWduck, and Pho, phoenixk

Avian behavior can be very complex but with knowledge of some general ones and what they mean, you will be able to learn more about your bird. We'll start with the language of the cockatiel crest. Cockatiels are unique in that, unlike other small parrots, they have a crest that can give us clear insight into what's going on inside the bird's head. The positions of the crest vary from laying flat on the head to sticking straight up in the air.

  1. A flat, angry crest. When a cockatiel's crest lays flat on the head, it is usually a sign of hostility. Of course, even sweet, tame cockatiels like Ebo have moments where the crest will flatten and the inner demon will emerge -- it's totally natural!
  2. A relaxed crest at "half mast." This is a regular crest position for the usual content cockatiel.
  3. A relaxed, yet alert crest position. This is a common position for an inquisitive cockatiel.
  4. A completely raised crest. Red alert! This is a common position for when a cockatiel is startled or otherwise on guard. This often happens when a cockatiel hears a "bump in the night," or when he hears the voice of another cockatiel that he can't see. It's an all-purpose "alert" crest.

The "Rapidfire Bite" Technique
If your your parrot gets little bunchy eyebrows or a flat crest and then starts quickly biting your finger (or as I like to say, playing your finger like a harmonica), he might be a tad miffed at you. Don't take it personally. It happens with even the best birds.

Skinny Bird
If your bird suddenly gets very small and "skinny," it could mean that he has been startled or is scared. It often looks like the bird's crop is sucked in, and all the feathers lie flat on the body. This is often accompanied by a "red alert" crest.

The Head Bob
A bird who is bobbing his head may be saying a variety of things. In a young or unweaned bird, it is often a sign of hunger. Your bird may be begging for food. In an older bird, it could be a way of showing off or trying to get some attention.

Heart-Shaped Wings
Also known as "the big chest." This is when a bird holds his wings slightly away from his sides with his chest sticking out. From the back, the shape of the wings resembles a heart. This is a male parrot behavior and is a part of courtship and a way of showing off. A big chest is a great tool when flirting.

The Bowed Head
If your bird lowers his head and leaves it there, it is most likely an invitation for you to pet his head. This is very cute! A more demanding bird (a.k.a. Ebo) might beak bang a few times before leaving his head stationary if you don't respond to his demands in a timely fashion.

Ready for Take-Off
Often times, a bird will stoop down low and hold his wings out, still folded, at his sides while fidgeting or moving back and forth. It may look like he is about to take off flying. If your bird's wings are clipped, then it may mean that he wants to fly somewhere (often toward you) but isn't confident enough to take off. A flighted bird may also choose to do this if he thinks that you will come and pick him up; it saves him the trouble of actually flying over to you.

Bat Bird
When given a new cage or play gym, when sitting on a tall object, or when near a nesting site, a bird may hold his wings out all the way, often swishing slightly back and forth. Sometimes, a bird may adopt the same wing position while leaning far forward, sometimes even upside down. This is a sign of "property ownership." Your bird is saying "This is mine!"

A bird may often hammer his beak on a hard object, or on you. It almost looks like a pecking motion. This is beak-banging, and it is a common behavior for male cockatiels. Like the bat bird, it is a gesture of property ownership. Your bird may be saying "Whatever I'm hammering on is mine!" However, while the Bat Bird is seen in both male and female parrot, beak banging is a predominantly male behavior.

The "Back and Forth" Bird
Also known as "pacing." Sometimes, especially when your cockatiel is in his cage, you may see him eagerly walking back and forth very quickly, taking only one or two steps to each side while always facing forward. Sometimes he may chirp repeatedly while doing this. Your bird is begging (rather, nagging!) to be let out of his cage. The speed of back-and-forth motion often increases exponentially when people are eating in his field of vision.

Beak-Assisted Climbing
When your bird is climbing onto your finger, he may first grab on with his beak before stepping all the way on. This is normal. He is testing the stability of your finger. This is also often used by parrots as a balancing aid.

Beak Grinding
Usually it is the sound of this motion and not the visual that first attracts our attention. Your cockatiel may grind his upper and lower mandible together, producing a scratchy or "zippy" noise. Your bird is probably content and relaxed, and he might be getting ready for a nap.

In Your Face
If your bird jumps onto your chest, runs up to your face, and maybe even sticks his beak against your face, he is inviting you to join him in a cuddling session! Take advantage of the opportunity! This move is demonstrated in the video "In Your Face."

The Head Tilt
If your bird turns his head sideways and then tilts it up or down, he may be looking at something either above or below him. Because of the positioning of a bird's eyes, this is the easiest way for them to view certain areas. If you can't tell what your bird is looking at, it's possible that he's staring at his own fluff floating in the air. This head motion may also be done when your bird is listening intently to a sound.

Tail Wagging
Ever petted your female bird on the back or by the tail and had her "wag her tail" in response? Well, stop it, because you're turning her on, and she might start to lay eggs!

The Happy Bird Dance
If your bird gets on top of an object (or backs into an object) and starts rubbing his/her butt back and forth on it, often chirping at the same time, be polite and avert your eyes. Congratulations: your bird is masturbating. Many birds chirp while doing this; Ebo, on the other hand, says "Good Ebo."

Backward Head
If your parrot turns his head backward, closes his eyes, and buries his beak in between his feathers, he is all ready to go to sleep. You can also expect him to stand balanced on one foot while doing this.

One Eye Closed, One Eye Opened
Sometimes, when cuddling with your feathery friend, you might find that he has one eye closed and one eye opened. Most often, it will be the eye facing you that is closed, and the eye facing the rest of the room that is opened. Your bird is relaxed and content, but still alert enough to want to keep a look out.

Your bird may occasionally puff out all his feathers, often accompanied by a brief dog-like shake. Your bird is just fixing up his feathers. This is often done during preening. However, if your bird remains puffed for long periods of time (and might also sit at the bottom of the cage), he might very well be sick, and he should be taken to a veterinarian as soon as possible.

Repeated Yawning
Often after preening, a parrot may yawn over and over again. It could be that he's readjusting his crop or that he's gotten a bit of down stuck in his throat. Either way, it's normal. They also yawn when they are tired or after waking up from a nap.

The Head Shake
You may occasionally see your bird rapidly shaking his head for a moment. if done while eating, it could mean that the food has a surprising taste, temperature, or moisture level. If done when listening to a sound, it could mean that it's a tad too loud or sharp or high-pitched, or just that it's an interesting sound.

Rolly Head
While preening, you may see your parrot wiping or rolling his head on his lower back, or occasionally inside his wing. If you feel the lower back area, you will find that it is very powdery. A bird performing the Rolly Head is simply distributing all these oils and powders to the feathers on his head.

Bathroom Time
If your bird stoops down low and gets slightly puffy, it could mean that he is about to go to the bathroom. Hurry and get a napkin! Once you recognize this sign, it will become much easier to prevent accidents on yourself and on the floor.

Bath Time Puffiness
While taking a shower or bath, or while getting misted, a cockatiel might become extremely puffy, raise both his wings up away from his side, lean forward, and sway all around. This means that he is enjoying his bath!

Shower Time Trance
When in the shower, your bird might close his eyes and zone out for awhile, as if he is sleeping. Again, this is a sign that he is enjoying his shower.

Nose Picker
Occasionally, your bird might stick his toenail up his nose and then sneeze. What an undignified bird! Nah, he's just attempting to clear out his nasal passages. It's perfectly normal (for birds, not for humans!).

Puffy Face
While listening to a sound, your bird's face and/or cheek patches may become slightly puffy. This is often a sign that he likes what he's hearing, or that he is interested in the sound. Ebo often gets puffy cheeks while listening to sounds that he later ends up repeating.

If your bird raises both his wings above his back, usually leaving them folded, he is stretching.

Superman Ice Skater
Your bird may extend one foot and one wing behind him, often while fanning his tail. This is another way for your bird to stretch.

If you have multiple birds, it is possible that you will observe mating. If you have a male and female, this could of course lead to breeding which is not appropriate for everyone. See this article for more details *insert link to breeding article*. It is also possible to observe mounting if you have a same sex pair since it is far from uncommon for birds to bond to one another regardless of sex. Mating will not always lead to eggs (young females, older females might have a harder time to conceive an egg and obviously a same sex male pair won't have eggs... ever!).
Picture credit: Grace, Pootspete

It is quite frequent for birds to develop crushes on other animals (i.e another bird) or even on other people. Usually, you'll notice that your bird is acting hormonal around that person (ie protective, displaying, singing etc.). The bird might even try to mate with the chosen object of desire. The male will rub his vent on the object whereas the female will lift her tail and kind of arch her head back and make faint whistling sounds. Crushes might go away or persist, it usually won't persist if the object of desire is removed. If your bird develops a crush on someone else than you, even if you are the primary care taker, don't take it as a sign that your bird doesn't love you... he just doesn't love you "that" way!

Flock Calling
In the wild, most parrots live in large groups called a flock. In captivity, you and your family are your birds' flock, which is why it is important to frequently interact with your birds as you are his social group. In the wild, birds of a same group are not always within sight of each other so they will call to each other to keep track of each other's positions. Think of it as a way to verify that all your family is safe and sound. The flock calling usually consist in a high pitched whistle repeated until the caller is satisfied that all of his flock has answered. You can answer your bird by whistling back so he knows that you are there, safe and by extension so is he. If you have multiple birds, they will call to each other in the morning to verify that everyone got through the night alright, they will also call to each other if they are in separated rooms. Be careful, however, as there is a difference between flock calling and a behavioral screaming for attention problem. A bird whose flock answers will stop calling after a few whistles, faster if you answer the bird, an attention screamer will just go on screaming for ever until you show up in the room and care for them.

Most of us have heard a cat hiss when scared or unhappy... the same applies to birds. If your bird doesn't want to come out of the cage, doesn't want to be petted, doesn't want anything to do with that new $20 shiny toy you put in his cage chances are he'll let you know by either hissing at you or at the object that is causing him to be scared or mad. If you have multiple birds, they can also keep each other at bay by hissing at one another, this is a simple "don't get in my personal space!" message to the "invading" bird. It's a mean of intimidation for the birds and they usually fluff up their feathers, open their wings in order to pretend to be bigger (therefor stronger) than they really are to scare the potential threat away.

This is not to be confused with vomiting which is actually a sign of illness. Regurgitating is the act where the bird empties the food from his crop onto someone, another bird or a toy which they are bonded with. Parents also regurgitate food into their babies crop in order to feed them. If your bird regurgitate on you it is a sign that he is very much bonded to you and he's trying to feed you. Sadly, birds do not comprehend that we might not want to eat their gift.

Acting out Fear and Aggressions
Birds who have been abused in the past, either by a mate or an owner can act out fear and aggressions on their toys or new feathery friends. This rarely happens in baby birds gotten from breeders or reputable stores, but if you got your bird from a rescue or from someone out of the classifieds it's possible to observe this behavior. Keep in mind that not all rescue and classified birds were abused, but there's more chances of a shady past. If you notice that your bird is aggressive toward other birds it will be important to cage him/her alone, it will help reduce the stress for all your birds and yourself. Time, patience and love will be required to work through this and eventually your bird will feel more confident and safe around you and will settle down.

Congratulations! You have completed your crash course on avian body language. I hope you enjoyed it!

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