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Is Your Bird Playing Or Angry?

Find out if your bird is fighting with you or playing with you.

Liz Wilson, CVT, CPBC


Q: My grandmother has a lovebird named Sweetie. Every time you take a stick and tap it on the floor of her cage, she comes over, scoots down and puts her wings up and flaps them. She only does this in the cage. She also has several "babies” — three bells and two wooden eggs. Is she trying to protect her babies?

A: You are to be commended for realizing that this game you are playing with your grandmother’s lovebird is likely not a game to her at all. Since birds are so different from us, it can be difficult at times to recognize the meaning of a parrot’s body language. When we enjoy watching animals do something, it often does not occur to us that the animal might not be having fun at all.

I suspect from your description that Sweetie’s wings-up and flapping behavior is a territorial display, and if you press the issue, she is likely to get quite angry. It sounds like she thinks you are threatening the safety of her home and her "babies,” and she is telling you that she is willing to fight you to protect them. This is not a game to her. Indeed, from her perspective, this is likely a life-and-death issue. There is a huge difference between playing with a parrot and teasing a parrot.

A classic example of people inadvertently causing a parrot anxiety is the common mistake that inexperienced people often make with cockatoos. Many people get a kick out of seeing a cockatoo raise its crest, so they might intentionally do things to cause this to happen. A cockatoo’s raised crest, however, often means it is alarmed by something. As a result, one of the easiest ways to get a cockatoo to raise its crest is to repeatedly frighten it. I cannot count how many times I have seen this happen with perfectly nice, non-abusive people who have no idea that they are stressing that parrot out. They simply do not understand what the body language means or how upset the cockatoo is becoming.

Crossed Signals
Not understanding body language can sometimes get us into serious trouble with parrots, even those that usually enjoy our company. Several years ago, a colleague told an interesting story about an incident between a friend and her parrot. The parrot was very fond of this person and always enjoyed her visits. However, on this particular day, their relationship took a dramatic turn for the worst.

The parrot was eating when the friend arrived, and, because (like many parrot species) it tended to be extremely food protective, the bird reacted belligerently when the friend approached to greet it. Switching into an aggressive display, the parrot flexed its wings, fluffed out its feathers, pinned its eyes and swayed back and forth while making a guttural noise.

Unfortunately, the friend totally misunderstood the meaning of the posturing, and, in the spirit of fun, she mirrored the bird’s movements as best as she could. Holding her elbows out and swaying, she mimicked his growling sounds. Because she truly thought she and the little parrot were playing together, one can only imagine her stunned horror when the bird launched itself at her and bit her quite badly.

As a result of this sad incident, the parrot-person relationship was irreparably damaged. The person did not realize she was mimicking an antagonistic display, and could not understand why the parrot didn’t realize she meant no harm. From the parrot’s perspective, however, the woman was unspeakably rude. As far as the parrot seemed to think, there was nothing more to understand. She had made an offensive gesture.

The person took this quite personally — her feelings were badly hurt. Instead of trying to repair the damage (which she could have done, with patience), their friendship ended, which was sad for both of them. How often do friendships between people end abruptly thanks to a communication breakdown? If we humans so often do not understand what other humans mean, it’s certainly not surprising that the same thing happens between such divergent species as humans and birds.

With this in mind, it becomes more obvious that you are teasing Sweetie and that she is not enjoying the interaction. If this continues, she will learn to dread your approach to her cage, and she is likely to learn to dislike you. This is understandable, considering how staunchly female lovebirds guard their territory.

If you would like to have an enjoyable relationship with this little bird, you need to cease teasing her. Instead, show respect for her territory and her devotion to her "babies.” Each time you approach her cage, do so politely, and offer a tiny piece of something special like millet. For this to be an exciting treat, millet cannot be given at any other time.

Without the cage tapping, you may find her attitude gradually softens toward you. After all, you are no longer being rude to her. Better yet, good things happen when you draw near the cage. This is the parrot’s equivalent of bringing a girl flowers to mollify her feelings, and, as we know from experience, this definitely works!

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Posted: January 1, 2008, 3:15 p.m. PDT

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Is Your Bird Playing Or Angry?

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Reader Comments
What an interesting article! My pet budgie, Sky, LOVES to come out. When he wants to come out, he sometimes does a dance on the cage rack. Then on his perch. Every morning, when I take him out, I go over to a side of the cage, usually the left side and then talk to him. He talks back. He loves it. I love my budgie. Life wouldn't be the same without him. :)
Grace, International
Posted: 9/21/2013 9:08:50 AM
Well I'm often confused with my bird (a cockatiel). I swing my keys or a chain of paperclips in front of him when we are both on the floor to play. After a bit he gets kinda aggressive towards it and lowers his crest and everything. He never gets aggressive about food anymore since I never take food from him after offering it. This lets me move it around so the crumbs don't end up everywhere. He LOVES this policy when it comes to movie night and popcorn.
Cathy, Madison, WI
Posted: 9/20/2013 10:22:14 PM
Interesting! I hope that everyone has a great and safe weekend!
Mike, Columbia, TN
Posted: 9/20/2013 9:12:16 AM
I have a problem with my husband and my conure Sprocket as he doesn't pay attention to Sprocket or her body language. After a while she gets frustrated and bites him quite badly and he is in a lot of pain and bleeds.

This has resulted in my husband being extremely frightened of Sprocket and I have to play policeman all the time so I don't have to listen to my husband screaming and running away. She has now taken to chasing his feet and biting them. Whether he is bare foot or wearing shoes she goes after him and bites his feet or runs up his leg until he is past the shoe and bites his ankle or leg.

At first I thought it was a game for her but unfortunately it's not. In some ways I think she is trying to get his attention in a negative way because he did not respond to her in a positive manner in their previous encounters.

On the other hand, she does not bite me nor does she chase my feet. She will occasionally nibble if she feels she is being ignored. This happens most often when I am on the computer and forget she is on my shoulder.

So I am very much in agreement that it is very important to watch for signs that your bird is upset and respect her/him if upset.
Linda, International
Posted: 9/19/2013 7:02:53 PM
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