By Margaret A. Wissman, DVM, DABVP — Avian Practice
Rose-breasted cockatoo by Gina Cioli/BowTie/Courtesy Polly Porter
It is unknown why birds (or people) yawn.
Even in regards to people, the act of yawning is still somewhat of an enigma. It is known that people yawn to expand the lungs and take in more oxygen, so yawning might be a response to lowered oxygen levels in the lungs or brain. Many birds begin yawning at bedtime, probably as a preparation for sleep.
Back To Bird Health
I have noticed, especially in baby birds, that if you gently massage the area just below the ear canal opening (in the vicinity of the temporomandibular joint) you can often elicit a yawn from the pet bird. Since many birds have prokinetic joints, meaning that the upper beak is actually moveable and not fixed to the skull, a bird might yawn in an attempt to realign the bones of the face. Of course, some birds yawn at night when they are tired.
Other medical conditions can also elicit the yawning behavior in birds. I have seen parrots, from budgies to macaws, yawn when they have a yeast infection with Candida sp. I have seen this happen often enough that I don’t think it is just a coincidence. Something related to a yeast infection in the oropharynx makes some birds yawn.
Is yawning contagious in birds? I tried a very unscientific experiment where I yawned at different times of the day in front of my birds, a cockatiel, budgerigar (budgie) and African grey, and none of them yawned back. But I have heard speculation that this could happen. I’ve heard of birds yawning in front of their owners and inducing a yawn in their owners!