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Poicephalus Parrot Behavior

The bird body language of Poicephalus parrots (Poi), can be as comical as it is perplexing.

By Jean Pattison

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Poicephalus parrots are quite varied for being such a small genus. This is especially true in regard to their vocalizations and body language. 

The most mysterious and intriguing language our Poicephalus parrots (Pois) demonstrate is their body language. It can be quite fun trying to figure out why they do some of the things they do. Body language can reveal whether a pet bird is calm and content, fearful, aggressive, having fun, wanting attention or if it is displaying mating behavior.

Senegal parrot
Poicephalus parrots, such as Senegal parrots, have  unique behaviors. 

Eye pinning in parrots, for example, indicates excitement. It can be excitement in playing or interacting with their favorite person. It can occur during beak exchanges (kisses) with their mate, while doing their rolling purr. Or it can be the first indication of being bitten, a warning to stay away.

Poicephalus parrots that attack or appear aggressive might be more fearful than we think. In the wild, a bird has the choice of fighting or fleeing. A parrot fleeing a situation takes flight. Just before taking flight, the feathers are slicked down, and the bird appears long and lean, even sitting upright with eyes pinned.

An aggressive posture is quite different than the attack-from-fear posture. The Poicephalus parrot's eyes pin, it leans low on the perch, its feathers are all fluffed up, and the bird holds its head low, while rocking from side to side, like a cobra. Some Pois even hiss; watch out or you might be bitten! I have seen red bellies do this attack behavior in their cage, even when alone. When I go over to investigate, there is nothing there. They will also “play attack” and roll around as if wrestling with an imaginary toy or flockmate. They seem to invent things to attack or play with even though they have plenty of toys in their cages.

Uplifted wings indicate a happy attitude, and quick left-to-right rocking from foot to foot usually shows excitement and play. Red-bellied parrots and Jardine’s parrots, as well as the brown-necked parrots (unCape parrots), also hop. They bounce and hop on their perches, across the cage floor or on any other suitable surface. Some of the other Poicephalus might also display this behavior, although not as readily.

The male brown-necked parrot often hops across the perch, bows his head and flashes his wings when posturing for the female. Many of these behaviors are also seen when the male is just playing, but not with as much enthusiasm as when he is soliciting a female’s attention.

Beak tapping is also a behavior more common in brown-necked parrots and Jardine’s parrots. They will very rapidly bang or hit their perch or other hard surface with the side of the beak. I have seen this used to get attention and also to serve as a warning. Brown necks also have a way of showing off their huge beaks. They will open their beaks very wide, throw their heads back and shake their heads, as if to say, “Look at this big beak, I don’t have to bite to scare you.” My husband’s bird warns me away by opening and closing his beak rapidly while sticking out his tongue in between.


Brown heads, on the other hand, can be the exact opposite in some of their behaviors. In the wild, juveniles are found in large groups, as if in a nursery setting. They will sit motionless for what seems like forever. Many pet brown heads have these moments of comatose posture, which can be alarming to their owners. It seems it is just in their genes. I have seen similar behaviors in the Meyer’s and, to a much lesser degree, in some of the other smaller Poicephalus species. I don’t see anything that could be perceived as threatening when Poicephalus exhibit this behavior, but who knows what they might perceive as a threat.

Some Poicephalus are notorious for lying on their backs. Many times I have seen one of my birds on its back on the floor of the cage. I have run to them, my heart racing, and when I almost reach the cage they simply flip over and look at me like I am crazy. Jardine’s do this more frequently than other Poicephalus. Both the Jardine’s and the brown neck play on their backs, oftentimes under paper. They also play with toys that are hung from the cage top and with foot toys, much like a juggler. Brown necks lie on their backs and walk along the cage bars or a hanging chain, propelling themselves along, sliding on their backs the length of the cage.

Many Poicephalus owners know the signs of mating displays, and often refer to the dance they do as the “hat dance.” A Poicephalus will rapidly click its beak, droop the wings and turn in circles, all the while making little grunting sounds. If the bird is out and interacting with you, it is a good idea to change the subject, or maybe return your bird its cage.

I would like to mention that many people think parrots mate for life, but this is not the case. It has been shown that wild parrots switch mates after years together. In captivity, birds that have been breeding and raising chicks for years might all of a sudden turn on each other, and one is killed. Knowing the signs of mate aggression ahead of time has prevented many deaths with breeding pairs. In these cases, they are separated and placed with new mates to live many years together. In knowing this, it may not be wise not to purchase a “friend” for your Poicephalus. If an owner wants another Poicephalus, then by all means they should get one, but they should not think it will be a buddy or mate for the one they already have. The small Poicephalus are quite happy being the center of attention.

Some Poicephalus seek out tight little corners and things to hide out in. Some toys can stimulate nesting behaviors and should be avoided. If your Poicephalus gets a bit nippy or starts the mating dances, check to see if there isn’t something in the area that might be stimulating him or her.

Vocalizations are used as contact calls and to express aggression, fear, contentment or attraction. Parrots also use vocalizations just for fun. The “fun” noises are what sometimes drive us crazy; many parrots seem to be drawn to the most obnoxious, and definitely the loudest, call.

The Meyer’s and brown-headed parrot, overall, seem to be quietest of all the Poicephalus, but they have their noisy side, too. Their normal vocalizations are quite pleasing, mostly little chirps and chatter. Almost all Poicephalus have a trill, similar to a cat purring but with a bit of melody and perhaps a garbled whistle mixed in. Of course they all can growl, much like an African grey.

Many of the Meyer’s that I keep have a “beep” that really sounds like a high-pitched (sometimes broken) smoke alarm. Hearing half a dozen beeping Meyer’s doing this beep can be quite alarming to the senses. This noise seems to be one that all Meyer’s are capable of. In a pet situation, one should try to find another sound that is as much fun as the beep. Banging pots and pans might be more pleasing. The beep is not so obnoxious at first, and it can even be cute. However, do not fall into the trap of beeping back; it will only get worse.

Many Senegal parrot owners, including myself, have heard their Senegals say “Baby-b-b-b-b-b-b,” although some owners interpret it as “Me-me-me-me-me,” which works, too. Those who have been around Senegals often describe their vocalizations as, “Oh yeah, the fingernails on the blackboard sound.” Of course we Senegal parrot owners never even think of that. Red bellies seem to fall into the same category as far as lots of sounds, but they are probably the best talkers of all the small Poicephalus species.

The brown-necked parrot and the Jardine’s are in another category altogether. Their larger size seems to make them louder than their smaller cousins. Capes as a group can be very raucous in their contact calls, and they try to outdo each other in volume. Both seem to have the melodious purr, with a lot of body action to go along with it. Jardine’s bob their heads while whistling the rolling purr, thus sounding like “br-r-r-r-r-i-i-t.” I have learned to imitate it quite well, and it seems to be a friendly greeting when I approach some of my breeder birds. This sound and demonstration is also used when mates interact, while giving light “kisses.”

The brown neck has a large variety of sounds, from a low hiss to the raucous contact call, with many in between. They can be good talkers and imitate the human voice quite well. I currently have a brown-necked parrot in my bedroom, and a timneh grey in the living room, which is at the opposite end of my home. They imitate each other perfectly, making it nearly impossible to tell them apart. It gets quite frustrating early in the morning when they start doing contact calls between the two rooms.

Overall, the Poicephalus are among the quieter companion parrots we live with. Much like an African grey, where some talk and some do not, it depends on the bird and the situation. So it is with the noise levels of the Poicephalus; some can be more vocal than others. Birds that are the only bird in the household tend to be much quieter. One client of mine said her brown-necked parrot (the un-cape) was very loud, but is now quiet. She seemed to think it was a stage he went through.

There are so many ways to look at language when we are living with these wondrous creatures. It is so amazing to me to look over and see one of my Poicephalus smiling back at me. Just how do they do that when they have no lips? 

See How Poicephalus Parrots Sleep
Poicephalus spend a fair amount of time on the floor of their cages sleeping. I have some that curl up in a corner on the floor to sleep, while others almost lay on their perches to sleep, and then there are others that sleep in a comatose position. One Jardine’s of mine used to sleep on his back in the food dish. It just depends on the bird.

Some Poicephalus take naps at very appointed times of the day. The brown-necked parrot will sleep for long lengths of time in the middle of the afternoon. The brown-necked  parrot even sleeps with its beak tucked behind under its wing.

No description of the sleeping habits of Poicephalus would be complete without mentioning how the brown-necked parrot sometimes drools at night. This can be very disturbing for the uninitiated brown-necked parrot’s owner. So far, through tests and lab work, we have found nothing to be worried about.

For monthly information about pet birds and parrots, subscribe to BIRD TALK Magazine by clicking here.


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