By Sally Blanchard

From the time I was a small child, I have loved to watch people and some of the strange things they do. Over the years, people-watching has been one of my favorite ways to occupy my time when I have to sit and wait for something. I have always had great peripheral vision so I have never stared directly at anyone. I have learned that all the scratching, picking, posturing, gesturing, fidgeting, and grimacing that people do are pretty normal behaviors. I have spent a lot of time waiting in airports and luckily I can keep myself somewhat entertained by watching how people use their own particular body language in different situations. Naturally, as soon as I became involved with parrots, I became just as curious about their behavioral quirks and what they might mean. Seven concepts have become apparent to me: 

1. We can’t always judge parrot behavior by our own behaviors. What may seem odd to us is not the least bit odd to the parrot. For example, they have to do a lot of things with their feet and beaks that we do with our hands. Some of the behaviors we may think are odd are very logical behaviors for the parrot. 

2. Some of the strange parrot behaviors are displacement behaviors. These are substitute behaviors for natural behaviors that cannot be completed. There are a lot of natural behaviors that are not possible for our companion parrots, so we see a lot of displacement behaviors in our companion parrots that seem to make little sense to us. When a companion parrot wipes his beak on his perch, it may be that there is 'glop' all over it but in some situations, it may be a substitute behavior for an aggressive warning. 

3. Companion parrots will actually change their normal behaviors depending upon the kind of responses they get from the people in their lives. So an action that may clearly mean one thing, in the beginning, may mean something quite different in the context of the parrot’s relationship with its “human flock.” It also means that if two different parrots exhibit the same behavior, it may not mean the same thing to each of them so we need to be careful about assuming that all parrots mean the same thing when they exhibit similar body languages.

4. Companion parrots are known for imitating the sounds in their environment, but there is also evidence that they often imitate the body language of their caregivers. Dancing with people is an example of this, although it is clear that parrots also feel the beat of the music and often enjoy dancing by themselves.

5. Parrots are natural tool users and they are smart enough to improvise with what is available to them in their home environment. Using a cap as a cup is not unusual. Creating a back scratcher out of chewed wood is also a relatively common tool-making behavior for parrots. My caique, Spike, has dispensed with the object and simply shaped his foot into a cup to drink. 

6. Sometimes parrots do things simply because they feel good. These behaviors are usually a form of comfort behavior. An example of this is beak grinding as a parrot relaxes itself to go to sleep. While it may help keep the beak trim, the parrot does it because it stimulates the nerve bundles in the beak and tongue and this feels good to the bird. 

7. Some of the things individual parrots do are actually quite strange and we will probably never completely figure out what the heck the bird is doing. We can make guesses and some that I have read have been very strange. Someone wrote to me that they thought that parrots plucked because they had seen us naked. Another person thought the reason cockatoos chased toes was because the toes reminded the birds as toes? 

A Few Examples of Why Parrots Do Some Interesting Behaviors

Sticking the toe into a nostril as far as it goes is probably a very logical behavior. My guess is that it is most often part of normal grooming. Parrots groom by “rezipping” and straightening their feathers with their beaks. During this cleaning process, they continually rub their beaks into the feathers. Certainly, some of their feather dust gets into their nares. Often, when my caique, Spikey LeBec, groomed himself, he finished by sticking his toenail into his nostril (one at a time) as far he can. When he pulls his toe out, he creates a big sneeze — a good way to get all that dust out of his nasal passages! It seems to be common in many parrot species but especially those with a lot of powder down. It also may just feel good?

A parrot's tongue has nerve bundles that make it as sensitive as our fingertips. Consequently, they may use it to touch surfaces to test them and figure them out.
Could a parrot chew his nails because he sees a person do it? Possibly, but it is more likely to be a part of normal grooming for most parrots, perhaps to sharpen them. Wild parrots need sharp nails for climbing. Sometimes, just as with people, chewing nails is a displacement behavior. A parrot that is shy or uncomfortable may chew on his toenails as a way to channel nervous energy away from what is making him uncomfortable. An African grey that I bird sit often chews on his nails when he knows I want to take him out of his cage because he doesn’t quite trust me yet. After I talk with him quietly with lowered energy, he will step on my hand.
If a parrot waves his foot around, it may have to do with balance, getting your attention, because it feels good, or maybe he has watched you do your nails and wave them around trying to dry them? Or he could have watched you wave goodbye and picked it up to communicate with you. Teaching a parrot to wave with its foot is actually a fairly simple trick.

Many parrots will make themselves horizontal and quiver their wings. Generally speaking, this is a pre-flight posture but with companion parrots, it may be a request for their person to come to pick them up or asking for permission to fly to them.

Often when parrots are through preening, they will shake their whole body to fluff their feathers out to get the dust to fly out. Some parrots when they were concerned about something and then relaxed about it or are done what they are doing and ready to do something else will just shake their tail feathers.

There are many feather related behaviors that seem quite odd to us … especially with cockatoos. Some cockatoos put food, wood pieces, or small toys on their shoulders or in their feathers. This may be some sort of bathing displacement behavior since many parrots dust and leaf bathe. Although it is only my guess that some parrots do this, many birds place ants in their feathers as a bathing technique. I only know for sure of one parrot-family bird that does this and that is the Kakariki. The ants release formic acid into the feathers — could this be referred to as nature’s dry cleaning?

Lots of companion parrots soak their food in their water, making a disgusting looking soup. There is evidence that some parrots in the wild wash their food to clean or to soften food morsels. The addition of a toy that holds water or food seems to make it more fun for our avian companions.

Belching, hiccups, coughing, sneezing, sniffling, throat clearing, and other even ruder sounds of human bodily function are not usually a reason to become alarmed about a parrot’s health. They are just another way that companion parrots try to conform to the sounds of their human flock. Years ago I bird sat a blue and gold macaw that had the worst sounding sneeze and the bird put his whole body into it, shaking his head and nearly falling off his perch. I actually took him to my vet because I couldn’t reach his caregivers because they were on a cruise. When they came to get the bird, almost the first thing the man did was let out with a very similar violent sneeze. The macaw wasn’t sick; he just wondered where his dad was.

Lots of parrot behaviors have human counterparts. Parrots usually yawn for the same reasons we do; they may be tired or they may be stretching the muscles in their face for exercise. They scratch when they itch except it looks funnier because they do it with their foot. My favorite is when my caique, Spikey stopped his head scratching and just sat there for a half a minute squeezing his head with a look of sheer pleasure on his face.




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