Bird Watch

Observing and noting changes in a bird’s behavior can tell you volumes about its health and condition, if you understand what to look for.


One of the main reasons why birds, and especially parrots, are popular pets is because they are fascinating to watch and listen to, but a bird’s behavior can also be quite revealing. In fact, the best way to know if a bird is not well is by noting changes in its normal behavior–-but what is normal?

Certainly, there are some actions that all healthy birds demonstrate to one degree or another, but like people, each group and even each individual can show certain characteristics specific to that particular bird.

Listen Carefully
Making sounds is a common behavior for all caged birds, and usually these vocalizations are the strongest first thing in the morning and late in the afternoon. Birds vocalize for a number of reasons. They call out to contact and gather others in the flock, sing to attract a mate or establish and keep a territory, or even scream because they are excited, upset or trying to get attention from their owner. Birds are also the only group of animals that can mimic human speech. It’s another reason why parrots are such fascinating pets–they can talk like we do.

When a bird begins to vocalize less frequently than it normally does, that can be a sign that the bird is feeling stressed or even ill. Just over a week ago my male kakariki, who babbles and sings many times during the day, became very quiet one day. The next day, not only did he not vocalize, he also sat on a perch slightly fluffed out and not moving as much as usual. He was clearly feeling unwell. Three days later he began to babble a bit, and now he is singing and calling as he does normally. Thankfully he got well on his own, but I watched him carefully after that initial change in his vocalizations.

Some bird species or groups are naturally quieter than others, and some individuals in the same species are more talkative. Watch a flock of parakeets and you can see which ones are clearly the babblers. Usually, the most vocal in a parrot species are the males, although that is not always the case. Employees should get to know what is normal for each of the birds in the store. If a bird demonstrates any changes in vocalization frequency, employees will know to keep a closer watch on that bird.

Preening is another behavior that all birds demonstrate; it’s how they keep their feathers clean. Some birds will preen more than others, but all healthy birds should preen themselves every day. A bird that is stressed or feeling ill will preen less or may even stop altogether. On the other hand, parasites, like mites or lice, may cause a bird to preen more and with much more aggressiveness. Birds with itchy parasitic infestations will also show signs of restlessness and even grumpiness, as they usually cannot sleep well.

A bird that slows down or stops preening completely should be watched carefully and checked by a vet, especially if there are other signs of illness or a problem, such as lethargy, lack of appetite, sitting on a perch very fluffed out, changes in feces or discharges from the nose or mouth.

Changes in activity or play level can also mean that there is a problem. If a bird that is normally highly active seems to become less so, watch for signs of stress or illness. Of course, young birds will sleep more during the day, and when birds first come into a new environment, their behavior may change. It is best to give a new bird a few days to settle in before observing them for signs of trouble.

Understanding the normal behavior of birds, as a group, as a species and individually, is an important part of selling or keeping any pet bird. A valuable pet store employee is one who knows how to observe store birds and watch for any behavioral changes.

Robyn Bright has a master’s degree in parrot biology and more than 35 years of pet retailing experience.

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