19 Bird Body Language Signals to Decode What They're Thinking

Learn to read your pet bird's body language to gain insight into what they're thinking and feeling.

Published May 18, 2023
Young woman working at home with pet cockatiel

Even if your bird can talk (lucky you!), they probably can't communicate exactly how they feel with their words. Are they excited, angry, playful, or sick? Fortunately, you can use your bird's body language to figure out their emotions. Birds are highly expressive, and they have a lot to work with. From how they move their tails to the noises they make with their beaks, these bird body language basics will help you quack the case.

Head Posture

Bird species like cockatoos and cockatiels have feathers on their head, which are often called the crown or crest, and they like to use these feathers to express themselves. But even birds without a crest can bob their head around to let you know what they're thinking.

Cockatiel parrot
  • Head bobbing: Head bobbing isn't a straightforward signal because it can mean a lot of different things. If it's getting close to feeding time, it might mean they're hungry (which is what baby birds do to tell their mother they're ready to eat). It could also be an attention-seeking behavior or a signal that they're excited or angry.
  • Crown up: If the feathers on your bird's head are up, it means they're excited about something. They might be ready to play, or they could be worked up and unhappy about something. You'll need to use other body clues to determine which one.
  • Crown back: On the other hand, if the feathers on their head are laid back and down, it means they feel frightened.
Quick Tip

Feather position can mean a lot. Birds who are scared keep their feathers in close to their body, and cockatiels will raise their crests.

Beak Movements

Birds can make all sorts of sounds with their beaks, and each one has a different meaning. Pay attention to what they're doing with their beaks to find out what they're trying to tell you.

Lovely couple of cockatoos
  • Beak grinding: When a bird grinds their beak, it means they're happy. Some people say it's a sound that is similar to a cat's purr. Know that if your bird is grinding, they feel content and relaxed.
  • Beak banging: Some birds, especially cockatiels, do something called "beak banging," where they hit their beak against their perch, the floor, or anything else in their enclosure. This isn't anything to be worried about. It's just a strange bird courtship behavior.
  • Tongue clicking: Tongue clicking is another happy sound birds make. People speculate it signals that a bird is friendly and might be used as a greeting. You can mimic this sound to let your feathered friend know you're happy to see them, too.


Gaze longingly into your bird's eyes, and you can learn a lot about them. No, we're serious! Your bird's eye position can give you insight into how they're feeling. Take a look at whether their eyes are fully open or how dilated their pupils are.

Tropical Bird with closed eyes
  • Closed or half-closed eyes: If a bird closes one or both eyes during the day when they are not sleeping, it usually means they're not feeling well. Look for other signs of illness and seek help if you think your bird is sick.
  • Wide pupils: Wide, dilated eyes show that a bird is scared. Birds also do something called "pinning," where they dilate and then shrink their pupils, which is also a sign of fright, excitement, or even aggression.

Body Placement

Um, why is your bird standing like that? Their body posture can say a lot about their mood or health status.

Male Red-Winged Blackbird on One Leg
  • Standing on one leg: Birds tuck one leg under themselves to retain heat, and they usually do this when they're resting or sleeping. If your bird is otherwise acting normally, it just means they're relaxed.
  • Stomping: Stomping or foot tapping is usually a territorial behavior, but it can sometimes point to a nutritional deficit. If a bird isn't getting enough minerals in their diet, it can lead to muscle spasms.
  • Crouching: Crouching is something birds do when they're preparing to escape, which signals that they're probably scared. Or it's possible they're ready to play.
  • Leaning forward: When your pet bird leans forward, it's usually a sign that they're ready to play. Grab a bird-safe toy and have some fun together.
  • Quivering: Shivering, quivering, or trembling are signs of stress in birds. Your bird is feeling anxious for some reason.
  • Moving side-to-side: Moving their body side-to-side is sometimes called "snaking" in bird body language because they look like a snake slithering side-to-side. Birds can do this as a courtship behavior or if they feel threatened and are ready to escape.
Quick Tip

Where your bird is hanging out can also tell you about how they're feeling. If they're out in the open, they probably feel safe, but if they are huddled in a corner, bet that something has frightened them.

Tail and Wing Movements

The way a pet bird moves their wing and tail feathers can speak volumes. From wagging to flapping and even drooping, each movement means something different.

Rainbow Lorikeet flapping its wings
  • Tail wagging: Yes, birds wag their tails! Just like in dogs, if your bird wags their tail side to side, it's a sign they are happy.
  • Tail fanning: If your bird fans their tail out, take that as a sign of aggression. They're angry and don't want to be approached.
  • Tail bobbing: Persistent tail bobbing in pet birds is usually a sign of illness. Birds will bob their tail up and down if they're struggling to breathe, so it's important to see your vet if your bird does this consistently. But if they do just a very slight bob, and it's only occasionally, it's probably nothing to worry about.
  • Wing flapping: Birds flap their wings to cool themselves down, but it can also be a means of grabbing your attention or showing excitement. Depending on other body language cues, your bird might be trying to express that they're annoyed with you.
  • Wing drooping: Droopy wings point to sickness, or your bird might be sleep deprived. Make sure they're getting enough sleep and look for other signs that something might be going on.

It's Not Owl or Nothing With Bird Body Language

Each bird has their own quirks that make them unique, so bird body language isn't always one size fits all. For example, your pet bird might bob their head when they're excited instead of hungry, or they might crouch when they're ready to play. Watch your bird closely so you can learn to identify their individual cues and behaviors. That way, you can communicate with each other through more than just words.

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19 Bird Body Language Signals to Decode What They're Thinking