Birdsafe California Bird Nerds


Why does Amazon parrot shake its head?

My 16-year-old mealy Amazon, whom Iíve had for two years, has completely bonded with me. Last year she sang her love song to me until September. Whew! She does two things I donít understand. She often shakes her head at me. I will shake my head at her and she'll shake hers again. Also, she opens her beak and pushes her tongue against the upper mandible and sort of hisses. I feel like this is a stress-relieving behavior. Sheís easily frightened and grew up without much socialization, I think. One last question: Could she be near-sighted? Sometimes she doesn't seem to recognize me.

--Leslie Rice,

The head shaking could be one of two things. Your mealy is either responding to a reinforcing cue from you - or sheís mimicking you because she understands the concept of her head in relation to yours, which would be an exciting development indeed.

Most likely, itís the former. Itís possible youíve inadvertently taught her this trick by rewarding her with what she perceives as attention, excitement or praise whenever she shakes her head.

The latter requires a concept of self, a controversial topic among scientists and behaviorists who study parrots.

Experiments have shown that higher primates possess self awareness. Scientists put red dots on the foreheads of chimpanzees, who are then placed in front of mirrors. The chimps reach up and touch the dots on their heads, showing they recognize that the image in the mirror is theirs, not of another chimp.

How would a parrot fare in a similar test? I donít know, and to my knowledge, no oneís tried it. Maybe you and your head-shaking mealy will be the first to demonstrate that parrots do indeed have a concept of self!

The hissing sounds more like a display of some sort to me than a symptom of stress. Iíve seen many other species of Amazon parrots do the same thing, and it always seems connected with aggression or play. Note any other behavior you see when your bird hisses. If it seems unfriendly in the least, heed the warning and leave her alone until she calms down.

I can't speak to whether she might be near-sighted (thatís best left to an avian vet). However, I can tell you what else your birdís behavior might mean.

Parrots practice no consistent greeting rituals, like many mammals do, including dogs and cats, so itís not unusual for a hookbill to ignore an approaching keeper. Some don't want to be handled; others are simply interested in something else at the moment. I bet if you offered your bird a treat each time you approach the cage, her eyesight will improve dramatically.

Steve Martin World-renowned animal trainer Steve Martin established one of the first free-flight bird shows in the country at the San Diego Wild Animal Park in 1976. His international consulting company, Natural Encounters, Inc., now helps zoos all over the world train all types of animals using positive reinforcement. Copyright 2010. All rights reserved.

Return to current Bird Behavior column

  Bird clubs.
  Bird rescue groups.
  Find an avian vet.
  Parrot FAQ

California Bird Nerds Lafeber