As you might have already noticed in part 1, a lot of the body language we can observe, like eyepinning or head bobbing, occurs in very different contexts. What those contexts tend to have in common is arousal. And I don't (necessarily) mean the sexual kind.

The "level of arousal" often refers to the intensity of a feeling or level of bodily activation in response to something.
When we are what we might call very stressed, thrilled, angry or upset we tend to experience high arousal. We are excited, as in our heart rate might go up, we might become physically tense, and possibly forget to use our inside voice.
Note that the level of arousal says nothing about what we might be experiencing, just about how intense it is.

An individual showing a high level of arousal is an individual that is alert, responsive and very ready to react to it's environment; it is ready to go from 0-100, fast, whether that be flying away from something, biting, copulating or playing.

This can be visualised using something called the core affect space, where arousal is the intensity and valence is the "pleasantness."

Possible signs of excitement or high arousal include:

  • Eye pinning

  • Tightened or very fluffed feathers on most of the body

  • Stiff posture

  • Rounded eyes

  • Darting gaze

  • Ioud and ongoing or persistent vocalizations like screaming or singing

  • Tail flaring

  • Big movements like bobbing the entire body up and down

  • Fully extending the wings and/or flapping

  • Blushing

  • Fast, jerky movements

  • Head bobbing

  • Regurgitation

  • Copulation or masturbation

  • Biting, charging or intense chewing


You might hear parrot trainers talking about avoiding high levels of arousal, especially during training or when interacting with a bird. This might seem like odd advice - why would we want to avoid parrots being excited in a pleasant way?

We know from experience that seeing behaviors that are indicative of a high level of arousal are correlated with the chance that we will see very intense and often sudden behavior. The tricky thing is that excitement is easy to spot in parrots, but determining the "type" of that arousal (valence) is very often far from straight forward.

A common mistake is that we confuse arousal for valence, or we group them together; "calm and content", "happy and excited." Signs of arousal that a parrot might exhibit in a situation we interpret as pleasant might be indicative of a very different valence in another situation. Singing or very persistent vocalizations, especially in some species, is one example. As a vet tech I have met a lot of amazons that sing their hearts out when arriving to the clinic. Many people interpret this as the bird being happy, but that is not necessarily the case at all. Singing or loud vocalizations in parrots is a behavior we can observe in a myriad of different situations, depending on the species. It is often a sign of arousal, not a pleasant valence, and a lot of these birds that sing in a clinic setting are simultaneously showing behavioral signs of distress. This is something we will be exploring more in the following parts. 

There are multiple accounts of people playing with their parrot when it suddenly starts regurgitating and tries to copulate with their hand, and even more accounts of people engaging in what appears to be play with a parrot when the bird suddenly bites them. In other words, it seems like parrots (and many other animals) quickly "flip" from exhibiting some signs of excitement to others.

With that in mind, the reason for avoiding a high level of arousal in interactions with parrots is (at least) two-fold:

  1.  It is sometimes difficult to accurately tell if excitement is indicative of the parrot having a pleasant or unpleasant experience; if it is stress or eustress.

  2. It increases the likelyhod of unwanted behaviors like biting and sexual behavior that can have negative effects for both people and parrots

More on this in part 3. 


APA dictionary, Arousal: https://dictionary.apa.org/arousal