Parrots have many different kinds of feathers on their bodies, with different functions. Down feathers are the fuzzy, fluffy feathers that you normally don't see much, since they are hidden under the other, pennaceous feathers that cover the body, that can have different colors and structure on different parts parts of the body. The pennaceous feathers can be lowered and raised on most parts of the body thanks to pairs of tiny muscles that are attached to the feather follicle at the base of each feather, just like how your hair might stand on end when you get goose bumps. This is a bit more complicated in birds though, since they can both tighten the feathers; making them lay flat against the body, as well as erect them, making them stand on end, and many stages in between. The flight feathers are large, assymetrical pennaceous feathers on the wings, that enable birds to fly. The tail feathers also have some assymetry to them and are important to help birds steer and regulate their speed, among other things. In many species both wing- and tail feathers are also used for different kinds of signalling or display.
Feather position is a very important part of parrot body language. Parrots alter the position of their feathers for different reasons such as temperature control, for signalling purposes, brooding (sitting on eggs), and it can also give us important information about their reactions to what is going on in their environment.
Loose feathers all around the body that are neither tight nor fluffed is generally a sign of a physically relaxed bird. Note that this is not always the same as a content bird; something we will get back to later. We will often observe this feather position together with a loose posture when they are resting or calmly exploring their surroundings.
This little corella has relaxed feathers all over it's body. They are neither held tight nor are they erect.
Sometimes parrots will tighten their feathers so that they lay very flat against the body. It is especially evident on the head, neck, back and wings, that would usually appear more fluffy when the feathers are relaxed. They can do this when they are very warm or physically tense; for example during play or when they are alerted of something they might perceive as a threat.
This young blue and gold macaw has tight feathers on most parts of it's body, especially on the head, back, chest and wings. This bird was calmly eating treats from a hand during a very hot summer day.
Fluffed up feathers
When a parrot has slightly fluffed up feathers all over the body it can be to stay warm - by fluffing up they trap warm air under the feathers which acts as insulation. They often do this when resting as their body temperature naturally drops, just like we like to get tucked in under a warm cover. This is the same reason feathers lay flat when they are warm - this stops hot air from being trapped under the feathers. A parrot with feathers that stand on end all over the body can be fluffing up as a part of preening. Sometimes birds will perform something called a rouse. This is when they puff upp the feathers all over the body, rustle their feathers and often shake their body, head and tail. Erect feathers can also be a sign of high arousal in some situations, for example in defense displays or during courtship.
This macaw has erect feathers on most of it's body.
Feathers on different parts of the body
Parrots will often loosen and tighten feathers on different parts of their bodies in different combinations. Areas to pay extra attention to include feathers on the back and neck, wings, cheeks, nape, and forehead as well as the tail feathers and crests, on the species that have them. Parrots can raise their equivalent of hackles in situations that involve aggression or high arousal, just like you might see in a dog or many other animals. Parrots can also flare their tailfeathers in certain situations, as well as use their wings for display. We will discuss what different combinations of raised feathers might mean in different scenarios later in this resource.
This amazon parrot is flaring it's tailfeathers, making them appear fan-shaped.
Crests and specialized feathers
Some species have specialized feathers that are used for signaling, like the cockatoos and hawk head parrots. Cockatoos can raise and lower their crest to varying degrees - from slicked tightly against the head, to fully erect. Many species, again especially many cockatoos, also have feathers on their cheeks that can alter the appearance of the head and beack depending on their position.
This galah has fluffy feathers all over the head, an erect crest, as well as fluffed up cheeck feathers that are hiding the lower beak.
This sulphur crested cockatoo has an erect crest. The other feathers on the head are held tight, as well as the cheek feathers. Note how the lower beak is fully visible compared to the galah above.