Budgie Behaviour

Image by Shiro Yamamoto

Wing Stretching

Like any animal, budgies need a good stretch after a long period of inactivity. It’s a good time to admire the bird’s beautiful wing feathers, as he will stretch his leg and wing on one side, then the other. Both wings are then raised, to finish off the exercise and get the blood flowing to the muscles. This will be done in silence, and should not be confused with the aggressive (and noisy) wing-raising behaviour often seen at a crowded food bowl.

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Head Bobbing

Male budgies enjoy ‘head bobbing’, and watching them in action is very entertaining. The fast and fluid up-and-down motion of the bird’s neck is often accompanied by chattering. If your male bird has a female friend, he will usually demonstrate his ‘rubber’ neck for her benefit – the action is part of his mating display. If allowed to follow its natural progression, a bout of bobbing will escalate into mutual feeding and mating.
Pet budgies, however, are happy to bob their heads at other times too. An outgoing bird (and all budgies have slightly different personalities) will tend to bob more often than a quieter bird. Females occasionally catch the bobbing-bug, but it’s usually males who indulge the habit. They will bob to another male, to you, to a mirror, to a favourite toy, or even to an item of food or a particular section of their cage. Head-bobbing sometimes becomes part of a ritual song and dance. It usually indicates that the budgie is happy and excited.
If you show your appreciation of head-bobbing to a tame bird, he will get into the habit of bobbing to gain your attention. You can never tell exactly what’s passing through a budgie’s mind, but when he’s head-bobbing you can be sure that he’s feeling good.
Baby budgies often head-bob too, to show that they’re hungry. Once weaned and perching with the adult birds, young budgies often cling to their parents in this way for as long as they can, head-bobbing for food. Backed up by the chirrup that means ‘feed me!’, the action usually gets results; but eventually even the most attentive parent will lose interest, and the chicks then have to fight their way to the food trays like everyone else.

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Flapping Wings, Holding onto Perch

First thing in the morning, budgies often flap their wings violently as they perch. Sometimes their feet leave the perch and they perform a noisy hover, warming up their wing muscles and scattering clouds of seed husks and loose feathers. This is nothing to do with display or aggression – they simply need to shake their wings after a long period of rest. They will often accompany the mad flapping with calls and chirrups.
Note: Budgies need to exercise their wings a lot more than this, and if you’re not keeping them in an aviary with space for free flight, you will need to let them fly around in the room outside their cage.
Budgies enjoy gymnastics too, climbing the sides and roof of their cage, and hanging from suspended toys like feathered squirrels.

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Eye pinning

A favourite toy, or an exciting new one, may trigger ‘eye pinning’ (sometimes known as eye flashing). This is when the budgie’s pupils dilate and contract rhythmically as he focuses on the interesting object. Pupils also dilate when a cock bird is about to regurgitate to his mate or best friend.
Another sign of an engaged and curious budgie is when he tilts his head to one side to get a good view of whatever he’s looking at.

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Budgie Scratching

Although the budgie’s beak manages to reach most places in a preening session, or when scratching an itchy patch of skin, he can’t reach his own face, head and neck. Mutual preening helps out here, where a companion bird deals with the parts his companion’s beak can’t manage. Failing that, the budgie will scratch himself with his foot, or on a toy, perch, or the bars of his cage. For some birds this becomes a pleasurable activity, and they will happily massage their heads and faces in this way on a regular basis.

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Chewing Things

Budgies love chewing things – it is a natural behaviour that they will seek to satisfy one way or another, so it’s best to provide them with something to chew on. Balsa wood is ideal, as is a stick or wooden perch (made from a suitable wood – see the Budgie Perches section above). Cuttlefish bone doesn’t count as ‘chewable’, as it crumbles to powder as the bird pecks.

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Yawning

Budgies, like us, yawn when they’re tired. The beak opens wide, the eyes close, and the neck stretches out. Sometimes the bird will do this several times. It’s nothing to worry about, just a precursor to sleeping. You should only be concerned if the budgie’s beak remains open for long periods, or if he shakes his head or makes coughing sounds. This indicates a problem, possibly a blockage of some type, and you should take him to the vet as soon as possible.
Budgie yawns can be just as contagious as human yawns – you might well find yourself joining in, and pondering on this strange cross-species phenomenon.

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Preening

Preening is the budgie’s way of keeping clean and well-groomed. The birds will often do a little grooming of each other, usually in the head and chin areas; but most preening is a solo job. Budgies have a feather-oil gland at the base of their tail, and a preening session consists of taking this oil with the beak and running it down each feather, starting at the point where the feather attaches to the skin. Every feather needs the full treatment, so a preen takes a long time. Budgies often do this together – like most things, they seem to work best when carried out as a flock activity. The preening will usually finish with the bird puffing up like a feather-duster and shaking everything into place with a violent shudder. The tail is then swiftly waggled, to add the finishing touches to the preening session.

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Budgies Interacting With Mirrors

A budgie tends to go through several moods over the course of a day. Sometimes he will want to bicker and shove his companions around a bit. A lone bird has no other outlet for this than his toys, and mirrors tend to get most of the aggressive attention. This is normal – brief disagreements are part of the budgie’s everyday life. But if you feel he is spending an inordinate amount of time attacking his own reflection, you should take it as an enormous hint to get a second bird. His unusually high levels of aggression are probably fuelled by frustration and the need for more socialising.

If the male bird of a mating pair is constantly agitated by the handsome, silent rival in the mirror – i.e. if he’s spending more time fighting the reflection of himself than courting his partner – remove it. Three’s a crowd.

Quite often, lone budgies will bob their heads at their 'friend' in the mirror, sometimes trying to regurgitate food to feed their companion. Whilst this is normal, it is not ideal for a budgie as they often swallow the regurgitated seed and try again and repeat this over and over, unsure why their friend does not accept their gift of food.

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Aggressive Behaviour

A dominant bird, whether cock or hen, will show aggression by squawking and biting. It will often raise its wings as it squawks – the kind of behaviour you encounter daily if you keep lots of budgies in an aviary and watch them taking their very uncivilised, bickering breakfast!

Spotting aggression in a budgie may be tricky for beginners, as the birds are often hyperactive, vocal and socialising physically without being aggressive. Here are some tell-tale signs to look out for:

  • Raised wings – the budgie equivalent of raising your fists.

  • Hissing – the throaty hiss of the budgie says “keep away!”

  • Biting another bird’s feet – this is never done as part of a mutual grooming session, and is always meant aggressively.

  • Picking at another bird’s feathers or head – if done gently, with a happy recipient, this is simply mutual grooming, which is what contented birds do. If the action is violent, you’re witnessing a fight. It will usually fizzle out once the less dominant bird has had enough and retreats.

  • Chasing birds around the cage – if an aggressive bird pursues another individual for any length of time, you might have a problem on your hands. If this happens regularly, one of the two birds will need isolating for a week. Keep a close eye on the birds once they have been reintegrated.

  • Not letting another bird eat or drink – small outbreaks of bad temper around food and water are normal. Providing more than one feeding station – or a sufficiently big one – usually sorts this problem out. If a budgie is going out of his way to keep another bird from feeding for any length of time, you have a similar problem to the chasing issue mentioned above.

  • Targeting a new bird – a restocked flock will need to find its own balance. Keep an eye on behaviour, and only intervene if there is persistent, detrimental bullying. Jealousy may be an issue in a smaller cage set up – your established bird may resent the attention you are giving the newcomer. Keep the older bird happy with finger treats and attention, and his tantrum should subside.

  • Defending a perch or food bowl – this is usually a symptom of overcrowding. Make sure you’ve given your birds enough space and provided plenty of different perches and bowls.

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Biting Your Finger

Your hand may become a target if inserted into an angry budgie’s cage, but a budgie’s beak (unlike larger members of the parrot family) cannot inflict much damage on an adult hand. Children might find it off-putting, however, if their beloved pet launches an attack on their inserted finger. Discourage them from interfering with a grumpy or dominant bird. If he’s been finger-trained, some gentle belly-stroking will often calm the budgie down, or he will hop onto your finger and nibble the spray of millet you’ve very thoughtfully wedged between your forefinger and thumb.

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Standing on Perch Quietly but Not Sleeping

If your budgie is perched quietly (sometimes on one leg), but showing no inclination to sleep, he is probably bored. This is something you will only encounter if you keep a single bird. You should help him out at once, by socialising with him, and/or changing his toys around or maybe rearranging the cage furniture. Budgies require mental stimulation, and a dull cage with no companions is as bad as it gets.
Check for other symptoms if your bird is unusually quiet, as there is always the chance that he is ill.

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Behaviour Changes

Any change in your budgie’s normal behaviour is likely to be the result of hormones in the mating season (as described above). It could, however, indicate a health problem, so study your bird carefully. Changes to watch out for include:

  • Poor appetite. Cause: illness, moulting or stress.

  • Reduced vocalising. Cause: illness, a disturbed night, or moulting.

  • Fluffed-up feathers for a large part of the day. Cause: illness, a disturbed night or low cage temperature.

  • Excessively aggressive. Cause: hormones (mating), moulting, or jealousy (if a new bird has been introduced into the cage).

  • Loose droppings. Cause: illness, poor diet (possibly too much fruit), or hormones (hens often have loose droppings in the mating season).

  • Regurgitated seed. Cause: hormones – the budgie is feeding his mate/mirror/you to show his affection.

  • Squatting on perch with wings out. Hens do this as a mating invitation to cocks.

  • Rubbing rear end on perches or other surfaces. This is a simulated sexual act.