Cockatiels are incredibly expressive and popular companion birds. Because cockatiels are so vocal and expressive, it can take owners some time to match up which sounds and body movements have particular meanings.
In the same way, each cockatiel and the owner will develop their own unique communications system over time. So when your cockatiel bobs its head, it may mean something slightly different than when your friend’s cockatiel bobs its head.
In this article, we offer you general insights about why do cockatiels bob their heads and what the meaning of head bobbing is typically thought to mean.
Why Do Cockatiels Bob Their Heads
Cockatiels bob their heads for different reasons at different life stages. A baby cockatiel bobbing its head is most likely begging to be fed.
An adult cockatiel engaging in head-bobbing behavior is more likely to be seeking a mate, greeting a flock mate or their human carer, or begging for attention or food.
Watch a Baby Cockatiel Head Bobbing
This adorable YouTube video showcases a typical cockatiel head bobbing movement.
Cockatiel Body Language Includes Head Bobbing
As Mickaboo Companion Bird Rescue explains, cockatiels can use many different types of movements to express what they want or need and how they are feeling.
Some movements, like pupil “pinning” (when the pupil dilates and constricts rapidly), are quite subtle.
Other movements, like cockatiel head bobbing, are easier to pick up on.
But whether your cockatiel is flattening or fluffing their feathers or bobbing their head furiously up and down, you can be sure one meaning of head bobbing is to communicate.
Your cockatiel may be trying to communicate with you, especially if they are the “only bird” in your household.
If your cockatiel lives with other birds, head bobbing is also a way that cockatiels communicate with each other.
Is Cockatiel Head Bobbing the Same As Cockatiel Head Shaking
Cockatiel Cottage addresses a common and similar behavior to head-bobbing – head shaking.
As with a cockatiel bobbing their head, experienced owners and breeders have developed theories about why cockatiels do this behavior. But until cockatiels can literally explain it to us in words, the best we can do is guess.
What head shaking in cockatiels might mean
Head shaking is generally thought to represent the following types of communications:
- The cockatiel hears a sound they find either pleasant or unpleasant.
- The cockatiel is shaking off a molting feather.
- The cockatiel is shaking off excess food on its beak.
- The cockatiel is fluffing its feathers.
- The cockatiel is excited.
- The cockatiel is uncomfortable (perhaps in the ears or eyes).
- The cockatiel may have respiratory or sinus issues.
- The cockatiel is warning you (or a competitor animal or cockatiel) away.
- The cockatiel is trying to get your attention (because head shaking has worked to do this in the past).
As you can see, there may be some overlap between head shaking and head bobbing.
But these are two distinctly different movements and chances are good your intelligent bird picks one or the other deliberately to communicate certain messages.
Speaking of cockatiel bobbing their heads, what does this behavior mean?
Common General Meanings for Cockatiels Bobbing Their Heads
There are several possible explanations for why a cockatiel might bob its head up and down repeatedly.
We will discuss the most common reasons experienced cockatiel owners cite in this section.
Cockatiel is head-bobbing due to begging
Cockatiel head bobbing is one of the most common and earliest movements cockatiel breeders often see in baby cockatiels.
In baby birds, the head bobbing behavior is typically accompanied by an arched back and lifted and fluttering wings.
The baby cockatiel uses this display to let the parent birds know they are hungry. Cockatiel parents feed their babies by regurgitating food from their own crops (a kind of storage pouch not unlike a stomach) into each baby bird’s crop.
Even after baby cockatiels have been weaned and are eating adult food on their own, they may continue the head bobbing begging behavior in hopes their parents will give them a handout.
Cockatiel is head-bobbing due to regurgitation or crop clearing
As The World Parrot Trust explains, head bobbing is often linked to regurgitation in cockatiels.
This is more common in healthy adult cockatiels than in healthy babies, but it can happen at any life stage.
Sometimes a cockatiel may eat too much or the wrong food or a piece of food that is too large or may ingest excess air while feeding and this can cause a health issue called a sour crop.
As Beauty of Birds highlights, the sour crop can lead to a number of movements as the bird tries to dispel gas and ease discomfort.
The sour crop can become extremely serious and even fatal within 24 hours, so if you suspect this is the cause of your cockatiel’s head bobbing, take your bird to the urgent care avian veterinarian clinic right away.
Cockatiel is head-bobbing due to greeting mates or you
Another commonly accepted meaning of cockatiel bobbing their head in to say hello!
Cockatiels that are happy or excited to see a flock member or their human owner may bob their heads. Often this movement is accompanied by a signature chirp or repetitive series of noises.
When the head bobbing is a part of greeting a mate or a beloved human, you may also see raised wings in a heart shape – what keepers often call heart-shaped wings.
Cockatiel courting a mate
As Feisty Feathers cockatiel breeders points out, head bobbing is a well-known behavior that wild cockatiels make when seeking a mate or greeting a mate.
Head bobbing can also be part of the actual mating process. In this case, it is usually the male bird doing the head bobbing.
Cockatiels that do not have another bird to mate with may bond with humans or even with objects such as mirrors and other reflective objects.
These birds may bob their heads at their people or at mirrors or objects, especially during the warm season when long daylight hours can indicate it is time to nest.
Cockatiel is head-bobbing due to excitement or happiness
Many cockatiels will bob their heads along with their favorite music or the sounds of other birds.
Perhaps the most famous music-loving, head bobbing bird, however, is Snowball the Cockatoo. Cockatiels and cockatoos are closely related.
Snowball has been featured in Smithsonian Magazine for all the things scientists are learning from him about how birds relate to music.
Many bird species have been observed to enjoy music, responding to different songs and melodies and rhythms with head bobbing, open wings, heightened crest, and other movements that look similar to “dancing.” Often the birds will sing along as well.
So if you see your cockatiel light up and start head bobbing and moving around and singing or shrieking when you put music on, the most likely explanation is that your bird is “moving to the beat” so to speak.
Health Reasons Why Cockatiels Bob Their Heads
Earlier in this article, we mentioned that cockatiels may bob their heads when they are uncomfortable or in distress.
This is why it is always a good idea to mention the behavior to your avian veterinarian just to be sure your bird is healthy and happy.