what do birds do when they are sad

It’s hard to imagine what a mourning bird would look like. But forced to guess, I would say the footage of two female Emperor Penguins huddled around a lifeless chick in BBC’s series “Penguins-Spy in the Huddle” comes uncomfortably close:

The accompanying narration supports this conclusion: “The mother invested everything in her chick.” the BBC reporter intones. “To lose it is a tragedy.” Even the clip’s producers call this “the most emotional clip we’ve ever filmed.” But does the bird actually feel the same great sadness that the evokes in us? It’s hard to tell—even for scientists.

“I don’t think this is evidence of mourning,” says John Marzluff, a professor of avian social ecology and wildlife science at the University of Washington. “I see a response to a chick that is not responding, so the mother keeps trying the typical things,” such as sliding her chick toward the brood patch—the bare belly skin that transfers a mother’s body heat to her baby—and vocalizing to wake the unresponsive infant.

But Barbara J. King, an anthropologist at the College of William and Mary and author of the 2013 book How Animals Grieve, sees things differently—to her, the mother’s nudging of the tiny body with her bill, the vocalizing, and the camaraderie of her female companion all hint at something akin to grief. But to be scientifically sure, she argues, it would need to last longer. In clear cases of grief, she says, “we should observe prolonged signs of altered behavior in the survivor.” But for Marzluff, proving grief would need to be measured through the vista of a brain scan: If the mother’s hippocampus—the region in bird brains that is comparable to the emotional hub in mammal brains—lights up, “that might indicate grief,” Marzluff says. It’s this kind of deep evidence, he argues, “that we need to make a rock solid interpretation.”

Still, to support her point, King points to Kohl and Harper, two domestic mulard ducks that were brought to a New York-based rescue sanctuary in 2006. Both suffered an awful liver disease that resulted from their rougher days of force-feedings at a foie gras farm. Over the following four years, the ailing duo cultivated a very close relationship. “Ducks are social birds, but even so, the intensity of their bond was unusual,” King wrote in Scientific American in 2013. Eventually, Kohl’s injuries got the best of him and he was euthanized. Harper was by his side. After Kohl passed, King writes, Harper kept pressing up against Kohl’s still body. Eventually he lay down and placed his own head and neck upon Kohl’s, resting in this somber position for some hours. Two months later, Harper passed away as well. When two animals share such closeness, King writes, “grief results from love lost.” Of course, King can’t determine the cause of poor Harper’s death. But it’s worth noting previous accounts of birds dying strangely after the loss of a close comrade: There was the duck that drowned itself after the death of its mate, as well as the young swan that committed the same act this year after discovering an older, lifeless swan—bystanders suspected it may have been the mother—floating in the lake.

Also difficult to ignore are what appear to be roadside funerals held by members of the corvid family. Sometimes, when one crow is struck and killed by a passing car, a fleet of fellow crows (in the realm of a hundred individuals in some cases) descend from the trees and walk circles around the deceased for 15 to 20 minutes. The crow’s close black-and-white relative, the magpie, holds similar services—certain observations even reveal magpies placing clips of grass alongside the departed bird.

Another example—last month Explore.org’s Osprey nest-side camera recorded the loss of two month-old chicks. Moments after the nestlings were filched by a Bald Eagle, the parents were seen perched above their empty nest. The mother seemed to be surveying the land back-and-forth and emitting soft calls, perhaps in a cry out to her missing chicks.

So birds certainly possess the capacity to mourn—they have the same brain areas, hormones, and neurotransmitters as we do, “so they too can feel what we feel,” Marzluff says—but that doesn’t mean we know when it’s happening.

Though tender examples like the Ospreys and Kohl and Harper are quite moving, Audubon’s field editor, Kenn Kaufman, sees them as very soft proof of mourning in birds. He points to cases of flock birds, like Eskimo Curlews, which often lose group members to hunters. Sometimes, the whole flock will circle back to where their fellow bird has fallen. “It would be easy to interpret this as something like grief,” Kaufman says, “but its more likely a result of confusion.”

Kaufman also recalls grisly experiments performed in the 1990s when scientists ousted one half of mated wild bird pairs just to witness the lonely result. The newly single bird often found a second mate quite readily, he says. In one Australian study, “I think the widowed bird had a new mate within half an hour.”

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1. Lack of Attention

Many parrots require a lot of care, particularly the highly gregarious and intelligent species like African grays and cockatoos. They get bored and agitated and may scream, feather pick, or self-mutilate if they don’t get regular attention and stimulation.

Often, environmental changes can upset a bird. Some potential stressors include:

  • A recent move to a new home
  • New people or pets in the house
  • Diet changes
  • Loud noises (such as from construction or thunder)
  • A relocation of the birdcage within the dwelling
  • Repainting your home’s walls a new color

The sight or sound of strange wild animals, like hawks or raccoons, outside a window can also cause stress in indoor birds.

Signs of Stress in Birds

So how can you tell if your bird is unhappy? Here are a few common indicators that your bird is stressed out:

Although many people mistakenly believe that birds biting is an aggressive behavior, it’s actually more often a sign of stress and fear. When frightened, birds will often bite or lunge to defend themselves; they may bite people, other birds, or the cage bars.

A bird that suddenly starts biting frequently should have a thorough veterinary examination to make sure there isn’t an underlying medical issue causing this new behavior, as biting can also be an indication of pain or discomfort.

Normal parrots, depending on their species, make loud noise. However, a sudden increase in screaming, repetitive chirping, alarm calls can be linked to distress, and screeching may indicate that a bird is bored or unhappy.

However, vocalizations can also be a sign of pain or discomfort, just as biting does. A veterinarian should examine any bird that starts screaming out of the blue or exhibits any other abnormalities in its vocalizations to make sure there isn’t a medical reason for this behavior.

While shrieking may be a sign of underlying anxiety or discontent in birds, so too may a decrease in vocalization. When birds suddenly stop talking, it could be a sign of stress, depression, boredom, or illness.

Any bird that suddenly becomes less vocal must be examined right away to rule out any medical reasons for this behavioral change.

Feather picking is a very common outward manifestation of stress and boredom, particularly in larger species such as Eclectus parrots, cockatoos, and African gray parrots. But this is also seen in smaller birds, including Quakers parrots and lovebirds.

A loud noise or construction in the house, a change in routine, boredom, or metabolic stressors (medical or nutritional) can all be initiating factors for some birds to start picking. Even after the condition is treated or the initial stimulus is eliminated, they might still pick.

A complete medical examination, including blood work, should be performed on feather-picking birds in order to rule out other possible causes of illness.

Some anxious birds will eat their skin or even pierce deeper into their muscle and bone, causing serious damage, in addition to picking at their feathers. In addition to needing to be examined right away by a veterinarian, these birds also need to be put on anti-psychotic medication and/or fitted with a recovery cone to keep them from hurting themselves while the vet investigates.

Stress can be shown in certain species, particularly cockatoos, by stereotypical actions like toe tapping, head swinging, and pacing (or any abnormal repetitive behaviors) Birds often engage in these activities to keep themselves active when they’re bored.

Pet parents should be aware of these behaviors even though they might be harmless in certain situations. They can indicate that the bird is unhappy and should be stopped before they engage in more destructive behaviors like feather-picking or self-mutilation.

Extremely stressed or depressed birds may eat less and put on weight. Birds whose appetites change should have a thorough examination by a veterinarian to ensure they aren’t concealing an underlying illness, as a decreased appetite can also be an indication of a medical condition.

1. Get Help From a Vet

It can be difficult to pinpoint the exact cause of a bird’s stress, but working with an avian-savvy veterinarian or bird trainer can provide insight and may help an you get relief for a bird more quickly.


How do you comfort a sad bird?

Give Your Bird Enrichment Birds that are feather picking, screaming, or biting because they are bored or lacking attention should be provided with interactive toys and other stimulation, such as a TV to watch or a radio to listen to. Pet parents should give them extra attention and as much out-of-cage time as possible.

Can birds detect sadness?

Parrots are very sensitive to our emotions, sometimes better than we are. Our birds are keen observers of our facial expressions, body language, tone and even energy levels and therefore we have to be cognizant of how our emotions can impact our birds.