Allowing Birds On Your Shoulder — OK or Not?

September 22, 2008

If you do research on whether you should allow your bird on your shoulder, you’ll find a lot of sites warning that this is a definite no-no. “Shouldering your birds leads them to think they are dominant to you.” “Allowing birds on your shoulder can cause you to lose an eye.” Etc.

African Grey

Gabriel, African Grey. Photo by: halle

While absolute rules are easy to understand and pass along, the question of whether to allow your parrot on your shoulder is not as black-or-white as some other parrot-related advice. The messy truth is that whether your bird can safely be on your shoulder depends entirely on your bird.

Reasons why shouldering your bird could potentially be dangerous:

  • You can’t see your parrot’s body language. While you might know his moods really, well, it’s hard to act appropriately if you can’t see his body language. (Learn to read your bird’s body language, training media by Barbara Heidenreich: Volume 1, Issues 1-4; Volume 2, Issues 1-4)
  • Your bird is very close to your face. Any small aggression on the bird’s part carries with it a small chance of disproportionately serious injury. While the odds may be small, that risk may not be worth taking.

Misconceptions about why you shouldn’t let your bird on your shoulder:

  • Birds who are placed in a higher position than you, think they are dominant to you. Dominance theory is based on observed canine behavior. Parrots in the wild don’t follow a social hierarchy based on dominance. Parrots prefer higher places because that’s where they feel safer, not because they want to assert status.
  • Birds who are on your shoulder will bite you. I don’t think shouldered birds are any more likely to bite; the problem is that you can’t react and effectively avoid the bite if you can’t see the warning signs. (Learn to read your bird’s body language: Volume 1, Issues 1-4; Volume 2, Issues 1-4)

If you have an bitey, unpredictable bird, don’t let him on your shoulder. Not because he might start thinking he’s higher than you in the social pecking order, but because you might get hurt. It’s really just that straight forward.


Cooper, Rainbow Lorikeet. Photo by: nettsu

Here’s a funny irony: I allow Stewie, the more aggressive and bitey of my two birds on my shoulder all the time. He’ll bite me, sometimes pretty hard, if he’s unhappy or he thinks I’m trying to coerce him into doing something he doesn’t want to do (e.g., I’m trying to pick him up to put him back in his cage). But when he’s on my shoulder, he’s a content little conure. If I turn my face, he’ll oh-so-gently and deliberately groom my eyebrows. He’s at his gentlest when he’s preening my face.

On the other hand, I prefer that Mika not be on my shoulder too much. While she’s a sweet and gentle soul, she’s also a little unpredictable and clumsy. She (almost) never bites, but she also doesn’t have separate settings for gentle and aggressive. She only has one setting which falls somewhere in between.

If she’s “biting” me, she beaks me aggressively. When she’s preening me, she preens me aggressively. All contact seems to be at the same level, not quite hard enough to be hard, but not quite gentle enough to be delicate either. She’s also very clumsy – which means that her idea of “preening” my face means falling forward into my face and pinching my eyelids. Yikes!


Boid, Moluccan Cockatoo. Photo by: sparktography

Last, but not least, Mika is a profuse pooper. My god can this girl poop. Stewie tends to poop in certainly places — not necessarily places I want him to poop, mind you, but he does seem to have his own rules about places he finds acceptable. As a consequence, he rarely poops when perched on my shoulder. Mika, on the other hand, poops whenever, wherever and as often is most inconvenient.

Thus, reason #3 not to let your bird on your shoulder: bird crap all over the back of your clothes.


  1. Great site and good advice,make sure you know your bird well. Parrots are great pets and I enjoy learning more about them.

  2. Thanks for the use of the photo in your blog. For the record, the African Grey did no harm to me other than a few scratches. He sensed right away that I’m not much of a ‘bird person’.

  3. I forgot to mention that Gabriel didn’t deposit a load on my back or shoulder either; he saved the gooey mess for his owner Rob’s shoulder.

  4. I let Threio on my shoulder all the time. Loves to preen my beard and nibble on my ear. Gets a little aggressive with my moustache, a few “blows” to the face and a stern No seems to bring order again.

  5. I have a white eye conure and she has never bitten me or became aggressive on my shoulder. I have had her for over 17 years. She is sweet and docile.

  6. This is great advise! I hope you don’t mind but I have copied your link to parrot station Facebook page because what you mentioned about the dominance related issues in regards to them being higher than you seems to be a big thing people still believe. Many thanks for this it really is great!
    Kind regards, Dee.

  7. I have just got a 3 month old pineapple conure and he likes to sit on my shoulder but he bites and sometimes draws blood so i was looking for any ideas on what to do about it,this seems a good website to find help and advice.

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