Angry Bird Behavior

Two swans fighting in the water.

Life is a Wonder / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Birds may not show emotions exactly the way that humans do, but angry bird behavior is easily recognizable and can be useful for a birder to understand. This can help know when a bird is upset or agitated.

Why Birds Get Angry

Birds get angry for many reasons, all of which are linked to their survival. The degree of anger and what makes birds upset can vary by season and by what local resources the bird has available, but the most common reasons for angry birds include the following:

  • Territory Invasion: Birds have different needs for territory and individual space, but when they feel their space invaded or disrupted, they can become very angry. Birds may be territorial about a particular feeding area, nesting location, or other types of personal habitat, and they will express anger to protect it and keep other birds or animals away.
  • Mating Competition: The mating urge can heighten emotions in many species, including birds. Males especially can be much more subject to showing anger during the breeding season when they are seeking a mate. An angry male bird may take his anger out on competing males, but not usually on the females he hopes to impress.
  • Predators: The approach of a predator into a bird's territory, whether it is near a nest, a favorite feeding space, or just near the bird in any area can trigger an angry reaction. Becoming angry at a predator's intrusion can help the bird chase the predator away, whether it is a bird of prey, mammal, reptile, or even a human.

Angriest Birds

Any bird species can show anger, but some birds have more volatile personalities than others. The birds that typically show the hottest tempers and lowest tolerance for disruptions include:

Just like with humans, different individual birds can have different tolerances for anger and other emotions, and one bird may be far more easygoing than another under the same circumstances.

How Birds Show Anger

When birds do get angry, they can show anger in several ways.

  • Color: An angry bird may flash prominent color patches to warn intruders that it is irritated. This may involve flashing the wings, crest, tail, or crown to show off a bright, noticeable patch of red, yellow, orange, or white color. Many times, this type of threat display is enough to ward off an intruder without any further confrontation.
  • Posture: A bird's posture can also indicate its emotion, just as posture can show emotion with many animals. An angry bird may stretch up tall or crouch into an attack position, or it may sharply flick its tail or spread its wings to make itself appear larger and more threatening.
  • Sound: Many birds have alarm calls and other sounds such as bill clacks or hisses that can indicate agitation and anger. These calls are often a higher pitch or sharper notes and faster tempo than other, less urgent calls and songs, and may be repeated in a rapid pattern until the disturbance ends.
  • Motion: Some birds use deliberate motions to indicate displeasure, such as slowly weaving back and forth while maintaining eye contact with the intruder. This motion is often combined with other posture signs, such as fluffing feathers or slightly spreading wings, to create an even more aggressive or threatening display.
  • Attacks: The angriest bird will instigate an attack against any intruders it perceives, though this action is usually after other anger displays have not had the desired effect. Lunging at the intruder, fighting with wings and bill pecks, chasing after it in flight, and dive-bombing are all attack behaviors angry birds will use. In flocks, angry birds may even mob intruders all at once.

Depending on the bird species and how effective each behavior is against the perceived threat, birds may use more than one angry behavior at a time to try to discourage intruders.

Dealing With an Angry Bird

Birders who notice a bird's angry behavior can use those clues to learn more about what is going on. Birds that are mobbing one specific location, for example, may have spotted a predator such as a feral cat, perched hawk, or roosting owl. A defensive, angry bird on a bird feeder might indicate low seed supplies, or an individual upset bird might be a clue to a nearby nest it feels is threatened. Fighting birds can indicate territorial disputes or mating confrontations, especially during the spring mating season.

When you see an angry bird, taking steps to reduce the bird's agitation can benefit all birds in the area. Chasing away a predator or refilling extra bird feeders can be helpful, but birders should also be aware that it may be their presence that is irritating the bird. If the bird continues to be agitated, it may not take care of its chicks, forage for food, preen, or engage in other behaviors necessary for its survival. If that is the case, the best response is to back away carefully and slowly, leaving the bird in peace.