Regurgitation in Pet Birds

Black-footed albatross regurgitating food
Roberta Olenick/Getty Images

In the human world, vomiting all over your date is not considered a pleasant end to a perfect evening -- but in the avian world, it could mean true love.

Regurgitation, perhaps one of the most perplexing bird behaviors, occurs when a bird throws up small amounts of food with the intention of feeding it to a loved one. Gross? Perhaps, to those who don't understand avian behavior. Normal? Absolutely.

Regurgitation behavior in birds might best be observed in the nest. When a hen is sitting on eggs, the father of her chicks will many times gorge himself, only to return to the nest and purge to feed his mate. When the mother bird is sitting on those eggs, she has to be there to protect her eggs and keep them warm. She occasionally has to get up from that warm spot in the nest and turn the eggs ensuring that the eggs remain uniformly warm and exposed to the warmth of the heat from the featherless brood patch on her chest. She has a big job with an enormous responsibility and she cannot neglect those eggs or she might lose them to a predator. She cannot risk allowing them to get cold or they will not hatch. They need warmth in order to remain viable.


So once again, nature has figured out a way to allow her to remain on her eggs: her mate feeds her. He scours the countryside looking for food and eats enough to take care of himself as well as his mate who is patiently waiting for him in their nest. 

Once the eggs hatch, the resulting baby birds are completely dependent on their parents for food, requiring the adult birds to regurgitate their meals to feed their newborn offspring. It is a very efficient way of delivering food to their young. They needn't carry anything and it has already been warmed up. because it is partially digested, it is a little easier for the babies to absorb the food delivered to them. 

Regurgitation is also a way that birds show each other that they are "interested". This is a natural courting behavior, and it's very common for pet birds to regurgitate on other birds, their favorite people, or even their favorite toys. If your bird regurgitates on you, it's most likely a sign that he or she loves you very, very much -- try equating it to being given a dozen roses or a box of chocolates. It is also thought to be a way of demonstrating his ability to provide for her as well as any potential offspring they might have. 

While regurgitation is a completely normal behavior, it is important to note that your bird may not be truly regurgitating every time it throws up.

True regurgitation is very obviously non-violent; the bird may stretch and pump it's neck a bit in the process, but will be calm and won't show signs of distress. A bird that is vomiting from illness, however, will sometimes quickly flick its head, slinging the partially digested food all over. In fact, some bird owners never become aware that their bird has vomited until they scrub their cages during weekly cleaning, and notice tiny bits of the vomit on the cage bars.

If you notice any sign that makes you think your bird could be vomiting from an illness, it is important to contact an avian vet immediately for an examination. How will you know when a bird is vomiting as opposed to regurgitation? A vomiting bird will spew the contents of his stomach in a very messy and random manner. A bird that is regurgitating food brings it up from her crop and it is far more precise as her job is to get the food to where she wants it to go and in the wild, that would be into the mouths of her babies.

In other words, her aim is better when she is regurgitating.

Regurgitation is a natural expression of affection and interest as well as an ingenious way of feeding baby birds. 

Edited By: Patricia Sund