Budgies are complex creatures, with an emotional life, at least three layers of language, and several more layers of instinct. But if they all felt and acted the same, we’d be able to replicate them as robots and let the breed fly free about their business in the world.
Asking whether budgies like head scratches is almost akin to asking whether humans like bacon. Some do. Some don’t.
Some have to be in a particular mood to get into it. Some like head scratches with an implement, some enjoy head scratches with a finger. Some will even bite you if you try.
Budgies – they’re more than one bird.
There are three things to keep in mind with budgies and head scratches.
The first thing is that individuality marks out the breed as much as their plumage. One budgie is… just one budgie. It’s not indicative of the habits and behaviors of the breed as a whole. So your mileage on budgie head scratches will vary from bird to bird.
The second is that budgies use their heads for all sorts of things, including several elements of the language of posture, and at least a couple in the language of contact.
They bob and bow their head as a gesture of friendliness, they nuzzle their heads against people to indicate affection, and they have a habit of rubbing their head against all sorts of things – notably their perch – when they’re molting, or when they just have a mite or an itch they can’t otherwise scratch.
Solitary budgies in particular are prone to this behavior, because they don’t have a BFF to get to all the awkward places, and they don’t have the length or flexibility of leg to get a claw where a claw needs to go.
So there’s a complex layering of head-rubbing in budgies, but when it comes to a human finger rubbing the top of their head, it seems to be an individual – and circumstantial – thing.
If you have a budgie that’s down with head scratches from an early age, good for you – scratch away if you want to, though always keep two things in mind.
Firstly, start gently, and only go harder if the bird seems to indicate that they’re not getting the scratch they want out of the experience. They’re possibly more delicate creatures than all the noise and fuss they create suggests to the world, and you don’t want to hurt or damage the bird.
And secondly, without trying to creep you out, remember that among the things that cause budgies to have itches are a range of impressively unpleasant-sounding mites, so a) keep that in mind, and b) always wash your hands thoroughly after scratching your budgie – making sure you get under your nails too, just in case.
If you have a bird that shies away from head scratches, and it’s something you especially want to be part of your relationship as pet and owner, there are things you can do to make your budgie more chilled-out with the whole head scratching experience.
Firstly, there’s overall comfort management – give your budgie an environment in which they have as few sources of irritation and stress as possible. The more comfortable they are, the less likely some budgies are to resist or reject a head scratch.
Secondly, try introducing a scratching element to a nightly routine – some owners find their birds are more open to head-scratching when their birds are sleepy, and less relentlessly chirpy than budgies can be when they’re fully awake.
Thirdly, try remote scratching first – some people find their budgies are more comfortable with being scratched with a small stick at first, and once they’re used to that, the shift to a head scratch with a finger is less of a trust issue.
And finally, be patient. Remember what you’re asking of your budgie from its point of view. Sure, some budgies are fine with head scratches from the very beginning, because after all, they can’t see the size of your hand compared to their body when your hand is behind them.
Also, with any luck, despite the relative size difference and the language barrier, they haven’t learned any reason to be frightened of something that looks like a human, so they don’t have any fear of being scratched by one.
It’s entirely possible the budgies who are not fine with head scratches from the very beginning won’t have learned any reason to be nervous of things that look like human beings either, but as we mentioned, all budgies are by no means the same.
They have, in a straightforward, avian way, a level of individual psychology in the same way that every cat and every dog is an individual within a breed.
So while some will take to head scratching like a natural, others will be skittish of the invasion of another creature’s appendages into the territory of their head feathers.
After all, if a seemingly well-meaning creature with a hand the size of your whole body decided it wanted to scratch the back of your head, some humans would be blithe about it, and some might be as skittish as a budgie.
When you graduate to scratching your budgie’s head, start slow, and soft, and for short periods of time. Perhaps start with a stroke, rather than a determined scratch, to establish trust and painlessness.
Once your budgie is familiar with this ritual, you should be able to increase the duration and turn the stroke into a full-on head scratch without too much trouble.
Why do budgies rub their heads on things?
Budgies use their heads for a whole range of activities – as part of the language of posture, to show pleasure and/or affection, and plenty of other things, too. One thing puzzles a lot of budgie owners though – what gives with budgies rubbing their heads on things?
Well, as a thought experiment, imagine for a second you still had legs, but that humanity as a species had never had arms, or hands, or the opposable thumb.
And then you had an itchy head.
How would you scratch it?
Chances are you’d find the nearest thing that didn’t move when you pushed up against it, and you’d rub your head against it until the itch was gone.
It’s more or less the same with budgies – whose ‘arms’ of course are covered in feathers, called wings, and shaped rather more for the impressive defiance of gravity than they are for the workaday scratching of budgie heads.
The rubbing of heads against things gets more frequent when there’s a single budgie in isolation because – to return to our thought experiment – if you had a friend who could reach the itchy places with a beak, you’d get them to do it, wouldn’t you?
It would be the almost literal interpretation of “I scratch your back, you scratch mine.” Where there’s no BFF nearby to lend a beak, you’re going to rub on whatever gets the job done.
The behavior also gets more pronounced when a budgie is molting, because that’s a process that is more or less guaranteed to make the itching and uncomfortable sensation worse.
Rubbing their heads against things is the budgie equivalent of picking a zit – a quick way to get the process over with, so you can get past it and move on with the rest of your life.
So, if your budgie rubs their head against you, you should feel free to interpret it as a signal of their affection for you and contentment with life in general.
If you find them rubbing their head against anything else – especially anything that stays remarkably still when rubbed, like a perch pole – the chances are they’re either molting and wanting it over with as fast as possible – or they may have an itch they have no other means of scratching.
At which point, you may be about to enter the fascinating world of scaly face mites, burrowing mites, and the rich and varied panorama or treatments that can help your budgie out of an itchy nightmare.
But – at least in the first instance – don’t panic. They’re probably just molting, and the rubbing will probably subside when they’re done.