Birds at play
recent discussion on the Internet revolved around the question of
birds playing, activities which appear to us humans to have no obvious
purpose other than the supposed amusement of the bird or birds involved.
As well as discussing examples of play, there was some disagreement
as to whether such a behaviour as play actually exists, or whether
each example given could not be explained in terms of having a purpose
to the advantage of the bird.
in birds is not as common as in some mammals. For example, everyone
is familiar with kittens playing together, or has seen film of fox
or wolf cubs wrestling and fighting at the mouth of the den. Most
people laugh at such antics, but more sober-minded scientists explain
that it is all to do with learning and practising the skills which
later will be important in hunting and in fighting for real, perhaps
to gain a mate or maintain a position in a pack. The equivalent
behaviours in young birds include what can only be described as
mock-fighting, giving chase and being chased in turn, and going
through at least the rudiments of sexual behaviour, with one youngster
climbing on the back of another.
play extensively with objects and this, too, has been seen in several
different kinds of birds. Gulls and frigatebirds have been seen
picking up a leaf or twig, lifting it into the air, dropping it,
swooping down and catching it and doing this several times. And
birds of prey do the same with dead food items, occasionally carrying
on for as long as an hour. There seems little point to it, though
being able to catch objects in bill or claws is undoubtedly a skill
used in earnest, too.
to play most among birds, though whether this is a sign of their
greater intelligence, or whether we think they are intelligent because
they play, is a moot point. Ravens (ilustrated),
Carrion Crows and Rooks have all been seen to land on electricity
cables and then fall forwards or backwards still gripping the cable,
so that they are hanging upside down with their wings outspread.
And Ravens have been observed sliding down a snowy slope on their
backs. Suggestions that these behaviours are important in some way
to the birds are very hard to sustain.
to play, too. I have many times observed families of Mute Swan cygnets
and Canada Goose goslings suddenly start dashing hither and thither
over the water, splashing with feet and wings, often diving or at
least semi-submerging at the end of each dash. Well, one can hazard
a guess that the birds are practising escape behaviour, getting
away quickly from a predator, or perhaps helping the process of
moulting from down to feathers, which may, for all we know, be quite
itchy which splashing around in the water alleviates. But I don't
know how to explain the Adelie Penguins which were seen riding in
groups on small ice floes in a tide race, diving off after some
distance and swimming back upstream to clamber on another floe and
do it all over again, several times.
Ogilvie is a natural history writer and editor, formerly a research
scientist with the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, and resident
on the island of Islay since 1986. Until 1997, a member of the
'British Birds' editorial board and also one of the editorial
team which produced 'Birds of the Western Palearctic'.