Play Behavior in Wild Parrots
I wrote an article a little while ago about play behavior in wild parrots. It focused a lot on the parrots of New Zealand, since the play behavior of three species from there (Kea, Kaka, and Kakapo) has been well studied.
The article has been published in the “Companion Parrot” magazine, which can be downloaded over here:
The issue has a lot of other articles about play in parrots as well. Plus, by signing up, you can get access to various forums and can read a lot of other parrot-related articles.
I’ve also posted the whole article below as well.
Play Behaviour in Wild Parrots
Play is very common in young mammals, but it appears to be much less widespread in birds. This could be for one of two reasons: either young birds simply do not play as often as young mammals, or play in birds is simply an understudied area. Even if it isn’t common, play is definitely not unheard of in birds. For example, young birds of many species, including song sparrows, will spar playfully with each other, and some raptors will fly while holding an object, only to release it and chase and catch it as it falls. And of course, anyone who has interacted with young pet parrots has probably seen birds play.
What is Play?
Relatively few scientific studies have been done on play in birds in comparison to ones done on play in mammals (especially primates). Play is a difficult area to study because clearly defining “play” in a way that differentiates it from other activities is quite challenging, even though most of us probably know it when we see it. Defining it is tricky since there are no actions that birds only reserve for playing. Play in both birds and mammals generally involves actions used in other contexts, such as foraging, courting, fighting or mating. However, in play, the actions do not seem to serve any immediate function, and the actions may be incomplete or exaggerated when compared to their more “serious” counterparts. The motivational basis also appears to be different. Play tends to be self-rewarding, since food or mating opportunities are not obtained directly from play. Animals basically seem to play for fun.
Role-reversal and self-handicapping are two common features of play. Role-reversal occurs when one animal takes on a different social role during the play session. For example, during play, an adult dog may place itself in a submissive posture towards a younger dog. Self-handicapping occurs when one animal does not use all its strength during the play bout. For example, an animal would not bite as hard as it physically could during a play session. Often, an animal must learn how hard it can bite during play. Most puppies learn that they lose play opportunities when they bite too hard. Most young parrots need to be taught this as well.
Play must also be differentiated from vacuum activities and behaviors like pacing. “Vacuum activity” is the name Konrad Lorenz gave to behaviors that appear in animals even though there is no stimulus present that normally induces them. In other words, they appear in a vacuum. Behaviors that an animal has a strong “drive” to display can appear in such a vacuum. For example, chickens normally dust bathe, and may make motions as though they are dust bathing even if there is no dust. The “false” dust bathing is not really play, although it is similar in that it serves no immediate function. Pacing in caged animals is considered a vacuum activity by some. A pacing animal may not be moving around in response to any stimulus or for any obvious reason (such as to find food), but it is clearly not playing.
Even with all of the cautions one must take when evaluating whether a behavior is play or not, it is clear that play does occur in several wild bird species. This play falls into three categories: object play, locomotive play, and social play. Object play occurs when an animal manipulates or tosses an item that has no obvious use to it. Ravens often engage in object play. Young ravens will toss around and manipulate nearly any interesting object they find. Raptor fledglings will also play with objects, such as chunks of moss.
Locomotive play involves a single animal. During this type of play, the animal will hop, swing, summersault, and move in an apparently exuberant fashion, but not necessarily to get anywhere. Some parrots like to sit on swings and flap their wings to make them move and this is an example of locomotory play.
Social play, where birds play interactively with a partner of their own species, is not widely documented in birds, but it has been studied in two species of hornbill, Eurasian babblers, several species of corvid (ravens, crows, magpies, jays, and relatives), and several species of parrot1. Among birds, it appears most important in the species that have very large brains relative to their body sizes. The parrots and corvids certainly fall into this category. Parrots and corvids are the two most playful of bird types in general, and both do play in the wild.
Play in Keas
Social play has been very well-studied in three of New Zealand’s parrot species: the kea (Nestor notabilis), the kaka (Nestor meridionalis), and the kakapo (Strigops habroptilus). Of these three, the kea displays the most variety in types of play observed. The species is quite infamous for its playful nature, curiosity, and propensity to cause troubles for humans.
Keas are rather peculiar animals and in many ways are quite unlike most other parrots. Firstly, most of their plumage is earth-toned, rather than being the more typical brilliant greens, reds, and blues of many other parrots. They are mainly olive green, but do have some scarlet feathers on the underside of the wings and their flight feathers are a striking turquoise-blue. The outer side of the tail is a dark shade of sea-green and has a dark band near the end of it. The underside of the tail, like the underside of the flight feathers, is brown with yellow stripes. The beak also contributes to the birds’ unique appearance: the upper mandible is long, thin and spear-like. They need such a long beak to dig for tubers and roots to eat in the winter. Unlike most other parrots, keas live in alpine regions which are covered in snow during winter. They are also truly omnivorous and will eat other animals.
It’s the kea’s behavior, however, that has really made it quite famous. The complexity of their social behavior rivals that of many primates, and they are insatiably curious, as anyone who has seen them in the wild can attest to. Young keas will investigate any new and interesting thing they see in their environment, from a tasty-looking seed, to a hiker’s backpack, to a skier’s new SUV. Keas can be rather attracted to human settlements, presumably because they provide plenty of interesting things to poke through and potential sources of new food.
Their curiosity gets keas into trouble with humans quite frequently. Leave a backpack outside unattended in kea country and there’s a good chance that a kea will come along, chew it up, and scatter the contents everywhere. Even vehicles are not safe from kea beaks. Keas love to rip the antennae and wind shield wipers off of cars. In one case2 a group of keas tore the rubber around the windows off of a vehicle, which caused the window to cave in. This gave the keas access to the vehicle’s interior. They tore up everything they could and ultimately rendered the vehicle undriveable.
Needless to say, I was relieved that I had gotten extra insurance on my rental car when I saw a juvenile kea loitering around the parking lot of the motel I was staying at on a recent trip to New Zealand. This was at Milford Sound, right at the south end of the South Island. I had found a family of three keas there, which I presumed were a male, female, and their offspring. The juveniles are quite easy to differentiate from the adults, as they have some orange shading around the eyes and on the beak that the adults lack. The adults were busy digging in the dirt for roots to eat, but the juvenile spent much more time exploring the area around a restaurant. He hung around on the roof and manipulated a piece of plastic sheet he dragged out of a pipe. He squealed at his parents in a hunching posture as they foraged. They didn’t mind him at all, until he flashed the red patch under his wings at them. This, apparently, is a threat behavior, and he was charged at by one of his parents for that gesture. The hunching behavior I saw is one displayed primarily by juveniles, and adult keas will generally act much more gently towards a hunching juvenile.
The play repertoire of keas has been very well-studied2, 3. Along with ravens, keas probably have the most diverse play repertoire of all birds. However, unlike in most other birds, play persists in wild keas past the fledgling stage. About 25% of all participants in play sessions among wild keas are subadults or adult females3.
Social play is very common in wild keas. Often, one kea will initiate a play session with another by cocking its head to one side. This gesture would indicate to the other kea that the next actions it takes are in play and are not to be taken as aggression. The “head cock” seems to be similar to the play bow in dogs, where one dog will initiate a play session with another by bowing with its front feet and head lowered.
Two juvenile keas playing can be very rough with each other, and act much like puppies play wrestling with each other. One kea may jump on another and “pin” its partner upside down on the ground. A pair of playing keas may also shove each other around with their feet. Some keas will “dive bomb” another kea in an attempt to knock it over. Playing keas will also lock their bills together. Bites are common in kea play sessions, and keas will even drag each other around on the ground. Sometimes, a kea being bitten in play will squeal or jerk away, but serious injuries are not a component of play in keas.
Young keas also love to play with objects, either alone or with another kea. Tug of war is a common kea game. A lone kea may also pick up non-edible objects like rocks or trash and hold or manipulate them. A kea may also toss an object in the air, and may exuberantly hop or flap as it releases the object. A kea may also toss an object at a play partner and adult keas courting each other may also toss objects to each other.
Finally, keas often hop towards other birds during play. Hopping and jumping are major components of their play repertoire in general. Two keas will often jump and flap next to each other during play. Pet individuals of many other species hop during play as well, especially lories, caiques, and small cockatoos (particularly the bare-eyed variety).
Play in Kakas
The kea’s closest evolutionary relative, the kaka, can also be very playful birds, and their play behaviour has also been examined in detail by biologists3. Kakas occur in forests on both the North and South Islands of New Zealand. They too are large parrots – about 45 cm tall – and look similar to keas but are mainly dark brown. Their beaks are also broader and heavier. A kaka’s chest is dark red, as are the undersides of its wings. I saw several of these handsome birds in the forest surrounding the Mount Bruce Wildlife Centre on the North Island, about a two hour drive north of Wellington. They are very social, noisy, and acrobatic birds. Several birds I saw were quite capable of playing or foraging while hanging upside down in a tree by one foot.
Kakas spend more time up in trees than keas, and do much less of their foraging on the ground. Juvenile kakas do play-wrestle as keas do and will jump on each other, or engage in mutual foot pushing. However, play among juvenile kakas is a bit less rough than play among keas. For instance, kakas do not bite each other during play sessions as often and they never bite their partners hard enough to make them jerk away or squeal. This could be because kakas have bigger, stronger beaks than keas. If a kaka were to put any pressure into a bite it gives a play partner, it could inadvertently cause a painful injury.
Being primarily arboreal, young kakas do spend a lot of time playing in trees. Some of this is solitary locomotor play, as young kakas will flap their wings and swing while hanging upside down by one or both feet from a tree branch. Sometimes, two kakas will hang in a tree next to each other and attempt to push each other out of the tree. The two birds may even fall out of the tree together. Overall, kakas spend much more time playing in trees than keas do. When keas play in trees, they usually spar with their beaks or push each other with their feet.
Kakas also differ from keas in that they do not incorporate objects in play as often as keas do. Young kakas will hang upside down in trees and rip branches or fern fronds off of the tree, or shred other types of vegetation, but that is the extent of their object play. Keas, on the other hand, will play with nearly anything they find in their environment.
Play in Kakapos
The kakapo is a very unusual, unparrot-like parrot. They are quite heavy (4.5 to 9 pounds) and are flightless. A high proportion of New Zealand’s native birds are flightless because there are no native mammals there, aside from two bat species. Since they do not need flight to escape from mammalian predators, many of New Zealand’s species have evolved to become flightless. Unfortunately, when humans introduced cats, stoats and other predators to the country, populations of many flightless birds, including the kakapo, suffered greatly. Many of them have no natural fear of mammals and so they were easy prey for predators. Today, there are only 86 kakapos left, and all have been moved to small, predator-free offshore islands.
Play has been studied in captive kakapos who were being raised at a specialized facility at Nelson, on the South Island4. These kakapos were later released into the wild, so contact with humans was kept to a minimum while they were being hand reared. The behaviors seen in them should be similar to behavior displayed by wild kakapos.
Juvenile kakapos are quite gentle during play. They will use their beaks to nuzzle another bird or grasp its feet, beak, or feathers. However, they do not bite each other during play. Overall, play fighting in kakapos is rather mild. They also do not display the head-cocking behavior seen in keas or kakas.
Young kakapos will hop towards other birds and sometimes will push another bird with their feet. Kakas hop towards other birds with their heads cocked to the side to initiate play sessions, but kakapos do not seem to hop as a way of initiating play. However, excited kakapos will hop and flap their wings. Both keas and kakas will roll onto their backs while waving their feet in the air during social play interactions. Young kakapo will roll onto their backs like that as well, but it is often during solitary play. Young kakapos will also sometimes place their chin over the neck or back of another kakapo. Keas and kakas do not display this “chin over” behavior.
Unlike keas, kakapos do not incorporate objects into play, although some young kakapos will chew branches and will manipulate other objects they find. Kakapos also do not hang in trees as kakas do, because kakapos spend most of their time on the ground. Some will climb trees to find food, but they are primarily ground dwellers.
Why the Differences?
Keas, kakapos, and kakas are all closely related, but display different play behaviors. For example, keas will play with objects, while kakas generally do not. What could account for that difference? In general, object play is found most often in generalist species like keas that do a lot of exploring. Species that can live in a variety of habitats, or can eat a wide variety of foods, are considered generalists. Crows and their relatives also fit this description, and like keas, are among the most behaviorally flexible of all birds. Adult kakas, despite being large-brained, intelligent birds, are more afraid of new objects and situations than keas tend to be. Kaka diets also include a smaller range of items than the typical kea diet. For example, kakas do not eat other birds or mammals like keas do. Perhaps its harsher environment means that the kea must accept a larger variety of food sources than the kaka. In turn, keas have evolved to be bolder and more exploratory to locate a greater variety of foods. Keas also stick around their parents for a longer time than kakas do, perhaps because it takes them longer to learn to find and eat the huge variety of foods they need.
Kakapos display fewer play behaviors than either keas or kakas. This makes sense in light of one of the hypotheses that attempts to explain why play is so common in social mammals. Social mammals likely learn a lot about the “ground rules” of social interactions by playing with their peers. They learn, for example, about how hard of a bite is acceptable. This is likely true for social parrots as well. Kakapos are largely solitary (with the exception of a female with young) and that may explain why their play repertoires are smaller compared to those of keas or kakas.
Of course, anyone who has had a kitten knows that non-social mammals play as well. Kakapos do not play in as many ways as kakas or keas do, but they still do play. Young animals probably develop better muscle coordination through play, and they get to practice hunting or foraging skills.
Another hypothesis attempting to explain why play has evolved in mammals is that it prepares animals to deal with novel situations. Animals have to be flexible during play and often place themselves in situations they normally wouldn’t be in. For example, a bigger, older animal may “self-handicap” when playing with a younger, weaker animal, and most animals alter their behavior during play fights to avoid harming their partner. By practicing putting themselves in different social situations and playing roles they normally wouldn’t, play helps animals learn how to deal with a wide variety of new situations they normally wouldn’t find themselves in.
Avian play is a relatively new area of study for biologists, and as it stands, very little is known about how often birds play in the wild. However, it is clear that many corvids and parrots do play, and a lot is known about play in ravens and the parrots of New Zealand. The kea is a very playful creature, as is its relative, the kaka. The solitary kakapo lacks the intensity and variety of play seen in these two species, but it too does show some play behavior. Play in these species is usually limited to young animals, except for adult female keas. However, many adult pet parrots seem to enjoy play, presumably because they enjoy it and do not have to worry about finding food and caring for their young. They can afford to spend time on other activities. The immediate reason why parrots play is, presumably, because they enjoy it. However, it probably evolved and persists in wild populations because it helps juvenile parrots learn about their environment.
1. Diamond, J., and Bond, A. B. 2003. A comparative analysis of social play in birds. Behaviour 140: 1091-1115.
2. Diamond, J., and Bond, A. B. 1999. Kea, Bird of Paradox: The Evolution and Behavior of a New Zealand Parrot. University of California Press, Berkeley, California.
3. Diamond, J., and Bond, A. B. 2004. Social play in kaka (Nestor meridionalis) with comparisons to kea (Nestor notabilis). Behaviour 141: 777-778.
4. Diamond, J., Eason, D., Reid, C., and Bond, A. 2006. Social play in kakapo (Strigops habroptilus) with comparisons to kea (Nestor notabilis) and kaka (Nestor meridionalis). Behaviour 143: 1397-1423.