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Birds at play  

Malcolm Ogilvie

A 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.

Playful behaviour 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.

Mammals also 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.

Corvids seem 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.

Waterbirds seem 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.

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Dr 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'.