Birds at Play

Juvenile Gull

Nottsexminer/Flickr/CC by 2.0

All birders have seen unique behaviors from backyard birds as well as birds in the field, from crazy chases to tossing objects into the air to teasing other birds or animals, but are these birds playing or do their behaviors have another purpose? Understanding bird play gives all bird lovers new insights into birds and how they act.

Birds That Play

Many birds engage in playful behaviors, and more intelligent bird species need greater amounts of the mental stimulation that comes from play as they develop. Bird species that can seem especially playful include:

  • Jays, crows, rooks, ravens, magpies, and other corvids
  • Parrots, parakeets, macaws, and keas
  • Tits, chickadees, nuthatches, and small finches
  • Gulls, terns, and related species

Many social and adaptable birds also play, as do young birds of nearly all species as they socialize with their siblings in the nest. The extent of play and how much play each bird species carries into maturity varies, and different birds engage in different types of play to help them develop a range of skills.

Types of Bird Play

There are many different behaviors birds engage in that could appear to be play. While these activities may not be play in the pure enjoyment, entertainment sense of the word, the most common playful actions birds take include:

  • Manipulation: using the bill or talons to drop, toss, bend, tear, rip, or otherwise manipulate objects, even objects without any food value or threat risk
  • Investigation: seeking out unique objects or trying a wide range of different foods, continually noting new objects and poking or prodding them
  • Chasing: following one another in short or acrobatic flights, or chasing other objects such as insects or fluttering leaves
  • Taunting: teasing or deliberately harassing one another or other creatures, such as teasing a domestic cat or instigating fights
  • Balancing: swinging, swaying, or dangling on wires or weak branches, possibly releasing and reattempting different acrobatic actions
  • Curiosity: responding to pishing or other unique noises, such as being attracted by ringtones, mechanical noises, or music
  • Mimicry: imitating an adult's behavior, including physical actions such as foraging or preening as well as songs and sounds

Not all playful birds will engage in the same behaviors, but they often try different actions and activities as they are learning new skills and refining their abilities. Play may be only between birds of the same species, while some types of play, particularly chasing or taunting, may be between birds of different species.

The Purpose of Play

All play that wild birds may use helps them develop necessary survival skills. Even adult birds may continue to play and refine their abilities, though not necessarily with the same frequency as juvenile birds play.

  • Manipulation play helps birds get more coordinated to build nests, capture prey, or extract food from different sources. This type of play keeps bills and talons in good condition and builds up the necessary muscle strength and dexterity for intricate actions.
  • Investigation play teaches young birds about the world they inhabit, including edible and inedible foods and what objects are safe to touch. As birds investigate more, they refine their ability to find food and develop their senses.
  • Chasing play strengthens wing muscles and helps young birds develop greater agility in the air, or for terrestrial birds, strengthens their legs and helps them be more agile when running. This also helps carnivorous birds develop sharper hunting skills.
  • Taunting play sharpens a bird's reflexes and increases their agility. It also helps them learn to anticipate prey reactions or how to avoid predators, and will be useful for mobbing behaviors or defending their territory.
  • Balancing play strengthens foot and leg muscles and helps birds learn how to use their wings to counterbalance air currents or disruptions. Balancing can also be useful for different types of foraging or courtship displays.
  • Curiosity play teaches birds more about their world, expanding their knowledge of both threats and benefits and helping them react to the unexpected. Curious birds can be more adaptable and will be more successful when encountering changes in their habitat.
  • Mimicry behavior teaches young birds how to act like adults of their species and learn essential skills such as proper sounds and songs or how to use their unique bills or other physical attributes to the best effect.

While different play behaviors all have a purpose in helping birds survive, some birds do seem to play just for the sheer joy and fun of the activity. As with many types of bird behaviors, the exact purpose of all play is not yet understood, even by dedicated ornithologists, but birders can still enjoy watching the playful behavior of birds. Every time they see their feathered friends engage in another game, they learn just a bit more about birds even as the playing birds are learning more about their world.