Avian Einsteins

The uncanny intelligence and emotion of smart birds—and how they're like humans

Crow Playmates

Crow play is essential for lifetime skills and the birds have fun doing it

By the time he was six weeks old, my young raven Macaw was already showing an inclination to play. With little hesitation, he would get a firm hold on one end any small stick I might offer him. If I pulled a bit, it wasn’t too long before a tug of war ensued between us. Several months later, when his powers of flight were full, Macaw would initiate a game of chase with our dog by tugging on his tail.

In our studies of these species, we found that both individual and groups of corvids have serious play sessions. An easy-going wrestling session was recently recorded between a crow and a cat, and still another of this species was fond of dragging a string before a small feline to tempt it into a game of chase. A single raven, captive in a Copenhagen zoo, entertained itself by rolling over on its back and tossing a ball between beak and feet.

This past winter, many thousands of online viewers watched a short video of a hooded crow in Russia that jumped onto the inside face of a large jar lid to sled down a long stretch of an icy roof. The bird repeated this activity several times, suggesting that it was doing this for sheer enjoyment. Ravens, lacking a sled, repeatedly slide on their bellies or backs over snow-covered slopes. Other ravens have been observed wind surfing by gripping shards of bark in their feet and maneuvering up and down in the midst of powerful updrafts.

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Play is as essential to the development of corvids as it is to us. Usually it is a non-threatening activity that helps the young birds hone their physical strength and coordination. It also assists them in establishing social contact with others of their kind and begins their introduction into their social hierarchy. The birds are testing early on which ones are dominant and which are less so.

It seems that the inclination to play and the desire to continue to do so is chemically driven in ways that are, again, similar to what compels humans to enjoy play – it feels good to do so. This activity causes the hypothalamus of their mid-brains to release morphine-like substances (endorphins), which produce a feeling of euphoria. It’s reasonable to believe that the birds are motivated to sustain this feeling of well-being. The fun of it all is sought over and over again. Like us, with each repeat of the activity, the individual may be adding to a number of its life-sustaining skills. 

Tony Angell

Tony Angell, author and artist, has written and illustrated more than a dozen books and numerous articles and essays related to natural history. more...

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