"I'm Watching 5 Crows Zooming Here and There, Do They Play?"

Research shows crows and many other birds play just as do many other animals.

Posted Mar 04, 2019

The science of play and fun in birds

"Birds engage in three types of play. First, locomotor play, which includes all types of flight-related play such as aerial acrobatics, hanging and flying upside down...Ravens and raptors are the most frequent performers of locomotor play, displaying all sorts of acrobatic acts whilst flying." (Nathan Emery and Nicola Clayton)

Early this morning I received an email from John who lives north of me in Boulder (Colorado) in which he wrote, "I'm watching 5 crows zooming here and there, do they really play?" I looked out of my north-facing office window and I'm sure I saw the same birds, flying in circles, chasing and dive-bombing one another, and going off on their own, engaged in frenetic zoomies, just like dogs and other animals. (See "It's OK For Dogs to Engage in Zoomies and Enjoy FRAPs."

OpenClipart-Vectors / 27429, Pixabay free download
Clipart of a flock of crows.
Source: OpenClipart-Vectors / 27429, Pixabay free download

Over the years I've had many other people tell me about watching crow, ravens, magpies, and other birds playing with one another or playing on their own. I've also seen bald eagles playing with one another and on their own. When I lived in the mountains outside of Boulder, I used to see crows, ravens, and magpies play for long periods of time, and on a few occasions, I had the feeling a familiar, resident magpie, was asking my dogs to play.

John's asking if birds really play can be answered, "Yes, they do." And, it's also possible they're also having fun as they play. Drs. Judy Diamond and Alan Bond note, "Unambiguous accounts of social play have been recorded from thirteen species of parrots, seven species of corvids, and several hornbills and Eurasian babblers...The adaptive significance of social play in birds thus offers intriguing parallels to similar analyses in mammals." (Also see "Avian Play: Comparative Evolutionary and Developmental Trends.")

In an essay available online for free called "Do birds have the capacity for fun?" researchers and crow experts Drs. Nathan Emery and Nicola Clayton take a cautious view in trying to answer this question, but they don't rule it out. They provide a number of examples of birds playing and write, "Within birds, of 27 orders, play has been reported in 13, two of them precocial and ten altricial (one could not be attributed). Play thus seems to be relatively uncommon in birds, seen in only 1% of the approximately 10,000 species and largely restricted to species with an extended developmental period, such as crows and parrots. In these two groups of birds, which have the most documented cases of play, play is typically similar to what has been observed in primates and carnivores, the two mammalian groups with the highest incidences of play: examples included elaborate acrobatics, manipulating objects and different types of social play, including play fighting. As in mammals, play in crows and parrots also involves specialised play signals that may differentiate play behaviours from their ‘real’ counterparts."

The neurobiology of fun

Drs. Emery and Clayton also write, "Studies on the neurobiology of play in mammals, such as rats, have recorded neural activity, sampled neurotransmitters or mapped early gene activation in brain regions said to be involved in play. Although such studies have yet to be performed in birds, similar brain regions are found in the avian brain, with neurotransmitters, such as dopamine, that are essential for reward and endogenous opiates, such as enkephalins, which are essential for experiencing pleasure, flooding equivalent areas in the avian brain." They also note, "As in most animals, dopamine appears to play an essential role in reward in birds and is found in analogous brain regions, suggesting that dopamine also controls the search for reward-inducing stimuli in birds...With respect to our argument that birds have brains capable of experiencing pleasure (and so having fun), it is noteworthy that receptors for both dopamine and opiates are found in overlapping brain regions in those areas equivalent to hedonic brain regions in rodents and primates." So, neurobiologically, it's possible birds really are having fun while they play. 

Why birds play

"The adaptive significance of social play in birds thus offers intriguing parallels to similar analyses in mammals." (Judy Diamond and Alan Bond)

Drs. Diamond and Bond are correct. There isn't a single reason why other animals play. Various theories have been offered about why animals play—why it has evolved—and there's no one explanation that fits all examples of animal play. Comparative data show that play is important in social development, physical development, and cognitive development, and also may be training for the unexpected. Based on an extensive review of available literature, my colleagues Marek Špinka, Ruth Newberry, and I proposed that play functions to increase the versatility of movements and the ability to recover from sudden shocks such as the loss of balance and falling over, and to enhance the ability of animals to cope emotionally with unexpected stressful situations. To obtain this "training for the unexpected," we suggested that animals actively seek and create unexpected situations in play and actively put themselves into disadvantageous positions and situations. There's no reason to think that mammals are the only group of animals to do so. And, there's no reason to think that birds who play are doing it for no reason. 

Animals may also play because it's fun—for the hell of it, because it feels good—during which time they're also benefiting from engaging in the activity itself. (See "Goofing Off: Psychological & Physical Benefits of Having Fun.") If you want animals, human and nonhuman, to do something, make it enjoyable and fun. Playing for fun has psychological and physical benefits. It can relieve stress and also provide exercise in stress-free situations. There are many good reasons why goofing around has evolved, and why all animals should do it when they can. Why not have fun while you can? 

Stay tuned for further discussions about the science and evolution of play in birds and other species. There's still much to learn from comparative research. And, while you're watching birds and other animals playing, it's okay to imagine that they're getting various benefits from doing it and they're also having fun. 

References

Jonathan Balcombe. Animal Pleasure and its Moral Significance. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 118, 208-216, 2009. 

Gordon M. Burghardt. The Genesis of Animal Play: Testing the Limits. MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2005. 

Judy Diamond and Alan B. Bond. A Comparative Analysis of Social Play in BirdsBehaviour 140, 1091-1115, 2003.

Joseph C. Ortega and Marc Bekoff. Avian Play: Comparative Evolutionary and Developmental TrendsThe Auk, 104(2), 338-341, 1987.