Last week, after our huge snowfall, we decided to put seed out for the birds. We don’t usually, with the number of rodents we already attract by having horses and chickens, and a barn full of hay.
As I sat eating my breakfast, I watched a number of bird species feeding on the seed: Juncos, house finches, white-crowned sparrows, house sparrows, and flickers. Mesmerized by the swirling little bodies jostling for position, I tried to sort out the dominant species. I also noted that the birds appeared to be playing in the snow, or at least enjoying it, not something I expected to see.
As a naturalist and animal lover, I always question my assumptions about animal behavior. It’s so easy to see ourselves in them, and even though we’ve essentially transformed the way we view animals (Descartes called them “beast machines”), I think we humans still have a tendency to anthropomorphize animal behavior to an extreme degree. With the advent of Facebook and YouTube, one can see all sorts of animal species performing amazing feats, playing with one another, and communicating with humans.
We have two cats, a rescue dog, two horses, and four chickens. Do I believe that they are sentient beings? Absolutely. Do I believe that they understand me when I talk to them? Mostly, although, you know, with cats, it’s hard to tell. And play, or enjoyment? Yes, indeed. But I really never thought about birds playing, except for corvids (ravens, crows, jays, and magpies.)
According to biopsychologist Gordon M. Burghardt, “play is repeated, seemingly non-functional behavior differing from more adaptive versions structurally, contextually, or developmentally, and initiated when the animal is in a relaxed, unstimulating, or low stress setting." In other words, animal play is repeated, pleasurable behavior done for its own sake that may be similar to other regular behaviors. (Think dogs and play-fighting.)
By this standard, then, birds do play. Bernd Heinrich, the biologist who famously wrote “The Mind of the Raven,” spent two years watching a flock of 150 redpolls, and posited that their repeated tunneling and digging in snow had to be a manifestation of play, as they achieved no reward (food) for the activity other than a fun social activity. Vladimir Dinets, a biologist at the University of Tennessee has been documenting play by crocodilians, a group that includes crocodiles and alligators, according to an aritcle published in National Geographic. Crocodiles in captivity will toss balls, carry flowers in their mouths, and play piggyback. Imagine.
The why of animal play is still under discussion. I remember learning years ago that what we thought was “play” in young animals (kittens, puppies) was simply “practice” for the adult tasks of hunting and defending territory. But what about adult animals that play? One of my cats, Daphne, who is five, is enamored of pipe cleaners; I weave the ends together to make a bracelet-like toy for her. She carries them all over the house, hiding them under the couch, or flipping them into the air onto the dining room table. While she may be exhibiting her hunting skills, she clearly is playing.
All sorts of theories about animal play have been tested: maybe animals are preparing for adulthood or improving skills or reducing aggression. None of these have been proven to be the reason. However, studies have shown that elephant play benefits their health and mental well-being. Hmmm. Just like us.