Monday, June 16, 2008
As I was finishing up my walk this morning I heard a lot of pileated woodpecker laughter, much longer and louder than the usual brief outburst. Just one bird was making all the noise, but as I got closer I realized there were two adults chasing each other from tree to tree. One bird would fly to a tree and cling to the far side, then the other would follow and they'd play peek-a-boo around the trunk. Pileateds have this cool way of hopping down the side of a tree, almost like rappelling, and they both kept doing that to stay out of the other's sight. Circling a tree like this is actually one of the ways that woodpeckers fight over territory, but when it's a serious battle there's usually a lot of pecking, wing-flapping and rushing at each other. These guys weren't doing any of that. I really think they were just amusing themselves, like little boys play-fighting. They were still engrossed in their game when I moved on--in fact, they had displaced a squirrel from his perch and I could have sworn they were trying to get him to play. I don't think he was into it.
It's strange how some birds seem to put a lot of energy into play, and some don't play at all. I've seen crows, woodpeckers and blue jays all engage in social games that don't appear to have anything to do with romance or serious territorial disputes. Crows will get in little groups of 4 or 5 and just act stupid, hopping around and poking at each other. Doves, cardinals, finches and sparrows all have various flock and courtship behaviors, but I never see them busy themselves with anything that looks like pointless play. Raptors don't really seem to have any interest in social games, either. Vultures like to socialize, but they don't do anything except sit around like a clutch of stoned teenagers, looking morose.
I think there's a tendency to assume that wild animals are engaged in some meaningful survival behavior every waking moment, but of course they aren't. I think they get bored and and look for idiotic ways to entertain themselves, just as we do. In fact, I'd say they face a much bigger challenge in this regard, since there's no corporate Big Daddy to tell them how to waste their time and energy. They have to figure it out for themselves. Here's a pileated who's decided to kill a few minutes going ape shit on a potted plant:
Photo of woodpecker family by Juan A. Pons, from the fabulous woodpecker page at nashvillezoo.org