Monday, June 16, 2008

Play date

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


Margaret said...

This is one of the funniest things you've ever written, and you've written some exceedingly funny things:

"Vultures like to socialize, but they don't do anything except sit around like a clutch of stoned teenagers, looking morose."

Exactly. Just... exactly.

Perfumeshrine said...

Ha! Of course they're not always engaged in deep meaningful survival rituals.

Most interesting boredom play I have ever observed were a couple of crows playing with a lying cat's tail: the cat was sunning itself on a verandah (was a summer afternoon), the crows had landed on the rails, they approached and then slowly one by one went over and pinched the cat's tail who was too bored to really bother getting up! LOL

The photo of the woodpecker family is precious :)

Bozo said...

"Stoned teenagers." I love it.

BitterGrace said...

I've always wanted to write that about vultures. It's the image that comes to mind every time I see a gang of them hanging out on the railroad track near my house.

I would love to have seen those crows, E. Isn't it amazing to see birds mess with a cat? The mockingbirds here will sometimes dive at cats and snatch at their heads. So brave, and yet so silly!