Today marks summer’s midpoint, Lughnasa, the magic moment halfway between the solstice and equinox that open and close the bright time of year.
Summer, the season of play. Lincoln Park’s saltwater swimming pool is open, and the bluff above rings with the exultant sounds of “Marco!” “Polo!” and shrieks and splashes of kids emerging from the spiral slide into the deep end. Kids built forts—
—frisbees soar across park lawns, volleyball games sprout on Alki Beach. We play by moving ourselves around in fun ways, by moving things around in playing catch or to build interesting structures, and by horsing around with each other.
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The forest’s birds play too. I’ve watched in various years while a young owl and a young eagle walk the “tightrope” of branches near their nests, flapping their wings or balancing with only their legs. Sure, it’s useful; but why shouldn’t it be fun as well?
Here’s the young Cooper’s Hawk I wrote about a few years ago, playing with a fir cone as it develops its preying skills.
Researchers have found that young birds are more likely to engage in play behavior if they’re more altricial (aren’t fully able to function on their own when hatched) than precocial, and if they tend to have siblings/nestmates. Both of these characteristics mean that they have to find ways to entertain themselves for long developmental periods while they’re waiting for their parents to bring them food. More complex play is associated with larger brain sizes, larger overall size, and longer childhoods (time to sexual maturity). None of these characteristics is always associated with playfulness, but they help.
And it’s not only in summer and not only juvenile birds who play. In winter, crows play with ice.
This summer, I looked more closely at the crows dropping things on the beach near my house. I’ve seen them drop clams to break them open to eat, a well-known behavior. But this time one was dropping a little empty-looking shell, and catching it repeatedly in midair.
Like us, birds play by frolicking; that is, moving around in ways that aren’t part of their normal routine, like the owlet and the eaglet. They play by manipulating objects, like the fir cone and the ice chip.
Birds also engage in social play, interacting with others of their species and beyond. They invite each other to play, they wrestle and play tug of war. A few bird orders include species that engage in many forms of social play; you won’t be surprised that they include the parrot families and perching birds (a huge group that includes crows and other corvids), but also the woodpeckers. I’ve looked hard for examples of birds playing in teams, to no avail—but that’s a topic for another post.
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After reading stories about crows bringing gifts to people who feed them, I thought I might play a bit with our local birds to see what happened. I’d seen crows building a nest near my home and observed the kids learning to navigate our neighborhood natural area, so I knew they’d be hanging around.
One day back in April I put some raw peanuts on the deck rail and waited to see what would happen. And indeed, within about two minutes, one of our local corvids stopped by to check them out—but not a crow.
A Steller’s Jay was first on the scene. He took a peanut, then surprised me by stowing it in his throat (crop) and grabbing another.
We named him Jay-Z. Eventually he learned to hop onto the sill of our Dutch door and take his pick of the peanuts in the bowl on the nearby table.
I’d roll peanuts on the deck floor for him, then after a few weeks I tried tossing them directly to him; he caught them easily in his beak. One day another game occurred to me. Could he catch them in flight? Yes! When I call his name, he watches me closely, I toss the peanut up in an arc, and he nabs it.
Now he starts our mornings by tap-tapping his beak on the deck rail, letting us know he’s ready for a game of catch…our Jay Z rapper.
It’s a game for me, but I have to admit, probably not for him; I have to guess that he’s probably just in it for the peanuts, not the fun. How could I test that? Maybe I can figure out how to try offering him both an easy peanut (rolled to him on the ground) and a “fun” peanut (tossed) and see which he prefers. Got any other ideas to try?
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Watching birds at play, and seeing that adult birds play as well as young ones, got me thinking about how we grownup humans play. I’m not thinking of sports or activities done to stay in physical shape (though both can feel like play to some), but of open-ended activities done for their intrinsic enjoyability rather than to reach a goal. Birdwatching and photography bring me a lot of joy, relaxation, and refreshment—and of course a wonderful sense of connectedness to nature. But somehow I don’t think of these as play; I want to know more about birds and learn how to better portray their beauty and intelligence and fascinating character, so in each case I’m striving to do something “better.” It’s great fun, but not pure creative play.
So how do I play these days? I play with my kittens. I have a lot of fun doing word-play with my partner. I do a bit of occasional physical play when I go to the saltwater pool and pretend I’m a mermaid, or spring backwards up from the pool floor for the pure fun of it. And I want to start playing with art: not with the goal of making gorgeous pictures, but just fooling around with color and pattern.
We contemporary adults (and children too) who are so time-driven and goal-oriented—we need play. Our brains need it, our bodies need it, our hearts need it. Play opens new creativity. And play opens up inner space that invites spirituality, love, and greater depth in our one wild and precious life.
How do you play during these lovely summer days? Do you play games with birds? Do you see them playing, either with each other or on their own? Let me know. And a very happy and playful Lughnasa to you!
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