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Does the Bird Brain Have the Capacity for Fun?

cool bird having fun on neurodope.com

Birds’ behaviors do not seem to provide any obvious function apart from enjoyment — they look like they are having fun. Videos of these behaviours received millions of views on YouTube, so we appear to like watching other animals having fun. But is this interpretation of the birds’ actions as having fun pure anthropomorphism or is it possible that an animal can act solely for its own enjoyment as a, shall we say, bird brain?

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.

Second, object play, which can be difficult to differentiate from neophilia — exploration, curiosity and object manipulation — as it can involve the close inspection of objects to learn about their structure, whether they are edible and how they work. Could tool use in captive birds that do not use tools in the wild be considered object play? Such birds have to approach and manipulate objects not usually encountered in their natural environment (or in a different context), investigate then discover their appropriateness as functional objects in a tool-using context. Keas have a strong neophilic response to all objects and are notorious for their encroachment into human settlements in New Zealand, destroying external fixtures on cars, raiding rubbish bins on campsites, and so on. In their wanton destruction, it is difficult not to anthropomorphise that they are having fun in their destructive behaviour.


Finally, social play, which can easily be confused with fighting and courtship, and tends to involve a lot of chasing, tussling and rough and tumble. Social play frequently involves objects, where favoured objects are stolen or fought over. For example, captive rooks will often play tug-of-war with strips of newspaper, even when the birds are standing in thousands of examples of the same material. This strongly suggests that the birds were having fun with little function outside the pleasurable experience the bird brain had intended.

A perennial problem for play research concerns its function. An ultimate, evolutionary explanation for play does not have to supersede a proximate, mechanistic explanation. Birds, like us, may also play because it is fun; it produces a pleasurable experience — releasing endogenous opioids. It does not necessarily have to prepare an animal for later life.

Bird Brain: The sketch shows the distribution of dopamine receptors (green circles) and projections (green arrows), κ opiate receptors (red circles) and μ opiate receptors (blue circles). These receptors are distributed across the reward and pleasure centres of the brain. Most interesting for our present argument is that dopamine and opioid receptors are found within the same brain areas, especially nidopallium, striatum, VTA and various nuclei of the song control system.

Bird Brain: The sketch shows the distribution of dopamine receptors (green circles) and projections (green arrows), κ opiate receptors (red circles) and μ opiate receptors (blue circles). These receptors are distributed across the reward and pleasure centres of the brain. Most interesting for our present argument is that dopamine and opioid receptors are found within the same brain areas, especially nidopallium, striatum, VTA and various nuclei of the song control system.

We may even suggest that adult play should be outside the need to learn about the world, and that sensory experience may be a more parsimonious explanation for why play remains in some adult animals. If we ascribe various functions to play that circumvent enjoyment, then perhaps we need to focus on adult play. Time for play is a rare commodity for adults. Although some adult play may function in affording the practice of certain behaviours, especially subtle social interactions, adult animals cannot afford the luxury of spending time doing something without benefit.

Journal Reference: Current Biology

This excerpt is published courtesy of Current Biology (under Creative Commons-Attribution/No derivatives)