Polly wants a giggle: New Zealand parrot shows infectious ‘laughter’

21 Mar 2017

New Zealand kea. Image: Shaun Jeffers/Shutterstock

Contagion is rarely something to be celebrated. But when it’s laughter? When it’s parrots? Well, that’s just adorable.

A new study into the kea parrot native to New Zealand, currently facing extinction, has found that it likes to ‘laugh’ and play, which makes other kea ‘laugh’ and play. A never-ending circle of adorableness.

Essentially, keas have a call they use for each other and it appears to solely encourage playing, with the ‘emotionally contagious’ communication something not all that common in the animal kingdom – chimpanzees and rats show similar behaviour.

Raoul Schwing of the Messerli Research Institute in Austria was part of a team that recorded this particular kea call and ran a series of clever tests.

They played the particular call (as well as an unrelated robin call) back to keas in various groups, or on their own, and observed pretty similar behaviour across the board.

While there was no response to the robin call, the kea call seemed to be something along the lines of ‘let’s party’, with the birds getting playful immediately.

Two kea playing together. Image: Raoul Schwing

Two kea playing together. Image: Raoul Schwing

Where birds were already playing when the call was played, the non-playing birds didn’t join in but, rather, started playing with other non-playing birds. Even more curiously, those who heard the call when on their own started playing with objects lying around, or performed “aerial acrobatics”.

“These instances suggest that kea weren’t ‘invited’ to play, but this specific call induced playfulness, supporting the hypothesis that play vocalisations can act as a positive emotional contagion,” reads the report.

The researchers are comparing the findings to behaviour normal in humans, where one playful person can, through his or her behaviour, bring others into a playful mood almost immediately.

A juvenile kea playing in the air. Image: Raoul Schwing

This image shows a juvenile kea playing by itself, in the air. Image: Raoul Schwing

“We were able to use a playback of these calls to show that it animates kea that were not playing to do so,” said Raoul Schwing.

“The fact that at least some of these birds started playing spontaneously when no other birds had been playing suggests that, similar to human laughter, it had an emotional effect on the birds that heard it, putting them in a playful state.”

The New Zealand kea is found in the South Island’s alpine environments, representing the only mountain dwelling birds on the planet. It’s thought the total population could be as low as 1,500, and they are therefore a protected species.

Known as one of the most intelligent birds on Earth, they’re under threat from the likes of stoats, which can stroll into their cave nests and just eat them.

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic