Kea infectious laughter – In the News

Cheeky behaviour in kea is par for the course, but new research has found that a specific squawk puts kea in a playful mood.

Two juvenile kea tussle playing on the ground. Raoul Schwing.

The study, published today in Current Biology, found a certain ‘play call’ spurred other kea to engage in playful behaviour, even if no other birds had been playing. The researchers suggest the call acts in a similar way to human laughter, having an emotional effect rather than specifically inviting play.

Raoul Schwing from the Messerli Research Institute in Austria studied kea for his PhD, based at the time at the University of Auckland. After analysing the kea’s full vocal repertoire, Schwing and colleagues noticed the play call was linked to playful behaviour.

So they isolated the call, played it to groups of wild kea and found it spurred birds to play more and play longer in comparison to other sounds. Many birds did not join in play that was already underway, but rather started playing with other birds, or – if solo – with an object or by performing aerial acrobatics. That suggested the call wasn’t an invitation to play but rather spurred the play behaviour.

The research was covered in local and international media:

The Press: Kea are smarter and more playful than previously thought, research shows
TVNZ: Cheeky native New Zealand parrot the kea’s laugh is infectious – scientists
Gisborne Herald: How kea make each other laugh
National Geographic: These Parrots Can Make Other Parrots ‘Laugh’—a First
The Australian: Laughing kea’s infectious call for fellow parrots to come play
The Atlantic: The Parrot With a Call as Infectious as Laughter