A New Zealand parrot, the kea, seemingly has a unique call – the call can make other parrots laugh. Researchers are currently trying to theorize if the call, which sounds like human laughter, is an expression of emotion. The kea can be found on New Zealand’s South Island or Te Waipounamu, a mountainous region. Researchers led by Raoul Schwing of the Messerli Research Institute in Austria traveled to Arthur’s Pass National Park.
The kea is a large species of parrot and can be found only New Zealand living in the forested and alpine regions of South Island. The kea’s feathers are olive-green with a swath of orange under the wings with a broad, narrow, and curved upper beak which is usually a gray-brown in color. It is the only alpine parrot and is an omnivore. The kea makes its nest in burrows among the roots of trees. They intelligent and curious, solving logic puzzles and working together towards a common objective. Currently, the kea is vulnerable to extinction.
New Zealand is an island nation located in the southwestern Pacific Ocean. It has two main landmasses, North Island or Te Ika-a-Māui in South Island or Te Waipounamu with about 600 smaller islands. It is 900 miles east of Australia and 600 miles south of New Caledonia, Fiji, and Tonga. It is a remote place and was one of the last places to be settled by humans. Wellington is the capital with Auckland as the most populous with 1,400,000 people.
Schwing and his team of researchers played recordings of bird calls near wild kea, including “kea play calls, other kea calls, and a call of the South Island robin,” according to National Geographic. Then the team watched how the kea reacted to each sound played. When the play calls were broadcasted, the wild keas responded by exhibiting “more and longer play behavior than when they heard the other calls.” Science Recorder reported that this was the first time that laughter was seen in an animal that was not a mammal. Schwing said the wild kea parrot became animated but did not try to join in play “already happening.” What they did, however, was to start playing with another kea next to them, played by themselves, or with an “object.”
The researchers speculate that the call is not an invitation to play but rather makes another kea playful and “affecting their emotions,” National Geographic reported. The kea’s call, the researchers theorized, is the same as infectious laughter in humans. The kea parrots often play, chasing other kea, performing “aerial acrobatics” or even roughhousing with each other. During this wrestling, a kea may invite another to play.
Play in kea is different than other species who engage in play. Other species use game as mating rituals or to strengthen social bonds, the researchers wrote in Current Biology. With kea study of play, hopefully, a great empathy for the bird will increase to save them from extinction.
By Cheryl Werber
Photo by Bernard Spragg. NZ