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Where the Wild Things Play

New Zealand keas, which are large parrots, seem to play just to irritate humans. Keas are native to the high mountains and spend their days making snowballs and doing aerial acrobatics for no reason scientists can discern. But it’s when humans arrive that the real fun starts. Keas have been known to rip apart boots, tents and even car parts while campers sleep. I’ve seen them drop branches and rocks on tourists’ vehicles just to watch them thump or break a windshield.

“They’re thinking in very sophisticated ways,” said Alex Taylor, Ph.D., an associate psychology professor at Auckland University, who studies kea play. “All this destructive behavior and cheekiness is coming from a place of intelligence.”

Dr. Taylor studies kea intelligence and stressed that they are not malicious, though it’s not clear why keas play so much while other clever birds, like crows, do not. He said it’s too early to theorize but pointed out that keas do have an unusual social hierarchy. Unlike most animals, which become dominant as they age, keas are most dominant as juveniles. Perhaps kea society is just what happens when you put children in charge.

But the greatest lessons for human play in the animal kingdom come from the complex social dynamics of mammals, such as dogs, in which play is more than just learning to pounce on a mouse or trash a car. Coyote play, for example, can be a matter of life and death.

Marc Bekoff, Ph.D., a professor emeritus at the University of Colorado, Boulder, has spent decades watching various animal play, but his favorites are canines. After hundreds of hours watching wild juvenile coyotes, he’s noticed all sorts of fundamental rules around fun.

For instance, play has to be fair. If you tackle another coyote, you have to let it tackle you back, even if you are dominant. Those that play fair, who can discern the subtle signals of how and when to play, become popular playmates and solidify their place in the pack. Those that get too aggressive don’t.

“If you’re labeled in a coyote pack as an unfair player, you’re a cheater. Other animals either avoid you, or they don’t respond,” Dr. Bekoff said. “The young coyotes who don’t play fair basically leave their group. Not because they’re driven out, they just leave their group because other animals don’t want anything to do with them. And they suffer higher mortality.”

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