I’ve known for some time that birds can play. I first read a clear defense of this in Jack Turner’s Abstract Wild, where he describes pelicans riding the thermals of thunderstorms. I think Turner’s work is also where I read about gulls that drop into the jet of air coming out the black of planes getting ready for takeoff; after getting blown across the tarmac, they fly back for another ride. And a student once recounted to me the sight of a crow dropping a feather high in the air, doing flips around it as it fell, catching it before it landed and then doing it all again. He asked me cautiously whether that could have been play, or whether it must have been some sort of mating display. I’m not sure why the idea that birds play really needs a defense—few doubt that dogs play. We are disturbingly begrudging in our willingness to admit any richness in the interior lives of animals. Perhaps some feel that the joys of human life would be more secure, if animals would just be little instinct driven robots. Not me—joy does not derive its value from scarcity.
The idea of storm-chasing pelicans and thrill-seeking gulls warms my heart. But now I have to admit that bird play is not all fun and games; sometimes it is downright mean. The new book Gifts of the Crow, reviewed here, describes jungle crows on an island in north Japan picking up dry pellets of deer shit, and “deftly” wedging them in the deer’s ears. Hilarious, yes. Also deeply wrong. Can you imagine if there was a species of wildlife that like to play pranks on us with our own excrement? Camping would be a little less enjoyable.
But what does this tell us about the inner life of crows? This has to be play of some sort; how could playing games with deer scat possibly have a selective advantage or function? The appeal could just be the challenge of a moving target that must be snuck up on. Or it could mean that crows are able to take pleasure in tormenting the deer. Scratch malice (and creativity) off of the list of things that separate us from the other animals.