‘Laughter’ is Catching in New Zealand’s Kea Parrots

The kea ( Nestor notabilis ) — a large species of parrot endemic to the Southern Alps of New Zealand — has become the first non-mammal to show signs of ‘emotionally contagious’ vocalization.

‘Laughter’ is Catching in New Zealand’s Kea Parrots

Specific calls of playing kea trigger playful emotions in other, non-playing birds, just as laughter does for us. Image credit: Raoul Schwing, University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna.
When people are feeling playful, they giggle and laugh, making others around them want to laugh and play too.
A team of scientists led by Dr. Raoul Schwing, a researcher at the Messerli Research Institute at the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna, Austria, found that the particularly playful kea parrot has ‘play calls’ with a similarly powerful influence.
“We were able to use a playback of these calls to show that it animates kea that were not playing to do so,” Dr. Schwing said.
“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 researchers said they “got interested in this particular call after carefully analyzing the kea’s full vocal repertoire.”
“It was clear to us that the play call was used in connection with the birds’ play behavior. That made us curious to know how kea in the wild would respond to the recorded calls.”
To find out, Dr. Schwing and his colleagues played recordings of play calls to groups of wild kea for a period of five minutes. They also played other kea calls and the calls of the South Island robin ( Petroica australis ) as controls.
When the birds heard the play calls, it led them to play more and play longer in comparison to the other sounds.
“Upon hearing the play call, many birds did not join in play that was already underway, but instead started playing with other non-playing birds, or in the case of solitary play, with an object or by performing aerial acrobatics,” the authors said.
“These instances suggest that kea weren’t ‘invited’ to play, but this specific call induced playfulness, supporting the hypothesis that play vocalizations can act as a positive emotional contagion.”
“While it might be a bit anthropomorphic, the kea play calls can be compared to a form of infectious laughter.”
“We now plan to explore the effects of play and play calls on kea social groups more generally,” they said.
The findings were published in the March 20, 2017 issue of the journal Current Biology .