By John Kerr 21/03/2017

A warbling kea squawk has been shown to trigger playful behaviour in the cheeky native parrot, which researchers have compared to laughter in humans.

Kea are playful birds. They perform aerial acrobatics, chase each other through the air and have jostling play-fights on the ground.  Researchers noticed that in the midst of such behaviour kea screech a particular ‘play call.’ After documenting these calls and their connection with the birds’ play behaviour, Dr Raoul Schwing and his colleagues got to thinking: how would kea in the wild would respond to recorded play calls?

The authors detail their surprising results in a new article published today in the journal Current Biology.

“We were able to use a playback of these calls to show that it animates kea that were not playing to do so,” reports Schwing, who undertook the study as part of his PhD research at the University of Auckland.

“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.”

‘Infectious laughter’: An adult male and female kea react to the playback of the play call by engaging in a tussle.
Juvenile kea playing in the air. Credit: Raoul Schwing

Capturing kea shenanigans

Schwing and his collaborators reached their conclusions by observing kea populations at Death’s Corner lookout in Arthur’s Pass National Park. Over the course a year they ran a number of experiments in which they took video recordings of kea before and after playing a range of recordings, including the warbling ‘play call’. Their results:

“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,”

“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.”

“…In anthropomorphic terms, kea play calls act as a form of infectious laughter”

Schwing offers philosophical twist on the research: “If animals can laugh, we are not so different from them.”

The findings make kea the first known non-mammal to have such an “emotionally contagious” vocalization, the authors say. Earlier studies had made similar findings for chimpanzees and rats.

The researchers say that they now plan to explore the effects of play and play calls on kea social groups more generally.

Read more about the research on

Getting inside the mind of kea

The research is the latest in string of recent studies digging deeper into the behaviour of the iconic alpine parrot. Last month University of Auckland psychologist Alex Taylor published a study revealing the ways in which kea work together to obtain rewards. This was followed by another study from his research group uncovering how kea respond in unfair situations in which they don’t get expected rewards (turns out they’re not too worried).

Speaking to the New Zealand Herald, Taylor outlined why this kind of research was important for the future of the species.

“Everyone knows that they rip things off cars and can be a little bit naughty and cheeky but no one actually knows that much about how they think and we need to change that.”

Taylor said New Zealand was home to an abundance of “amazing” endemic birds, yet there remained a shortage of research around the kea, which now numbered only between 1000 and 5000.

“Because the kea population has declined so dramatically, we are interested to know more about it, so maybe we can come up with some new conservation strategies.”

Featured image: Two juvenile kea tussle playing on the ground. Credit: Raoul Schwing