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Notes on a possible apostlebird game.

Play behaviour is all too infrequently reported for Australian birds; the only such reference I can readily locate is that of Brown (1986) while I am sure others exist. On 7 September 1996 as part of a team of museum ornithologists we were working through western New South Wales where we stopped momentarily at Mungo National Park and there I observed the following behaviour. In the dusty parking area situated among low shrubs with a scattering of Callitris, we encountered the gregarious Apostlebird Struthidea cinerea. These riotous characters of the Australian bush were busily scrounging titbits from an occasional tourist as well as exhibiting their normal seemingly irrational and noisy behaviour. This included running around with no apparent purpose other than to be visually and especially vocally noticeable.

A leading bird momentarily paused, and then using its bill, picked up a small stick some 2 mm diameter and 5 cm in length. With a surprising burst of speed it ran off, with the whole group in hot pursuit accompanied by a cacophony of sound; the noise was constant as was the chase. The lead bird continually ran to avoid its followers while simultaneously maintaining a reasonably straight course through the open parking ground. This part of the chase lasted some 25 seconds--as brief as it was it seemed a lifetime. Eventually such things must come to an end and the stick was duly dropped by its carrier.

An end? Not so, as the stick was immediately seized upon by the leading chaser and the game continued--again with all and sundry, including the original carrier, in hot pursuit. Again and quite suddenly the game ceased as the second runner dropped the stick. This time life and the group quickly resumed normality--a garrulous group resorting to their previous occupation of being a happy flock of Apostlebirds doing what Apostlebirds do best! This whole scenario lasted less than a minute.

This single observation should confirm that games where animals group together for mutual enjoyment are not uniquely human. Other animal species play games and the use of an object as the centre of play is apparently not restricted to our own kind. The forgoing note also reflects other regularly observed behavioural traits by birds in general. How often does an observer see a group of feeding birds, only to have one picking up a food item then having to defend that action through flight or running, hopping etc.? A totally different behaviour? Well maybe not.


Brown ED (1986) Observations on inter- and intra-specific play in four Australian bird species in the wild. Sunbird 16, 83-85.

N W Longmore

Research Associate

Australian Museum

6 College St, Sydney, NSW 2010

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Title Annotation:Naturalist Notes
Author:Longmore, N.W.
Publication:The Victorian Naturalist
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Oct 1, 2015
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