Saturday, 28 January 2017

Social play in gulls?

Yesterday, the pond at my local park was almost completely iced over. While the ducks and geese kept to a small ice-free patch, the gulls seem to like walking on ice. A few young Common Gulls were about. One of them, a second winter bird, was carrying and handling (or should I say 'billing'?) a piece of moss. She would drop it, pick it up, shake it. She was being followed at close range by another two younger first winter common gulls. The first one eventually dropped the moss and one of the younger gulls swiftly picked it up and carried it for a while, in a repetition of the sequence. Then this gull found a short stick and she pecked it and picked it up repeatedly. I was pleased to get this sequence in video.

I have anecdotally documented play in gulls since Ralph Hancock drew my attention to this behaviour in his blog. Play has been described in gulls before, but only solitary play. But, was the behaviour I watched social object play?  According to Judy Diamond and Alan Bond, in a review on social play in birds (where gulls are not mentioned) state:
'Social object play occurs when two or more individuals engage in repeated interaction with one or more inanimate objects in the environment without subsequent consummatory behavior. The best evidence of social object play is provided by contests over items that cannot be otherwise turned to useful purposes. Role reversals are common in social object play, and the interaction often ends with the contested item simply being discarded.'
I believe that the sequence I watched fits this description quite well. The gulls respond to one another in which the 'carrier' changes direction to avoid the 'chaser' and the chaser follows the carrier paying attention to what it does and is quick to retrieve the object when dropped. The interaction ends when the item is discarded. The interest in the moss by the second individual is affected by the carriers interest in it, like the object is given a new meaning as a 'toy'. Much evidence on social play in birds is anecdotal, which a few exceptions, notably in Keas and Ravens. However, given how social gulls are, and how opportunistic, with much adult behaviour involving stealing food items from each other, it appears surprising social play hasn't described in gulls. Possibly casual watchers of distant gulls assume food objects being the centre of attention instead of inedible 'toys'. The park's wintering flock is well used to people and allow close approximation, so it is easy to check what the gulls are handling. I should definitely pay more attention in the future to potential play sequences.

For more posts at The Rattling Crow on play in birds click here.

More information

Diamond, J., & Bond, A. B. (2003). A comparative analysis of social play in birds. Behaviour, 140(8), 1091-1115.


  1. Fascinating entry. I think there is something for an ornithological journal here!

  2. Thank you Tinuviel! I agree, I think someone needs to look into this in more detail.

  3. Thanks for a very interesting post and a good video clip. It seems that when there are plenty of objects to play with, and a young gull has one, the other gulls are interested only in the object that this gull has, and never pick up objects of their own. The sole point of the game is to steal the gull's toy -- as, you say, good practice for a life of kleptoparasitism.