Against a backdrop of falling bird numbers and, perhaps more crucially, alarming declines in insect populations, the pollinators of course, we may assume that survival of the fittest and concentration on the production of the next generation, to be the main criteria which drives most creatures. You might think, therefore, that most birds and animals would not have much time to contemplate play and having fun. However, on examination, some creatures actually devote surprising amounts of time to enjoying themselves.
Indeed, there are time when some animals clearly go to considerable lengths to enjoy a romp. Never is that observation more obvious than when badger clubs start to play. In essence, play is a process whereby indulging in play fighting and rough and tumble, those cubs are actually learning the lessons that will stand them in good stead as they grow up. And it really can be a real melee as each cub strives to become dominant. They attack each other with gusto and roll around in mock combat, issuing plenty of noise in the process; the adults generally seem to let the cubs get on with it.
Fox cubs go through a similar routine, albeit that the vixen also plays a part in their rough and tumble, provoking play by sometimes flicking her tail to encourage them to pounce on it. I have on one rare occasion, been privileged to watch badger and fox cubs play together. Foxes had taken over a part of an ancient badger sett and once the cubs of both were confident enough to emerge in order to indulge in play, both fox and badger cubs joined the subsequent ruction with great glee. I couldn't help but wonder if the parent badgers looked upon this combined play with some disdain for whilst badgers are by nature clean and tidy in their habits, foxes are the opposite, not so clean and pretty untidy! For badgers, they are not the best of neighbours!
Play is also a natural instinct among some surprising animals. I had always thought that roe deer kids lacked any impulse to play until many years ago I took responsibility for the rearing of a roe deer kid. She was around three days old when she was 'found' by some children in a wood even though in reality she was not lost! However, she had been so handled by the children that she must have fairly reeked of their scent, certainly enough for the doe to abandon her had she been returned to where she had been found.
Initially, she lived quite happily in a large cardboard box in our sitting room. At the same time we had a collie pup and within days the two animals seemed to have established some sort of play routine. The roe kid soon discovered she could jump out of her box, which as the days passed, she frequently did. Then of course, she encountered the collie pup, which she would proceed to chase through the house. Then the pup chased the kid back again. This became a regular game between two animals, which apart from their youth had no other feature in common...except a desire to play!
There can however, be another, more practical aspect to play in animals. I once watched a weasel perform a perfect square dance along a quiet country lane. It darted across the lane before running along the bottom of a hedge. Then it crossed again and ran back along the opposite hedge bottom on the other side of the lane. It repeated this little dance time and time again and as I watched I was aware that a considerable number of small birds were observing this strange behaviour and were becoming increasingly fascinated by it, moving closer and closer to action. Then came the denouement as one bird got too close to the action and paid for its curiosity with its life.
In a similar incident, I watched a stoat in my own garden go through the most amazing routine of somersaults, chasing its own tail and a variety of amazing gyrations. It also entranced a host of birds, almost hypnotising them, until one dunnock moved just too close to the action, again to pay for its fascination with its life. The running weasel and the gyrating stoat were playing, but with a deadly purpose.
However, there are cases of birds for instance, quite deliberately indulging in bouts of what can only be described as play. On windy days, especially during the winter months, massed ranks of rooks and jackdaws can regularly be seen cavorting around the sky in mass displays of utter bedlam. Often you will see members of the cavorting masses splitting off into pairs and chasing each other in furious games of tag. At times, the sky seems to be full of birds flinging themselves around with absolute abandon, clearly having fun!
Such displays are by no means restricted to rooks and jackdaws for I have also seen ravens play with rare enthusiasm. My first eye-opening experience of watching ravens express such a desire was off our west coast on the distant Treshnish Islands. We had been invited to go for a week's sailing and we anchored off the islands overnight and then explored them during the following day.
Much to my astonishment, a family party of ravens suddenly appeared. Some were spiralling or corkscrewing through the air, some were even flying upside down. Without any doubt, they were having fun. The twentieth-century naturalist Frances Pitt wrote about her two tame ravens which, as far as I know, were free flying. She described how the pair of them would collaborate in a game in which they would tease unmercifully one of Miss Pitt's cats, one of them distracting the cat whilst the other would sneak behind the animal and grab its tail. Ravens clearly have an in-built instinct to play as well as a mischievous disposition.
The propensity to play may however, not be one of the essential attributes of wagtails, yet this can, most notably in the form of the pied wagtail, are to me naturally comedic birds in appearance, the 'Coco the Clowns' of the avian world. That black eye on the white face of the bird paints a clownish picture whilst the very demeanour of the bird seems to me to spell comedy. It struts, it runs until its legs are a blur, it springs into the air, where it pirouettes so brilliantly as it pursues insects. And of course, it constantly flips its tail up and down, as opposed to wagging it.
This latter feature of wagtail life is the source of much speculation. Some conjecture that it is disturbing insects which it then catches. However, as its tail is naturally at the rear of the bird and my observations reveal that it is always darting ahead on foot or on wing to snaffle them, I hae ma doubts! In my opinion, more is it a movement that mirrors the passage of water beside which we are most often likely to see the bird. In other words it may be a means of obfuscation. However, it may also be a constant signal that simply says 'I am here - this is my territory', a statement of integrity. Whatever the reason for the constant tail movement, the one thing that is assured, is that wagtails somehow always bring a smile to one's lips, intentionally or otherwise!
The poet Montgomery wrote of the water wagtail:-
What art thou made of? air or light or dew?
I have no time to tell you, if I knew.
My tail - ask that - perhaps may solve the matter;
I've missed three flies already by this clatter.