Laughing is contagious. Until now, only mammals like humans, chimps, and rats showed the “emotionally contagious” vocalization. Now scientists have found that the kea parrots in New Zealand can also make other parrots laugh. It makes them the first known non-mammal to have the ability to put others in their community in a good mood through their vocalization.

Kea Parrot Contagious Laughter
Barni1 / Pixabay

The play call puts kea parrots in good mood

The study was detailed Monday in the journal Current Biology. Keas are highly intelligent. Scientists found that they have a specific “play call” that puts other parrots hearing it in a good mood. Researchers have known for a long time that the keas living in New Zealand’s South Island make a warbling sound while playing. Scientists were puzzled because these birds also warble when alone.

Researchers got interested in the play call after studying the bird’s full vocal repertoire. They figured it was used in connection with their play behavior, but they were keen to find out how keas in the wild respond to such calls. Scientists led by Raoul Schwing of the Messerli Research Institute in Austria conducted an experiment to find if the play call is “emotionally contagious.”

Why the calls are similar to laughter

They went to the Arthur’s Pass National Park and played recordings of several calls. These included the notorious play calls, standard kea calls, a call of the South Island robin, and a bland tone. Scientists observed how keas in the wild reacted to each tone. When the birds heard the play chirps, they went into play mode more often and for longer periods than when they heard other calls.

Schwing told National Geographic in an email that in many instances, the birds started to play immediately after hearing the call. But they didn’t join an ongoing play already taking place. They would play with the keas next to them. Some keas even played solitarily with objects or in the air. Scientists concluded that the call doesn’t “invite” others in the community to play.

It puts them in a specific frame of mind by touching their emotions. That’s why scientists compared these calls with laughter in humans. However, not everyone agrees with the study. Elodie Mandel-Briefer of ETH Zurich told The Atlantic the study doesn’t prove that the warbling has an emotional effect on keas. Scientists will have to first find a way to measure the emotional state of the listeners as well as callers.

Alex Taylor of the University of Auckland said it was unclear whether the calls make the birds actually feel more playful. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)’s Red List, the kea faces the risk of extinction because of human conflict and predatory mammals.