A new relationship with animals, nature and each other.

Birds Tweeting about Death

Do birds of a feather hold their own version of a funeral service? Or when scrub-jays gather round one of their own who has died, with raucous squawking and lots of flapping, is this simply to warn others of their kind that danger lurks, perhaps in the form of a nearby owl? [readon]

Western-Scrub-Jay-090612-wikipedia-commonsResearchers from the University of Calif., Davis, watched Western scrub jays and noticed that whenever the birds came across a dead family member, they stopped foraging, flew down to the dead body and gathered around in “cacophonous aggregations.”

To see if the jays were simply reacting to the possible presence of danger and warning each other, the team put some owl models close by. Once again, the birds stopped foraging and began a loud chorus, but their behavior beyond that was quite different: They would swoop down on the owl model, trying to scare it away, rather than simply gathering around, as they did in the presence of a stuffed dead jay.

The researchers concluded that the birds show clearly that they understand death and want to communicate this information to their flocks – for whatever reason.

The study, published in Animal Behavior, quickly took the attention of ethologist Marc Bekoff, who has written a lot about how nonhuman animals experience grief. Marc takes up the topic of the jays on his Psychology Today blog, where he focuses in on the title of the new study: Western scrub-jay funerals: cacophonous aggregations in response to dead conspecifics.

Funerals? Until very recently, most serious scientific papers would have avoided this kind of word for fear of being written off as indulging in anthropomorphism. But there’s an increasing acceptance of what seems obvious to most of us – that we humans are not remotely the only species to experience deep emotions and to hold rituals that express them. Marc writes:

The ways in which animals respond to the death of another individual make for an alluring area of research. I’m personally thrilled to see professional journals loosen up and allow words like “funeral” to be used in the title of a peer-reviewed research paper because there’s no doubt that many other animals hold funeral services, perhaps wakes, and grieve the loss of family and friends. We’re not alone in the arena of grief so stand by for more on this fascinating topic.

Marc’s post (whose tweety title I chirpily borrowed) has some other interesting anecdotes, too, from people who have written to him about their own observations of animals apparently grieving over the loss of a loved one.