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Birds Hold Gatherings to Acknowledge Their Dead

Western Scrub Jay

Story at-a-glance -

  • A study conducted by a graduate student at the University of California, Davis demonstrates that Western scrub jays seem to hold “funerals” for their dead.
  • When the birds encounter a dead jay, they congregate in the area of the body and make loud, screeching calls. These gatherings last anywhere from a few seconds to a half hour.
  • Researchers speculate the reason for the behavior could be to warn other birds of nearby hazards, to provide safety in numbers, or perhaps to teach younger jays about dangers in their environment.

By Dr. Becker

Rumor has it humans aren't the only species that mourns its dead. Reports have surfaced that other animals, including chimpanzees, elephants and birds in the crow family seem to react in a specific way when one of their group dies.

Historically there has been very little research on the subject, but a graduate student at the University of California, Davis recently published a study in the journal Animal Behavior1 documenting the conduct of western scrub jays when they lose one of their own.

Western Scrub Jays React to a Dead Jay

In a paper titled "Western scrub-jay funerals: cacophonous aggregations in response to dead conspecifics," Teresa Iglesias and two UC Davis colleagues report that Western scrub jays hold noisy "funerals" over the bodies of dead jays, and their mournful gatherings can last for up to 30 minutes.

Iglesias set up feeding tables in the backyards of homes in Davis, CA to encourage the scrub jays to investigate. She then videotaped their reaction when they encountered a dead jay on the ground.

When the scrub jays found the dead jay lying on the ground, they flew into a nearby tree and began making shrill, shrieking calls that brought more jays. The responding jays also landed in trees and on fences around the dead bird and joined in the noise making. The researchers noted that some of these gatherings lasted only a few seconds, while others would go on for half an hour.

Iglesias also arranged to have the jays encounter a dead jay stuffed and mounted on a perch, a stuffed horned owl, and pieces of wood painted to look like jay feathers.

The jays held similar noisy gatherings for the mounted owl. They ignored the wood feathers, and interestingly, swooped down on the mounted jay as if it was an intruder.

What is the Purpose of These Gatherings?

The researchers also observed that additional scrub jays would arrive within seconds of the first bird calling. If there was no response, the first jay would frequently perch higher in a tree, seemingly to cover more area with his call. "It looked like they were actively trying to attract attention," Iglesias said.

According to Iglesias, the purpose of the calls appears to be to alert other jays of danger. The question is, why summon other jays if there is danger?

Iglesias theorizes that perhaps the birds look for safety in numbers, as well as more eyes with which to search for the predator or other danger that took down the dead jay. She also speculates the gatherings might be a way to teach younger jays about dangers in the environment.

Do Scrub Jays Grieve the Loss of One of Their Own?

The use of the word "funeral" to describe the reaction of animals to their dead isn't intended to mean there is a human-like emotional or ritual element to the behavior.

But Iglesias isn't ruling out the possibility. "I think there's a huge possibility that there is much more to learn about the social and emotional lives of birds," she said.

What about other species of birds and animals? Do they acknowledge their dead in some manner?

Animal behavior expert Marc Bekoff, writing for Yes! Magazine2 tells of his experience:

"I once happened upon what seemed to be a magpie funeral service. A magpie had been hit by a car. Four of his flock mates stood around him silently and pecked gently at his body. One, then another, flew off and brought back pine needles and twigs and laid them by his body. They all stood vigil for a time, nodded their heads, and flew off."

And this, also from Bekoff:

"I also watched a red fox bury her mate after a cougar had killed him. She gently laid dirt and twigs over his body, stopped, looked to make sure he was all covered, patted down the dirt and twigs with her forepaws, stood silently for a moment, then trotted off, tail down and ears laid back against her head. After publishing my stories I got emails from people all over the world who had seen similar behavior in various birds and mammals."