Friday, September 14, 2012

birds tweet about the dead, but do they know what they're doing?

psychologytoday | "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."

"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."

I wrote these words in an essay I published in Yes! Magazine and I've written many essays about grief and funeral rituals in nonhuman animals (animals; see also).

Here's a story I received in response to my observations of the magpie funeral.

"I have a farm in Bolton, UK and we were overrun with Magpies. The reaction from the magpies [to the corpse of another magpie] in the vicinity was akin to a scene from the film 'The Birds', as they surrounded the lifeless bird and tried to reawaken it with their beaks. When they reached the conclusion that it was indeed dead, there was an outpouring of loud cackling noises which reached quite a crescendo (there were around 20 of them); this was echoed by a similar sympathetic chorus from a nearby wood and within a minute, from all surrounding areas giving the impression that hundreds of magpies were being told of the death and simultaneously expressing their grief. It was quite unnerving and I remained within the safe confines of a barn until all was over."

Are squawking jays really holding a funeral service?

There's a lot of interest in grief in animals and yesterday I learned about a research paper published in the prestigious journal Animal Behaviour titled "Western scrub-jay funerals: cacophonous aggregations in response to dead conspecifics" by Teresa Inglesias and her colleagues at the University of California in Davis. The abstract and some other information about this paper can be found here. The last sentence of the abstract reads, "Our results show that without witnessing the struggle and manner of death, the sight of a dead conspecific is used as public information and that this information is actively shared with conspecifics and used to reduce exposure to risk." It's interesting that the response to a dead jay was the same as that observed in response to a model of a predator, in this case a stuffed great horned owl. (Conspecifics are members of the same species.)

What caught my eye about this essay is the use of the word "funeral" in the title. Most professional journals would never allow the use of this supposedly "anthropomorphic" word and those that might wouldn't unless it was bracketed in scare quotes as "funerals".