Research on scrub jays and anecdotal observations of other corvids shows a large reaction to a dead member of their species-

A study just out on “funerals” held by scrub jays has generated a lot of discussion about what these noisy gatherings of jays around fallen members of their species represent or mean.

It is not just scrub jays, but this kind of avian behavior has been noted by many among other corvids (crows, ravens, magpies, jays).  Dr. Charles “Chuck” Trost at Idaho State University has spoken and written about ritualistic appearing gatherings of magpies around dead magpies. Others have noted that crows too have something that looks like a funeral.

The question raised is do these notably smart birds understand death?  What are they doing when they gather around dead “comrades” (and often others of their kind)? Are the birds warning of potential danger, but if so why in such a different way than other warnings they give? Is it a mourning and/or farewell?  Is this instinctual behavior or learned?

Many will discount any deep meaning to these gatherings, perhaps rightly so, but how do we know something more profound is not  going on? Perhaps they deal with death as well or better than we do.

 

Tagged with:
 
avatar
About The Author

Ralph Maughan

Dr. Ralph Maughan is professor emeritus of political science at Idaho State University with specialties in natural resource politics, public opinion, interest groups, political parties, voting and elections. Aside from academic publications, he is author or co-author of three hiking/backpacking guides.

29 Responses to Do corvids gather for funerals?

  1. avatar Salle says:

    Interesting. I have witnessed such gatherings of ravens but I have also noticed that other animals seem to behave in a sort of mourning of their kind as well as species other than their own. I think animals have a lot more going on with regard to their knowledge of life, death and inter-relationships than the average distracted human might anticipate. I find it rather sad when a person marvels at their noticing that some animal behaves in some “unexpected” manner that exhibits greater knowledge than that person might have imagined… to me it shows how they don’t pay much attention to anything outside their own distracted existence. It seems that it may be a sort of hubris on the part of humans to dispute that other species have such capacity to recognize these facets of life.

  2. avatar Jon Way says:

    As we study systems we are increasingly finding out that humans are not unique in many aspects of our life which we thought we used to be. A major theme of these studies is Animal Cognition and Recognition, led by the late Dr. Don Griffin. Essentially Don believed that animals had feelings and are thoughtful sentient beings. Most scientists I would think now agree with this altho this had lots of distractors early on.

    I would like to add a new animal that many posters here may agree with: Bison. I have quite a few times observed bison walk up to a fallen comrade and very investigatory sniff the dead bison. They will even chase wolves off bison carcasses that have long been dead. It subjectively seemed pretty obvious what they were doing, similar to elephants…

    cool study!

    • avatar Jon Way says:

      I should add that Don also believed that animals were cognitive and did things based on personal experience rather than instinct. Only 20-30 years ago many scientists thought he was crazy. Now when I see a coyote family, for instance, instantly move their pups to a new den, it seems pretty obvious that they moved the den due to cause and effect – rather than random instinct.

    • avatar Kathleen says:

      In 2005 I helped monitor the Yellowstone bison hunt for Buffalo Field Campaign and witnessed a small group of bison react to the death of one of their own. (The four bison were peacefully bedded down when a woman from Bozeman “hunted” and blasted one of them, but that’s another story). Much more than an investigatory sniff, they tried again and again to rouse their friend, pawing the shoulder, nudging the body, the position of their tails registering their distress. When that failed, they simply stood near the body. A description of this incident is included in “Second Nature: The inner lives of animals” by Jonathan Balcombe in the chapter “With feeling: Emotions.” He concludes saying, “It is no more scientific to assert that a nonhuman lacks feelings or is emotionally duller than us than it is to say that an animal has a poorer sense of taste or touch.”

      Marc Bekoff speaks of evolutionary continuity–the idea that our human emotions didn’t spring up with our species, but that we “can find the roots of our own intelligences and emotions in other animals.” That view takes some of the luster off the idea of human exceptionalism, though, so it always comes as a shocking discovery that chickens feel empathy! Cows form friendships! Fish experience fear and bison grieve!

      • avatar skyrim says:

        Kathleen
        Thank you for sharing that experience and thank you for your service to the Bison. I watched and video-taped the birth of a Bison calf along the Madison 3 years ago in the Spring. The following morning I drove by a wailing day old calf as it mourned it’s dead mother lying next to the highway (presumably who had been hit and killed by a truck by 7 mile bridge.) I mourn the loss of both animals each time I think of them.

  3. avatar Immer Treue says:

    I’ve said this before, that with continued advances in cognitive ethology, some folks will become uncomfortable with what is found, and others who have tuned into their animals will feel vindicated.

  4. avatar HAL 9000 says:

    Of course animals have intelligence, thoughts, feelings, emotions, memory.

    Dogs sometimes dream when they sleep.

    • avatar Salle says:

      I have had many cats who were dreamers. The last one I had in my company would dream of interactions with other animals, she even hissed in her sleep. She had squirrels for friends, they taught her to run along the upper rail of the hurricane fence, circle a tree at near lightning speed and they played tag every day. When one of them died, for whatever reason, she would come up to me and strike a certain pose, holding one paw up drop-wrist like, and look off in the direction of the carcass. I would ask her to show me and she would lead me to it. After watching me bury it and pray for it she always needed me to hold her for a time while she cringed and snuggled close. I have numerous anecdotal tales about that one cat though there were many others who exhibited similar traits.

      I also agree about the bison, they are very sentient, and I found that one of the things they almost demand – especially when you are in a vehicle and they are nearby – they want to see your eyes, not behind shades, and they don’t like headlights, turbo charger whine and air compressor release (from air brakes on big trucks) sounds. They will have one bold male stand guard and stop traffic for the their young ones to cross a road with their mothers and siblings… All animals are far more aware than most people would consider. Too bad for humans that they are so callous and self-aggrandizing… hopefully they will get over it sometime in the near future.

      • avatar SAP says:

        Interesting observation about bison wanting to see your eyes. I had the impression from working domestic bison that it muddied up inter-species communication to have sunglasses on.

        In a “drop the pressure” posture with the bison (trying to get them to relax, maybe slow down, because they were already going where we wanted them to go), it seemed they were ok with me hiding my eyes by tilting my head so all they saw was my hat brim. But they did not know what to make of sunglasses, it seemed — like, “ok, I see where your eyes SHOULD be, but can’t make any sense of them. What do you want?”
        Most horses and mules seem to be the same way. Cattle aren’t near as sensitive as bison in most cases, but they respond to clear “eye pressure” or lack thereof as well.

        • avatar Salle says:

          SAP,

          That’s interesting also. I like your description of the “drop the pressure” posture… I discovered some time ago that many species will respond to what I started calling the “non-aggressive stance” by doing, mostly, the same thing only I look right at their eyes and blink slowly with a calm expression. I discovered it, at first, while looking for a lost cat but finding lots of deer instead. The deer wouldn’t run from me, they just looked at me with some curiosity and then with a quick flick of the tail, resume eating or whatever they were doing. It works at least 90% of the time, though I suspect it might not be so if I were carrying a gun and intending to kill them. It seems they can sense the intent of predation.

          But I also found that it helped to calm, frightened cats and dogs in the animal shelters that I frequented. These days I use it whenever I encounter an animal, wild or domestic, to assure them that I have no intention of harming them. Most seem to recognize that by the “stance”. When I do it with bison, every time-whether I’m standing right there or in my vehicle where I’m right at eye level, they return the blink and then nod at me before looking forward to resume whatever they were doing. Never tried it from atop another animal like a horse. I find it interesting (and good) that it would work in that circumstance as well.

  5. avatar louise kane says:

    Anyone who has ever owned a dog, knows dogs have cognitive abilities beyond what are ascribed to them and that they feel emotions. It is a self-evident truth. My dog is with me 99% of the time. He reacts when I don’t feel well, could not be budged for days from an area where one of his friends died, and all the time keeps me laughing with his sense of play, humor, empathy and intelligence. This is one of the reasons wolf advocates are so disturbed by trapping, snaring and the wolf hunts. I can not imagine my best buddy being tormented and left in such a desolate situation waiting to die at the hands of someone willing to crush, stomp or strangle him. Its an awfully hard heart that can inflict the kind of pain and misery that traps, snares and sport hunting do to wolves, coyotes, bears and other large carnivores and their families.

    • avatar Immer Treue says:

      Louise,

      If only they could talk. My current, and previous German Shepherds, when involved with play and making mock charges both engaged in a head shake with this big shit eating grin/ expression. Neither cared for my anger when it manifested itself. They have a great grasp of vocabulary and facial expression. When I get a bit turned around in the woods, I just say lets go home and we’re
      Back on trail in a heart beat.

      A Nova video I posted a while ago, case of some timers, for the life of me I can’t remember the episode name, our dogs are more geared to us than other dogs. Most people, when introduced to another person, will initially fixate on the right side of the other persons face. Try it. Dogs in clinical studies did it too. Wolves
      On the other hand don’t. Something to be said for the process of domestication.

      Back to the topic. Once in Canada a small group of ravens kicked up a racket. Upon investigation they had flushed an owl. One of them tangled with the owl and came out on the short end of the stick. The owl flew away as the injured raven hopped up on a low branch, wavered a bit, and fell over, dead. The other ravens, silent upon the grievous injury to their “friend”, as one flew away when the fallen raven grew still.

      • avatar Rancher Bob says:

        Immer
        Try Nova “dogs decoded” via youtube. If I recall your past post.

      • avatar louise kane says:

        Immer GSDs are something else. That “shit eating grin”, I know well. Mine, named Rue, is a GS/Akita mix who looks like a large black wolf. He is stunning and smart. The best dog I have ever had… even including the many pure GSD’s I have shared my life with. They are smart smart animals. My commands are let’s go and this way, he never misses a beat, and keeps me safe always through some rough times I’ve had. Always love to hear dog and animal stories, thanks to all.

  6. avatar Mike says:

    Our technology is not advanced enough to precisely detail what animals feel or think.

    Until then, we must proceed with great caution and ethics.

  7. avatar skyrim says:

    Some interesting comments here on this thread. Thanks to all for sharing. It seems to me that if we humans were not so busy being humans we could learn a lot from the critters. Much of which would set back many of the progessive thinkers among us.

    • avatar HAL 9000 says:

      Skyrim, the problem is not being human. The problem is, we have in many cases, become so distracted by our commercialized, sanitized, numb, disconnected and hyper-active lives, we’ve forgotten how to BE humans.
      I respect animals, but I also don’t elevate them to some sort mythical status. I don’t see much value in de-valuing humans, and trying to make animals something they’re not.
      I’m not sure how much I could “learn” from my dog. He licks his own butt, and likes to eat horse poop, after all.
      But, he does live entirely in the moment and doesn’t worry about possessions, which is perhaps one lesson.

      • avatar Immer Treue says:

        Hal,

        Simple answers to your animal conundrums. Perhaps a bit silly, but if you could lick the parts of your anatomy as can a dog, you might never leave the house.

        Poop! So many possible explanations. Perhaps the best I’ve seen is they just like the way it tastes. I’ll not volunteer to be a coprophage, but then again, I won’t volunteer to eat cottage cheese or drink
        Buttermilk.

        I don’t think animals require mythical status, but then again, neither do we.

        The above comments are, for the
        Most part meant in fun.

        • avatar Mark L says:

          If you think of the amount of information that can be left in a single poop, then their means of communications through them makes sense. My 3rd hand black and tan ‘knows’ several coyotes that scent mark on trails we walk, some she tolerates and some she’d off in a flash, given the chance. I can tell by her stance when she smells them which one she’s smelling, getting a cursory sniff or a stiff-tailed ‘that little bi— is going down today’ . This isn’t something you pick up on in a week or 2, unless you actually care enough to watch them continuously. THinking on how many generations may have been deeply dependent on getting a dog’s communications down pat, it’s obvious we miss a lot our ancestors got instantly. I guess its all in what you pay attention to.

      • avatar Salle says:

        ” He licks his own butt, and likes to eat horse poop, after all.”

        After I’ve finished laughing at that part of your comment…

        I’m not going to say anything about how humans interact with other humans during passionate relationships… but cow poop is possibly a vegetable component or dietary supplement that your dog may be lacking in the food you give him and so he eats what the cows leave behind, pre-digested but still containing nutrients of some kind. It might be disgusting to humans but it may be a nutrient need for him. Just a thought, of course. 😉 Beats having a dog who rolls around in dead fish on the shoreline and then jumps in the car before you can stop it.

  8. avatar Salle says:

    Here’s some good news for a change (and I find it amazing that it comes from Kenny-boy which makes me think it was his idea)…

    Red Rock Lakes refuge adds 12,000 acres

    http://www.greatfallstribune.com/viewart/20120913/NEWS01/309130014/Red-Rock-Lakes-refuge-adds-12-000-acres

  9. avatar TC says:

    I don’t know if corvids gather for funerals, but I do know they commit many acts that could result in a funeral – I’ve watched crows, ravens, magpies, and jays do some fairly unpalatable things to other species (and occasionally to each other), without any obvious clues or reasons (no clear defense, resource, mate selection, competition or other cues). I suspect they’re more like us (another “intelligent” animal species) than we care to know about – as with chimps and many other “sentient” and “emotive” wildlife species they seem to have some capacity for capricious cruelty without obvious reasons. We can’t always explain such behaviors in humans – but, I imagine if we could, the pathogenesis or mechanisms in animals would be the same – we share the same origins and we have not evolved into something beyond “animal” where some new set of biological rules apply.

    Hal – I’ve learned what you’ve learned from dogs: live in the now, enjoy life, and don’t care so much what others think about your actions. Every dog is capable of doing things that would make their owners run screaming into the night, including killing, maiming, tormenting, dominating, destroying, holding grudges, paybacks, and ransacking – yes, even the little angels cited above. They’re no more saints than humans and they carry very similar anatomical, physiological, behavioral, genetic, and epigenetic baggage as us – they just happen to live under our thumbs and learn when living with the weird 2-legged animals some behaviors have costs (withdraw rewards, punish, scold, shun, etc.) and some behaviors have rewards. They’ve been bred to select for dogs that “get” this (i.e., domesticate well and are reward motivated) – when dogs truly act like dogs (feral dogs, some of the primitive breeds, poorly socialized or unsocialized dogs, etc.) people don’t like them much (and even better, the dogs don’t seem to care!). We always try to make other animals so much better than us (more noble, more honest, more altruistic, more soulful, more loving, more giving, more accepting, more competent, more something) – we are animals, we are them, they are us. In their own ways they do all of the things we do, wonderful and desipicable.

  10. avatar HAL 9000 says:

    TC,
    Other than in strictly biological terms, I don’t think humans are animals, any more than animals are plants or minerals.

    Everything shares the basic building blocks, so to speak, but the emergence of what something is — up to and including a human being — is something beyond the mere sum of its parts or elements.

  11. avatar Ida Lupine says:

    I think sometimes humans do things that are worse than animals. What about mass murderers – would you still elevate them? We are mammals – not plants or minerals, and nowhere is this more evident than with our reproduction – the same process, the same feeding. I realize that animals are capable of both the good and the cruel – but we have been desensitized to seeing their qualities that make them like us – in order to justify our maltreatment of them. The same method has been used to dominate and commit genocide against our own kind for millennia.

    • avatar Immer Treue says:

      Ida,

      I agree. Could say much more, but most of it has been said by others, in terms of our exalted self annointment.

      • avatar Nancy says:

        Ditto Immer 🙂

        Swallows come to mind when I think of some of the animals I’ve witnessed grieving over a lost member. Hundreds swarming and landing around one of their own kind, hit by motorists.

        And two Mule does (I’ve had the unfortunate chance to witness) standing close by their dead fawns after those fawns had been killed by motorists, motorists too caught up in their busy lives, to notice the wildlife, that might be “coming and going” around them.

Calendar

September 2012
S M T W T F S
« Aug   Oct »
 1
2345678
9101112131415
16171819202122
23242526272829
30  

Quote

‎"At some point we must draw a line across the ground of our home and our being, drive a spear into the land and say to the bulldozers, earthmovers, government and corporations, “thus far and no further.” If we do not, we shall later feel, instead of pride, the regret of Thoreau, that good but overly-bookish man, who wrote, near the end of his life, “If I repent of anything it is likely to be my good behaviour."

~ Edward Abbey

%d bloggers like this: