Animal behavior researchers are discovering more and more that a concept of death and the deep feelings associated with mourning are not exclusively human traits. Elephants have famously been observed mourning fallen comrades, as have giraffes, apes, and cetaceans, to name just a few examples. Now you can add birds to the list too,according to the BBC.
Western scrub jays don’t just exhibit behavior consistent with an understanding of death, but they have actually been observed holding elaborate ‘funerals’ for dead birds. The behavior was recently documented by researcher Teresa Iglesias and colleagues from the University of California, Davis, and published in the journal Animal Behaviour.
Their experiments involved placing a wide range of objects into residential backyards to observe how jays might respond to them. Some of these objects included peices of wood, stuffed jays and stuffed great horned owls (a predator), as well as dead jay carcasses.
By far, the objects that elicited the strongest responses were the dead jays. Whenever the birds discovered a dead jay, they began forming ‘large cacophonous aggregations’ around the carcass. The birds’ calls were identified as “zeeps”, “scolds” and “zeep-scolds,” which are terms researchers use to describe jay-speak, and which are often heard as alarm calls.
The calls appeared to encourage other jays to attend to the dead. The animals also stopped foraging for food for at least a day after the discovery of a dead body. This could be a mourning response, but it may also be a response to danger in the area. Avoiding food for a time may be a way to avoid eating something that may have led to another jay’s death.
The researchers concluded that “without witnessing the struggle and manner of death,” the jays see the presence of a dead bird as information to be publicly shared. In other words, these ‘funerals’ not only raise an alert to a possible threat in the area, but they also bring the birds together and allow them to find safety in numbers.
It just goes to show that animals are much more aware of their surroundings, and their own mortality, than researchers have previously given them credit for.