A university of California, Davis, US study on bird behavior has come out with the startling finding that birds hold ‘funerals’ for their dead relatives. The study conducted by Teresa Iglesias and colleagues is published in the journal Animal Behaviou
The researchers observed that when western scrub jays find a dead one in their fraternity, they stop foraging and call out to one another, fly down to the dead body and gather around.
The researchers speculatively interpret this to be an evolved behavior to warn other birds of danger.
In the experiment they conducted, the researchers placed a series of objects including different colored pieces of wood, dead jays, stuffed jays and great horned owls simulating live jays and predators, to watch how the western scrub jays reacted to the object so placed into residential back yards.
While the jays were indifferent to the wooden objects, they made alarm calls on noticing a dead bird, warning others. The jays then gathered around the dead body making cacophonous sounds animatedly. Alarmed by the noise, the new jays came flying to attend the dead.
They jays stopped foraging for food which was a change in their behavior lasting for a day.
The jays mistook a mounted owl for the arrival of a predator and reacted by gathering together and making a series of alarm calls. While they made attempts to shoo away the supposed predator by swooping down to scare it off, they never swooped at the body of a dead bird.
Occasionally, the birds mobbed the stuffed jays, a behavior they show in wild against competitors.
The researchers interpreted the avian behavior as their ability to comprehend death and publicly share this critical information on one hand and alert them to the danger that might have caused the death of the first bird.
The researchers note: “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.”
However, the study appears far less rigorous than a scientific investigation deserves. We do not yet know, for instance that the notion of death is comprehensible for birds. It is not known how the birds interpret a fellow bird, lifeless and motionless. Nevertheless, it is pretty well known that all animals including animals of lower forms respond to danger cues instinctively. Could it then not mean that response among birds to the sight of a dead bird is an instinctive signal rather than a social response?