Analysis by Jennifer Viegas
Wed Sep 5, 2012 07:42 AM ET
Funerals by definition are ceremonies honoring a dead person, but researchers have just observed what appears to be the avian version of a funeral.
Teresa Iglesias and colleagues studied the western scrub jay and discovered that when one bird dies, the others do not just ignore the body. Multiple jays often fly down to gather around the deceased.
The subsequent ceremony isn't quiet either.
"Discovery of a dead conspecific elicits vocalizations that are effective at attracting conspecifics, which then also vocalize, thereby resulting in a cacophonous aggregation," Iglesias and her team wrote.
This part of the response is similar to how the birds react when they see a predator, such as a great horned owl.
The researchers explain that "all organisms must contend with the risk of injury or death; many animals reduce this danger by assessing environmental cues to avoid areas of elevated risk."
The "funerals" therefore serve, at least in part, as a lesson. Since the birds don't necessarily know what bumped off their feathered friend, they seem to focus more on the area, associating it temporarily with danger.
The researchers noted that the living birds tended to avoid foraging in the place where they found the deceased bird for a period of at least 24 hours.
Prior research suggests giraffes and elephants might also hold ceremonies for their dead. If so, perhaps there are shared factors with humans and birds. Solidifying group togetherness and social bonding appear to be key benefits, along with learning how to avoid (if possible) whatever did in the deceased.
The study has been accepted for publication in the journal Animal Behaviour.
(Image: Lee Karney, US Fish and Wildlife Service)