Western Scrub Jays Call Their Friends to "Funerals"

donjd2/CC BY 2.0

A couple of weeks ago, I witnessed the death of one of two birds flying in a pair. The surviving bird quickly perched on a nearby branch and began a constant stream of mournful peeps. I walked past the location several times over the next couple days; the staccato peeps slowed but continued. Only on the third day had the little fellow abandoned the vigil.

It turns out that my experience may not be an isolated case. Researchers at UC Davis report on observations that scrub jays mourn their dead. Teresa Iglesias, the graduate student who conducted the study, notes that western scrub jays are not social birds: "They’re really territorial and not at all friendly with other scrub-jays."

The study consisted of attracting jays with food and then video taping the jays' reactions to various props placed near the feeding table. The props included a stuffed owl; a stuffed jay mounted in a perching position; wood painted to resemble jay feathers; and a dead jay on the ground.

Upon finding the remains of one of their kind, the scrub jays would fly to an elevated perch and cry out in a series of loud, screeching calls. Rather than warning other jays to stay away due to the danger, the calls actually cause the jays to gather to the site. According to the press release,

The summoned birds perched on trees and fences around the body and joined in the calling. These cacophonous gatherings could last from a few seconds to as long as 30 minutes.

Jays formed similar cacophonous gatherings in response to a mounted owl, but ignored painted wood. When confronted with a mounted jay, the birds swooped in on it as if it were an intruder.

Jays typically gathered within seconds of the first bird calling, Iglesias said. If they did not, the first jay would often fly higher into a tree, apparently to call more widely.

Of course, it would be anthropomorphizing to assume the these bird "funerals" entail emotional elements similar to human ceremonies for our dead, but Iglesias is not ruling it out. “I think there’s a huge possibility that there is much more to learn about the social and emotional lives of birds,” she says.

We agree, and we cannot wait to see more of Iglesias' studies of bird behaviors.

Tags: Animal Welfare | Birds | California

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