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Reseachers Find Birds Hold ‘Funerals’ for Dead

One of the things I love the most about birds is their interesting behavior. I can get lost for hours just watching them interact with one another at a feeder.

They’re also known for intelligent behavior like the ability to use tools to figure out problems and compassionate behavior like that of Laysan Albratrosses, which form bonds for life.

Now, California scientists in a new study have found another unique behavior: holding “funerals” for the dead.

When Western Scrub Jays catch sight of a dead bird, the researchers from UC Davis found that the birds call out to one another and stop foraging—sometimes for more than a day. The jays gather around the body and make what’s called a “zeep,” “scold” or “zeep-scold.” This loud circle is meant to draw in other birds.

While the romantic thing to believe would be that the birds do this because they want to honor one of their fallen brethren, it’s probably not that simple. Scientists say this behavior likely evolved as a method to warn other birds of possible dangers.

Still, this phenomenon is touching because the birds never swoop down on the body, like they were seeing doing to the stuffed jays in the experiment. When a predator was introduced, they ganged up on the “mounted owl” in an effort to make it leave.

Here’s more from the Daily Star:

The results show that “without witnessing the struggle and manner of death”, the researchers write, the jays see the presence of a dead bird as information to be publicly shared, just as they do the presence of a predator.

Spreading the message that a dead bird is in the area helps safeguard other birds, alerting them to danger, and lowering their risk from whatever killed the original bird in the first place, the researchers say.

I’m looking forward to what other unique behavior they discover in birds.

Timothy Martinez Jr. is a writer and freelance journalist. His work has been published in The Times-Picayune in New Orleans, Remapping Debate in New York City and other publications. He’s been a bird lover since he was young and currently lives in New Orleans, L.A.

5 Comments

  1. This story brings to mind Loren Eisley’s story “The Judgement of the Birds” about a baby bird taken from its nest by a raven. Look it up, it’s fascinating!

  2. Thanks for sharing, Roy. I’ll have to check it out.

  3. I have watched as a kestrel ate a sparrow ,the sparrows mate squawked and carried on in what looked like rage at the hawk. The sparrow was vey close to the hawk and seemed fearless in its rage .

  4. We have a lot of birds in our backyard to observe and we noticed something interesting this summer. One bright red male Cardinal would get sunflower seeds from a feeder in the back of the garden and carry them back to the female in the tree behind him. He would put the seeds in her mouth. We noticed him doing this for about two weeks. She sat on a low branch where we could see her and we watched through binoculars. So sweet.

  5. I witnessed something similar. I saw a herring seagull swoop down and snatch a baby mallard duck out of a lake and swallow it whole. The mother of the duckling cried out and chased the seagull in a terrible rage. It was heartbreaking to watch.

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