Teresa Iglesias, Richard McElreath and Gail Patricelli at the University of California at Davis pondered this philosophical question themselves. Then they set off to scientifically test it.
|A western scrub-jay collecting peanuts from a windowsill. |
Photo by Ingrid Taylar at Wikimedia.
The researchers put bird feeders baited with peanuts in backyards all over Davis, California (with the permission of the backyard-owners, of course). Once they find a feeder, western scrub-jays take the peanuts one at a time and fly off to cache them away before returning for another peanut. While the scrub-jays were away caching a peanut, the researchers put a collection of painted wood pieces on the ground, arranged to vaguely look like a dead scrub-jay. Then they snuck away to watch if the scrub-jays responded when they returned. Several days later, they came back to the same feeders, waited until the scrub-jay was away caching a peanut, and then placed an actual scrub-jay carcass and feathers (usually found somewhere in the area). Then they snuck away again to watch if the scrub-jays responded any differently when they returned.
Watch the behavior of western scrub-jays before and after
the placement of a dead scrub-jay. The “after” response starts
about one minute into the video. Video by Teresa Iglesias.
And in a nutshell, they did. When the scrub-jays returned to find a dead scrub-jay, they called like crazy and hopped around in a full-blown cacophonous reaction. In most cases, this reaction attracted other scrub-jays who joined in the lively response. Additionally, when the dead scrub-jay was present, they took 90% fewer peanuts. None of this ever happened in response to a pile of painted wood. When a scrub-jay returned to find painted wood, it went about its day, calling at normal rates and collecting peanuts as usual. One jay was so unconcerned by the painted wood, it even cached peanuts under it!
This convinced the researchers that the scrub-jays were not simply responding to something new near the feeder, but were instead responding to dead bodies. But does it matter whether the body is a conspecific (the same species) or a heterospecific (different species)? And what do these group responses mean? Are they gathering in mourning? Or is their response a way of hollering, “Look out! Something out there is killing us!”?
To find out, the researchers did the same thing they had done before, but this time, they placed either a scrub-jay carcass or a mounted great horned owl (a scrub-jay predator). Interestingly, the scrub-jays responded with the same cacophonous reactions and avoided the peanuts in both cases. However, the scrub-jays called for longer and defensively swooped at the mounted owl, something they didn’t do to the scrub-jay carcass. To check if this heightened response to the owl mount was due to its lifelike position, they repeated the study, comparing scrub-jay responses to a scrub-jay carcass or a mounted scrub-jay. Although the dead-looking carcass always elicited cacophonous aggregations, mounted scrub-jays only elicited cacophonous aggregations a third of the time. But when jays did respond to the scrub-jay mounts, they often swooped at it as if it were a competitor, something they never did to a scrub-jay carcass.
What does this all mean? Western scrub-jays respond to conspecific (scrub-jay) carcasses not just because their appearance is surprising, but because they may represent some kind of risk. They seem to recognize that the carcass is not a living threat, because they don’t swoop at it like they do to both owl and scrub-jay mounts. But they do produce an alarm response, much as they do when a predator is present. So their responses to dead scrub-jays are not so much “funerals” in the way that people mourn and reflect on their dead, but rather a way to announce a risk of getting hurt or killed.
Are western scrub-jays uniquely aware of the risk a dead conspecific may represent? Maybe not. Although this was the first comprehensive study of this phenomenon, similar behavioral responses to dead conspecifics have been observed in ravens, crows and magpies, all members of the corvid family of birds, like scrub-jays. But rats and even bees have also been observed to avoid dead conspecifics. Many animals may be more cognizant of death than we give them credit for.
Want to know more? Check this out:
Iglesias, T.L., McElreath, R., & Patricelli, G.L. (2012). Western scrub-jay funerals: cacophonous aggregations in response to dead conspecifics Animal Behaviour DOI: 10.1016/j.anbehav.2012.08.007