Vail Daily column: Animals who mourn their dead
May 24, 2014
The more we learn about wildlife, the more complex we realize the social and emotional lives of many animals are. While many scientists are wary of making close comparisons between humans and other animals, they are continually observing new species that have discernible reactions to the death of one of their kind.
Once acknowledged only in more "large-brained mammals," mourning is now recognized in animals such as dogs, rabbits and birds. Some local wildlife that have been observed grieving for a fallen one are members of the Corvid family, or jay birds.
Corvids are birds that, despite literally having bird brains, show remarkable problem-solving ability, personality and complex social lives. There are many Corvids that have adapted remarkably well to the forests and towns of the southern Rockies, including crows, magpies, ravens, Stellar's jays, and gray jays. Many of these birds even fashion crude tools to retrieve food.
The Clark's nutcracker caches tens of thousands of seeds each year, and is able to retrieve most of them. Western scrub jays have been observed stealing food from one another, and checking to see if other birds are watching before they hide their own food.
The Corvids, also known for being fairly loud birds, are also part of the Passerine order, meaning that they are songbirds. While most people would agree that a jay's voice is far from pleasant sounding, they have an amazing range and complexity of vocalizations.
Jays even recognize themselves in a mirror. In addition to these remarkable shows of intelligence, their emotional and social lives become palpable when they mourn. Some examples are:
Ravens: Ravens have been known to gather in mass numbers when a fellow raven dies. In 2012, residents of Fairbanks, Alaska, watched hundreds of ravens assemble in trees around a pair that had been electrocuted by a power transformer. They perched in complete silence before flying away.
Magpies: Magpies, similarly, will gather around any lost comrade, seeming to know the difference between a magpie and another species. I myself once watched a group of five magpies standing in a circle on Vail Valley Drive and wondered what they were doing. When I got closer, I realized they had surrounded another black-and-white jay that had likely been hit by a car.
Western scrub Jays: UC Davis researcher Teresa Iglesias conducted a research study during which, upon finding a dead scrub jay, other birds gathered around and made loud calls that seemed to encourage other jays that were miles away to gather around the body. Afterward, they suspended foraging for days.
Why do these birds behave this way? Most animals are preoccupied with survival for necessity's sake, and it doesn't make too much sense that they would behave in ways that cause fatigue, starvation, dehydration or susceptibility to predators. Yet many animals do. Mourning for the dead could be a way to remind each other about mortal dangers, or it could be something more profound.
This Memorial Day, we will all grieve and reflect in different ways. We may mourn for our loved ones or even for complete strangers who have bravely served our country. While death and loss is an inevitable part of life, we may take solace knowing that it is not only our burden as higher order animals. In addition, we can focus on the feelings of love and care for one another that precede the pain of mourning.
Hannah Irwin is the community programs coordinator at Walking Mountains Science Center. She thinks jays get a bum rap.