A research team recently set out to investigate a myth: do crows mourn their dead? When a crow dies, its group will often gather around the body.
A study just out on “funerals” held by crows has generated a lot of discussions about what these noisy gatherings around fallen members of their species represent or mean. A dead crow on the street or in a field will be surrounded by a few to a dozen or more of them, all seeming to contemplate their fallen member.
Human rituals for the dead are numerous. But animals in the nature are not widely known to behave in a strange way when confronting a dead animal of their own species. In fact, the scientists said in the study, that only a few animal species have shown more than just a passing interest. According to the researchers’ report, African elephants will groom, touch, or otherwise attend to other dead elephant, and scientists have noted similar behavior in chimpanzees, some species of magpies, jays and bottlenose dolphins.
The mystery of crow funerals has been documented but not necessarily understood, so the biologists John Marzluff and Kaeli Swift, from the University of Washington, decided to answer the question: Do these notably smart animals understand death like people? Why are they gathering around the dead members of their own kind? Are the birds warning of potential threat? But if so, why do they give in such warnings in such a specific way? Is it a mourning or farewell? Is this their instinctual behavior or learned?
The scientists conducted similar tests with another urban bird, the rock pigeon, and observed that these birds hardly even noticed when a dead pigeon was in front of them, a dramatic contrast to the negative and organized reaction of the crows to the sight of a fallen member.
Anecdotes of crows’ attraction to their dead have been a mystery for a long time. To solve it, the scientists made an experiment where a dead crow is observed laying on the ground and other crows, sometimes an individual, sometimes a large group, are perched nearby quietly or very raucously.
The scientists have reported that sometimes these onlookers stay for just a few minutes and sometimes even for days. Many will not look for any deep meaning of these gatherings, perhaps rightly so, but how do we know that something more profound is not happening? Perhaps these birds deal with death as well or better than we do?
So why do they gather around their dead, according to the science? At least in part, it’s to learn about the new predators and dangerous places. Could there be other more emotionally intelligent reasons? Of course, there could be.
Scientists simply haven’t found a way to address that yet, but we’re trying to think of ways to do so that is minimally invasive. But there are many folks out there, who don’t need scientific evidence to believe that’s precisely what’s going on, so we see no reason studies like this one should disabuse them of that belief.
Studies of animal emotions are the next chapter, so we couldn’t be more excited to watch these birds that blow people away.