Mourning Their Losses - Scrub Jays Hold Funerals For Fallen Comrades
September 12, 2012

Western Scrub Jays Conduct Funerals For Their Dead

Watch the Video: Western Scrub Jay Funeral

Lee Rannals for - Your Universe Online

Mourning is not just a trait shared by humans, but scientists say it is also shared by the Western scrub jays.

Researchers say the Western scrub jays summon others over to the body of a dead jay to screech over their dead brethren.

University of California, Davis researchers said that the birds' cacophonous "funerals" can easily last up to half an hour.

Previous reports show that other animals, including elephants, chimpanzees, and birds in the crow family, react to the dead of their species.  However, few experiments have explored this behavior.

The latest research, reported in the journal Animal Behavior, shows that the Western scrub jays, which are not particularly social birds, gather in times of turmoil.

Teresa Iglesias, the UC Davis graduate student who carried out the research worked in the backyards of homes in Davis, California, setting up feeding tables to encourage visits from the jays.

Iglesias videotaped the behavior when she placed a dead jay on the ground, and compared these reactions with other objects. Other than the dead jay, she set up a stuffed jay that had been mounted on a perch, a stuffed horned owl, and wood painted to represent jay feathers that looked similar to the original dead jay.

When the birds encountered the fallen fowl that was on the ground, they flew into a tree and began a series of loud, screeching calls that attracted other jays.

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

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

Iglesias said that the jays typically gathered within seconds of the first bird calling, and if they did not, the first jay would fly higher into the tree to make the call more apparent.

“It looked like they were actively trying to attract attention,” she said.

Iglesias believes the purpose of the calls is to alert the birds of danger. However, she said that why the calls summon others, rather than just warn them, is unclear.

She speculates that having more jays in numbers might be more eyes to locate a predator, or more numbers to drive it away.

Iglesias also said it might be a learning component to the gatherings, such as teaching the young jays about the dangers of the environment.

She said while reactions of animals to their dead are called "funerals," that doesn't imply that there is an emotional or ritual element to the behavior.

“I think there´s a huge possibility that there is much more to learn about the social and emotional lives of birds,” Iglesias added.