The Unique Funeral Behavior of the Western Scrub Jay
Human beings are not the only creatures on Earth to ceremonially honor their dead. There have been many anecdotal reports which suggest that other animals carry out their own traditions when of their own passes away. This includes primates, elephants, birds, and other species which we consider to be intelligent. A new study has found that one bird species, the Western Scrub Jay, has a very unique behavior. They will summon their group together to screech over the body of a dead jay. This loud, boisterous "funeral ceremony" in which they cry over their fallen one can last for up to a half hour.
The research was conducted by University of California (UC) Davis graduate student, Teresa Iglesias. She set up feeding tables in the backyards of homes throughout Davis, CA to encourage visits from the jays. Cameras were set up to record their behavior when a dead jay was placed upon the ground near the feeding table.
The reactions observed were then compared with the jays' behavior when dead jay was stuffed and mounted on a perch to appear alive, a stuffed horned owl, and wood painted to represent jay feathers.
When a real dead jay was found prostrate on the ground, the living jays flew into a tree and let out a series of loud screeching calls. This attracted other jays which perched around the dead jay and joined in with the screeching. Some gatherings were quick, only lasting a few seconds, while others carried on for a half hour.
Similar cacophonous gatherings were observed for the stuffed mounted owl. The painted wood was ignored. The dead jay which was mounted to a perch was swooped upon as if it were an intruder.
The incredible thing about this behavior is that the western scrub jay is not a social bird. They live in breeding pairs and are very territorial. They are not at all friendly with other scrub jays.
The true reason for the jays' behavior at the sight of a dead jay is unknown. Iglesias postulates that it could be a way of alerting other birds of danger. But this then begs the question, shouldn't the jays disperse rather than gather to the call? It could be because the jays feel more secure in greater numbers. There are more eyes to locate the predator and they would have a better chance of driving it away.
It is too soon to say that this behavior has any real emotional or ritual element for the birds, and it should really not be termed a funeral. But Iglesias is not ruling it out. "I think there's a huge possibility that there is much more to learn about the social and emotional lives of birds."
This study has been published in the journal Animal Behaviour
Western scrub jay image via Shutterstock