Though the emotional capacities of non-human animals are often a subject of academic contention, the funeral-like rituals of the western scrub jay present a compelling argument that these birds are potentially emotional creatures. Research by Theresa Iglesias of UC Davis indicates that when western scrub jays encounter a dead bird, they call out to one another, drop whatever they’re doing, and assemble around their fallen brethren. Throughout this procession, the jays continue making alarm calls, which are thought to have evolved to warn other birds of danger. In the case of a dead bird, however, these calls attract other jays to attend the ritual. As a community, these winged mourners cry out their alarm calls and collectively stop foraging for a day. This is quite possibly a form of mourning, as foraging is the western scrub jay’s livelihood, and ceasing foraging for an extended period of time is very unusual. It’s as if the community is taking the day off to respect the dead.
Apart from the emotional implications of this funeral-like ritual, the practice of alerting other birds about the presence of a dead bird is likely evolutionarily beneficial:
Without witnessing the struggle and manner of death…the jays see the presence of a dead bird as information to be publicly shared, just as they do in the presence of a predator. Spreading the message that a dead bird is in the area helps safeguard other birds, alerting them to danger, and lowering their risk from whatever killed the original bird in the first place.
However, the biologically practical components of this aviary custom do not preclude the possibility of human-like emotion in western scrub jays; mourning the loss of a community member and spreading information about the death of a bird in order to avoid a similar fate are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Additionally, other animals are known to display group recognition of the dead:
Giraffes and elephants, for example, have been recorded loitering around the body of a recently deceased close relative, raising the idea that animals have a mental concept of death, and may even mourn those that have passed.
Next time that you’re tempted to assert that humans are the only organisms that can experience true emotion, I challenge you to remember the western scrub jays. A creature that abandons a day of work in order to tend to its dead presents the possibility of a profound level of emotion, and that is nothing to be scoffed at.
BirdCam on Cheltenham