Saturday, October 24, 2009

Grieving Birds

Article from The Magpies 'feel grief and hold funerals' Magpies feel grief and even hold funeral-type gatherings for their fallen friends and lay grass "wreaths" beside their bodies, an animal behaviour expert has claimed. Published: 7:00AM BST 21 Oct 2009 Dr Bekoff, of the University of Colorado, said these rituals prove that magpies, usually seen as an aggressive predator, also have a compassionate side. The discovery raises the debate about whether emotions are solely a human trait or whether they can be found in all animals. Previous studies have suggested that gorillas also mourn their dead while rats have empathy and cats form friendships. Dr Bekoff said he studied four magpies alongside a magpie corpse and recorded their behaviour. "One approached the corpse, gently pecked at it, just as an elephant would nose the carcase of another elephant, and stepped back. Another magpie did the same thing, " he said. "Next, one of the magpies flew off, brought back some grass and laid it by the corpse. Another magpie did the same. Then all four stood vigil for a few seconds and one by one flew off." After publishing an account of the funeral he received emails from people who had seen the same ritual in magpies, ravens and crows. "We can't know what they were actually thinking or feeling, but reading their action there's no reason not to believe these birds were saying a magpie farewell to their friend," he wrote in the journal Emotion, Space and Society. Those who see emotions in animals have been accused of anthropomorphism – the attribution of human characteristics to animals. However, Dr Bekoff said emotions evolved in humans and animals because they improve the chances of survival. "It's bad biology to argue against the existence of animal emotions," he said. He also claims to have seen emotions in elephants. While watching a herd in Kenya he noticed an injured cow elephant who was only able to walk slowly. "Despite her disability the rest of the herd walked for a while, stopped to look around and then waited for her to catch up. "The only obvious conclusion we could see is the other elephants cared and so they adjusted their behaviour," said Dr Bekoff. *************************************************************************************** Of course birds grieve for their dead. I have seen the same thing with crows in my back yard, which is wildlife friendly. Birds and lots of other critters flock here for sanctuary, food, fresh water all year round. Some critters have died here, too. I have not, however, seen birds lay "wreathes." They do lay long grass and leaf bits over or near a body of a fallen bird. I always assumed it was to cover it to hide it from scavengers - at least, for a little while. That behavior is purposeful and deliberate. Birds communicate constantly. One only has to have a backyard atwitter with the winged beings to become aware of this - unless one is deaf! I instantly know when a predator is on the prowl in my back yard, based upon the level and particular tenor of bird calls, for instance. In 19 years in this house, I have gotten pretty good at spotting a predator - a cat, a hawk, an occasional eagle! or owl, if I get to the patio door quickly enough or crank open one of the casement windows upstairs. In fact, I've gradually become convinced over the years that the birds know I will come running if they make enough of a ruckus and will shoo away the predator. They have me trained!

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