Brand & Martinez for September 21, 2012

Birds hold 'funerals' for their fallen

western scrub jay

Kevin Ferguson/KPCC

The western scrub jay is a species that holds "funerals" for its dead. But it's not as heartfelt an act as it might seem.

Western scrub jays apparently hold "funerals" for their dead.

After a jay is found dead, birds call to one another and gather around the recently deceased, according to new research recently published in the journal Animal Behaviour.

Scientists from UC Davis tested out the birds' behavior by placing everything from stuffed birds to actual dead jays in back yards.

Though the study doesn't go beyond covering the scrub jay's behavior, researchers on the project came up with several theories about the bird's intent behind group squawking. Marine biologist Pat Krug says that the "funerals" do not signal altruism.

"It's an interesting example of how risk assessment happens in nature," he said. "We're not very good at it. People are terrified of flying in planes but not driving in cars, but yet the risks don't line up with that. So it's interesting to see how animals process risk in the environment."

According to Krug, there are very few examples of animals actually using a dead member of their species as an indicator of risk from a potential predator nearby.

"[It's] maybe less a funeral, and more the nightly news," he added.

Researchers posited that if the highly territorial birds see a dead jay as a risk, they might call others together to gang up on whatever animal might be prowling.

"The scientists also found that if they put a stuffed great-horned owl out, it elicited the same response ... but the birds also attacked. They'd collectively swoop at the owl to try and drive it away," Krug explained.

But researchers also postulated the jays may have more selfish intentions during the gathering, including taking the freed up territory for its own. Also, some jays without a mate might capitalize on a newly widowed bird.

Guest:

Pat Krug, marine biologist and professor at California State University Los Angeles


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