Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Scrub-Jay Funerals and Blue Jay Irish Wakes

Western Scrub-Jay

I celebrate National Blue Jay Awareness Month every time there’s a Blue Moon, so this year marked it in August. And no sooner than the month was over than BBC Nature reported on a jay study just published in the journal Animal Behaviour. Scientists at the University of California, Davis, conducted experiments showing that Western Scrub-Jays hold an avian form of a funeral when they discover a dead jay. When the researchers, led by Teresa Iglesias, set out a dead jay or a mounted specimen of a jay in a residential neighborhood, the first jay to encounter it called out to other jays. The whole group stopped foraging, often flying down to the dead body in a group. They made alarm calls and an array of other calls that apparently drew in other jays. They didn’t resume foraging for food sometimes for more than a day. (Discovery News also posted about this research.)

Western Scrub-Jay

The researchers placed other objects in the same kinds of areas, and found that the birds ignored colored pieces of wood, so the birds weren’t simply surprised to find something novel. When the researchers set out a stuffed Great Horned Owl, the jays gathered and made alarm calls, swooping at it as they do to live predators, until they figured out that it wasn’t a threat. They didn’t swoop at dead jays that looked dead, though they sometimes did swoop at dead jays stuffed to appear alive, the way their species sometimes attacks strange jays invading their territory. With an actual dead bird, the scrub-jays held what the researchers concluded was a form of funeral, the function of which might be to warn others of nearby danger.

On the BBC Nature page with this story, they linked to a story about a mother giraffe who would not leave the body of her dead calf, considering this, as well as similar stories about elephants and chimpanzees, evidence that some mammals may feel grief. Whether birds feel grief is a question the Western Scrub-Jay study didn’t even attempt to address, since the dead jays that they set out weren’t individuals known to the jays being studied. Really, if there was a human connection to be made, it seems to me less comparable to a funeral than to the ritual some people have of reading the obituary page, noticing what ages various people are who have died, what they died from, and silently or not so silently wondering abut their own chances for longevity.

Blue Jay near my window

I’ve personally witnessed Blue Jays at Hawk Ridge after one of their flock members was plucked off by a Sharp-shinned Hawk or Merlin. In those cases, the killed jays weren’t around for a proper funeral, but I’ve often compared the surviving jays’ behavior to what I’ve seen at various Irish wakes in Chicago. My father, an Irish Chicago firefighter, died in 1980 of a sudden heart attack right after a fire—he was only 50. At the funeral home on the two nights of the wake, his brother, also a Chicago firefighter, met every new firefighter at the door. They’d walk up to the casket, my uncle sobbing, them talking about how good he looked except for being dead, sometimes also talking about how they should spend more time in the gym or going on a diet or something—the subtext being that they wanted to avoid the same fate. Then they’d head to the bar next door, getting back in time for my uncle to greet the next firefighter to arrive.

Blue Jay

Hawk Ridge isn’t conveniently situated next to a bar as Chicago funeral homes all seem to be, but otherwise the jays’ behavior after one was killed always made me think of my dad’s wake. Those jay gatherings often lasted for over an hour, and if other jays were coming through while the first flock was still squawking, the new jays would join in. It’s impossible for a species with our limitations to know what their widely varied chatter and squawking meant. Were the birds feeling sorrow, anxiety, fear, or outrage? If they could calm their nerves with a good stiff drink at an Irish bar, would they? Until Rosetta Stone software starts including lessons to teach us Blue Jay language, we just can’t know. We may not understand bird language yet, but I can’t imagine that jays of all kinds don’t share a lot more in common with us humans than most people think.

Christmas 1951
(I'm the baby in this photo, taken in 1951 at my grandparents' house.)