Odd! Birds Screech at Avian Funerals

Clockwise from top left: A painted object; a dead jay; a stuffed, perched jay; and a stuffed owl predator are used to test jays' reactions to different objects. (Image credit: Teresa Iglesias, UC Davis photos)

Western scrub jays are not particularly friendly birds, but when they spot a fallen comrade, they hold screeching "funerals" for as long as a half-hour, a new study shows.

Researcher Teresa Iglesias, a University of California, Davis graduate student, set up feeding tables in backyards near the school to attract the territorial blue birds, which live in breeding pairs and are not very social. Iglesias video-recorded the jays' reactions when she placed a dead jay on the ground near the feeding tables; she compared these reactions with the birds' behavior upon seeing a stuffed jay, a stuffed horned owl and pieces of wood painted to look like jay feathers near the table.

When confronting a dead jay splayed out on the ground, the birds dashed to a tree and began a series of loud, screeching calls to attract other Western scrub jays, which joined and added their voices to the choir. Iglesias found that these shrieking sessions could last from a few seconds to as long as 30 minutes.

And if the other jays were slow to join the bird that sounded the alarm, that jay would fly to a higher tree, in an apparent effort to be heard, reports Iglesias, whose research is detailed in the Aug. 27 issue of the journal Animal Behaviour. [See Video of the Bird Funerals]

"It looked like they were actively trying to attract attention," she said in a statement from UC Davis.

The jays had a similar response to the stuffed predator owl, while they ignored the painted wood; as for the stuffed jay, the other birds swooped in on it, as if trying to attack it. Iglesias explained in the statement that the loud calls seemed to alert the other birds about a danger, though it is unclear why they would gather together instead of taking heed of the warning and fleeing from the stuffed owl. (The stuffed jay may also have signaled danger and as such elicited a danger response, the researchers noted.) The researcher said the jays may gain strength in numbers, with more birds to spot a predator or drive it away.

Previous research has shown that some creatures, like elephants and chimpanzees, have strong reactions to the dead of their species, though that does not necessarily imply these animal funerals have the same emotional or ritual elements as human ones.

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