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back to article Magpies hold funerals for fallen feathered friends

A University of Colorado scientist has claimed that magpies hold "funerals" for fallen friends, demonstrating that they're all a lot more touchy-feely than they might appear. Dr Marc Bekoff observed four magpies alongside a fallen comrade, and recounted: "One approached the corpse, gently pecked at it, just as an elephant would …

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Coat

"We can't know what they were actually thinking or feeling,.."

Cough! Splutter!

Higher Education has come to this!

Mine's the one with a quarter ounce of Nepalese Temple Balls in the pocket ... I'm off to enjoy a quiet smoke in the countryside away from these educated types.

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Seriously?!

Don't get me wrong, I've seen elephants pining for a deceased family member on wildlife documentaries, but birds fetching some grass to lay it by the corpse? Why, exactly? That's the kind of thing people might do to 'provide for them in the afterlife', like when a person is buried in nice clothes or with treasured belongings etc. Is it possible that the sentiment is to provide a nest - i.e. 'Rest in Peace'?

if true, consider my ghast to be well and truly flabbered...

It's not April 1st is it?

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A carrion eater pecking at carrion?

Shocking proof of reflective emotions right there.

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Gates Halo

Not surprised

Really, it is incredibly stupid of humans to assume that only they have emotions or belief system of any sort.

After all, crows have been observed *making* tools, something that a lot of our monkey cousins don't appear to be able to manage, so why not extend that forward thinking to the other areas of life (and death)?

No "monkey boy Balmer" icon, so BillyG had to do.

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Pint

Burying a Good Story!

What a load of nonsense! Magpies are part of the Crow family, notorious carrion eaters. They were pecking the dead Magpie to see if it was tasty, having decided it was they brought some salad to their table. When they flew off they were all going to find a decent Cabinet Sauvignon. Once they had carried that back then the truth would have been revealed but the researcher had left by then to write about Magpie funerals. Magpie dinner parties more like!

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Masterchef

It's quite simple. The Magpies in question had clearly seen Saturday Morning Kitchen and were using the grass to impart flavour to the carcass. Had he hung around long enough, he'd have seen them return to devour their fallen comrade, washed down with a nice Chablis.

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Coat

@Dan 10

Wouldn't that be "Nest in Peace"?

I'll get my coat...

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Boffin

Bad biology?

<< Bekoff dismissed the idea that such observations were merely cases of anthropomorphism, and defended: "It's bad biology to argue against the existence of animal emotions." >>

He obviously doesn't know what anthropomorphism means. Criticism on such grounds isn't arguing against the existence of animal emotions; rather, it's arguing against the existence of human emotions in animals.

Using phrases like "the only obvious conclusion" and "no reason not to believe" smacks of bad science to me. A couple of seconds thought on the disabled elephant led me to a slightly different but no less obvious conclusion - even disabled, an angry elephant is still a quite formidable opponent against predators so the herd made a decision that it was better off with than without. This isn't "caring" for an individual elephant, it's a simple value judgement that fits in well with herd mentality.

I hate this kind of biology with totally off the wall yet pseudo human interest conclusions like these. It's not so much the behavioural observation that I object to but the anthropic layer that seems to be added purely for media satiation.

Right, I'm off to read the not exactly media friendly and conclusionless ignoble winning duck story again to cheer myself up: http://moeliker.wordpress.com/the-duck/

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a large slice of anthropomorphizing

It sounds like an awfully like wishful thinking / anthropomorphizing. I’m not sure that macro observational evidence can provide a valid route to an understanding of the inner mind of the magpies and other birds.

I don’t necessarily assume animals don’t have an awareness of death, but ritualising a funeral is taking it to another next level of assumption.

At best I would say it has no more credibility then the scenario that the birds were waiting for the dead bird to respond/move/react. They poked it, nothing happened. They brought something which might stimulate the bird into reacting. Could have been food, something shiny, or some nesting material. Still nothing happened. The birds stood there, waiting for something to happen and it didn’t. One by one they flew off because we were observing the limited concentration span of individual birds. The first bird to go was the one that decided/realised nothing of interest was going to happen so it might as well go off and do other activities. The other birds came to the same conclusion at different times and subsequently flew off at different times.

Why do humans have funerals? Off the top of my head I would say the reasons are either religious, legal or for some sort of ‘closure’ to help the living come to terms with the death.

I can only imagine the last reason being the one that might be applicable to the magpies.

Is it a learned behaviour? Would a magpie family brought up in captivity spontaneously display this behaviour if they had not seen it being done before…?

I’ll be happy to be proved wrong if sometime in the future we have evidence to the contrary, but at this stage I think we are clutching at straws.

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Alien

The evidence mounts...

...that the Magpie Conspiracy is nearing launch day.

You had all better be ready to welcome your Corvid overlords.

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Anonymous Coward

two for joy...

I for one, welcome our Magpie overloads.

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Film please

or it didn't happen.

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Happy

Were they whistling

another one bites the dust, or simply the best?

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Headmaster

@bad biology

I love to here his thoughts on the gay necro-duck too.

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Linux

The Birds

It's all very Alfred Hitchcock to me.....

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But was it a religious or secular service?

And did they play Tina Turner or "My Way"?

Enquiring Bishops need to know!

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Thumb Down

Further data required.

If they'd used their beaks to dig a little hole, shoved their buddy in it, covered him over, erected some kind of stick monument and had an owl divide up the dead magpie's belongings between the other birds, I'd've been more convinced about the theory.

But then again that's the good thing about theories, you can look at the evidence and make up any shit you like as long as you think it fits.

Bad scientist!

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Happy

Never seen it

and I've shot hundreds.

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Linux

Have you forgotten...

... that Humans are animals as well?

Makes me laugh, the search for extra terrestial intelligence (SETI), would we in our arrogance even recognise "other" intelligent life? Even when the intelligence may well be right here on our own planet, among the birds.

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corvids

Yes they're carrion eaters but they're also some of the brightest birds going.

Whether the birds in the observation were having an empathic response to a "fallen comrade" or just making sure "Old Bob's really dead" or even what he tastes like... we may never know.

Bad science would be to draw some kind of conclusion that the birds were holding funeral rites ... surely before you could even begin to make that claim you'd need to study families of magpies over a prolonged period of time to see if they exhibited any other behaviour that could be attributed to a form of empathy - particularly with other members of their species.

If they display no other empathic responses it's highly unlikely that giving poor ol' dead Bob a bit of a poke had anything to do with loss or mourning... perhaps to do with curiosity - which Magpies are renowned for.

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FAIL

@ Paul Crawford

Making a tool doesn't give you a belief system - with all the cosmological and eschatological explanations that come with a belief system. All it means is that you can make a tool.

Confusing the two means that you can't tell the difference between them, and possibly think one substitutes for another.

You really are a plonker, Rodney.

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(Written by Reg staff)

Re: corvids

Pigeons don't seem to care about their dead. I saw one perched on the dangling body of another which had come a cropper sticking its head through the window of a derelict building. Must have been more comfy to sit on.

There are plenty cases of dogs keeping vigil next to dead people or other dogs and all that so it wouldn't surprise me to see that some of the more intelligent other animals do similar.

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Elephants

Don't predators pick on the sick and lame? If I was wondering around the Serengeti I'd like to do it with someone in worse condition than me too.

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Funerals and beliefs

Why does everyone assume that human funeral rites had their origins in religion? If these observations were repeated, we could posit instead that various behaviours contributed to it:

1. Check the bugger's dead.

2. Whee-yoo -- go and do something with that cadaver, it's stinking the place out.

3. Communities that buried or burned their dead lived longer cos of lack of disease.

4. Communities that buried or burned their dead lived longer cos the local predators didn't develop a taste for human flesh.

The religious elements -- providing for the afterlife, appeasing angry gods, showing respect for the spirit -- could have been mere post-facto rationalisation.

(Disclaimer: I am actually religious, it's just that I accept the legitimacy of anthropological inquiry. Knowing the biological or psychological basis for belief neither confirms nor denies that belief.)

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Pirate

Hang on...

A magpie just flew down and put some grass on my shoulder............

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FAIL

Bah

Funeral my ass!!!

Having said that, I've heard it said that crows are monogamous and I have seen solitary crows keeping vigil near dead partners.

Where I live currently I've also seen regular battles between the crows and magpies with up to 20 birds involved (usually in spring when the magpies, having babies to protect, get very territorial).

I have no doubt crows and magpies have some familial instincts, but claiming they have funerals just smacks of anthropomorphism.

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Anonymous Coward

Mick Robertson ?

Oh, its the birds...I thought you were talking about Mick Robertson, Jenny Hanley et al

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(Written by Reg staff)

Re: Bah

It's semantics really though isn't it. What is a funeral? What are the basic components once you take away things only humans can bring to them? Of course taking that literally is absurd as is suggesting animals have anything approaching religion, but they have what you could describe as rituals - mating rituals, eating rituals. No reason why they shouldn't have some rudimentary death rituals. It's just headline-grabbing shorthand to refer to them as 'funerals'.

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Headmaster

Social animals

Same sort of behaviour has arisen in most forms of social animal, one imagines. Strange that we equate emotional or social attachment with intelligence and the capacity for abstract thought and self awareness. We evolved as social animals long before our brains got big by chowing down on more protein-rich savanna-fodder. And the clever stuff came later.

Go to the back of the class, you.

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Boffin

@Sarah Bee

"but they have what you could describe as rituals - mating rituals, eating rituals. No reason why they shouldn't have some rudimentary death rituals."

Mating rituals have evolved many times through sexual selection. eg. I'm better than him because I have a longer tail proving my superior health and resistance to disease/parasites so mate with me and have good babies!

I have never heard of the term eating rituals but I suppose you may mean the way, for example, alpha males in lion prides (and other species) eat first. This is not so much a ritual but more in the way of "I'll bite your feckin' head off if you try and eat my food!" - The rest of the pride are being submissive and protecting themselves by waiting till Alpha is full.

Not to say there isn't but I can't see much evolutionary advantage in a magpie having a "funeral"/ritual. Could it be that the magpie with the grass was on its way elsewhere when it saw the commotion again and went to investigate thinking food or mating.

Magpies are also attracted to others for feeding/mating/fighting and fly in groups. If you ever set a Larsen trap (with one egg) you will find 3 or 4 magpies in there the next day as one flies in and gets trapped in a cage and others go to see what is happening and get trapped in neighbouring cages (with no eggs). Repeat.

http://images.google.co.uk/images?q=larsen+trap

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Pint

Nice waste of a grant!

Magpies pining? Balls! They were probably trying to see if the lazy sod would get up and move again, after he didn't, he thought sod it and left him to the crows! Not saying other animals don't have feelings, but funerals? Do me a favour!

On a lighter note...

One of the best books I have ever read, "What Happens After We Die".

Fantastic read, nice light read all about the rituals and basic medical details of human death. Really fascinating, when my Mum passed on really helped me get through it a lot more easily.

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Animalo/pomo/rphism

Is a belief held be animals that adult humanoids do not have emotions unless they have been evoked by one or other mass media. This is sometimes called "hearts and minds".

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Go

I wonder

If there is a Magpie vicar lamenting that his time is being wasted attending Magpie funerals only to see the corpse sent off to the sublime tunes of Tina Turner and bad poetry..

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@Elephants By SkippyBing

"Don't predators pick on the sick and lame? If I was wondering around the Serengeti I'd like to do it with someone in worse condition than me too."

It's probably not what it's all about. The problem is, if you leave the "sick and lame" behind, it gives those pesky predators a good reason to follow you around wherever you go. A bit like it's a bad idea to let food laying around if you want to avoid ants. Or roaches. Or raccoons. Or bears (check those which apply to you geographical location).

It probably played a role in the emergence of funeral rites in humans. They are very diverse (burriyng vs anging in trees vs throwing in the river on a raft etc). The most basic common denominator is that it prevents predators from being used to getting easy food if they just hang around. Because you know that sooner or later they will want more.

(also, people might have noticed at some point that hugging rotting corpses might have adverse effect on health. But that explanation doesn't work for nomadic groups).

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Boffin

@RichardIV

What makes you think our emotions are in a different class from those birds, or any other animals have? If you cut them do they not bleed? I smell some unwarranted species level special pleading. We are animals too you know.

BTW when you observe the same events it is parsimonious in the absence of evidence to the contrary to treat them as having the same source. Thus if elephants look very much like they are grieving (and remember an elephant has passed the mirror test of self awareness) then they are grieving unless and until we have evidence that they are doing something else.

It is no accident that all the species shown so far to pass the mirror test or variants are social animals, including us. BTW last night's Horizon reminded that our infants only pass it sometime between 18 and 22 months of age.

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Anonymous Coward

Doc Magpie

My dog eats grass when it's sick. Maybe they were bringing it medicine.

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Just headline grabbing, err...

"It's just headline-grabbing shorthand to refer to them as 'funerals'."

Erm, you're not suggesting that Lester would in any way use such a tactic to get people to read his stories I wouid assume? ;-)

As for the magpies - considering I believe they have quite a long life in bird terms and seem to form almost friendships (in a sense), then this all makes perfect sense. Could be they don't quite understand "dead", but maybe they do understand sickness so perhaps they're kindof looking after the bird by covering it.

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solitary

Magpies are solitary. Except for mating adults attack other magpies.

When there is a group of magpies that is a family.

So was the deceased a family member or a stranger ?

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@Sarah Bee

I couldn't have explained the notion of rituals better myself, and I have a degree in macrobiology. I think "death ritual" may be the best way to describe what Dr. Bekoff wrote about.

I think what most scientists are opposed to is *gratuitous* anthropomorphism. I didn't take any courses with Dr. Bekoff, but his colleague at CU, Dr. David Chiszar, really made a point of discussing this topic. And rightly so. Gratuitous anthropomorphism is the practice of taking an animal behavior and attributing human motivations to it at a prima fascie level. This is a problem because it keeps from digging deeper and actually doing any meaningful investigation. HOWEVER, and any scientist will likely agree, animals and humans share most of the same prime motivators, so you can rule-out a common motivator for a similar behavior.

Gratuitous anthropomorphism would say that the magpies held a "funeral" to bid their fallen comrade farewell and brought grass for it to thrive in a corvid afterlife.

Scientific inquiry would try to distinguish coincidental behaviors from those that the animals behaved in as a direct result of encountering a non-responsive comrade. This is much different from taking a hardline that animals can't experience emotional responses or do anything for reasons that would remotely resemble human motivations.

Based on the abstract that the Reg presents, it sounds like bringing grass to the corpse was a deliberate act and not a coincidence. I'm guessing Dr. Bekoff didn't observe them attempting to eat their dead comrade, and like most animals, birds explore their world with their face-- their beaks are their primary means of manipulating objects in their environment. Their "death ritual" is quite likely nothing more than them attempting to elicit a response from a fallen comrade before abandoning it as dead. That's a little something that humans would consider "closure", and we do similar things for similar reasons. It keeps us from abandoning our friends and offspring just because they're taking a nap or took a hard knock on the noggin and are out-cold for a few moments, and puts us in a place we can just move on with things and stop being concerned with the welfare of those no longer with us when they are really deceased.

I'm curious as to the grass bit. I highly doubt it would be an offering to the dead. The most likely motivators would seem to be either providing something to tempt the fallen into responsiveness, or maybe the odor of plucked grass has an effect similar to smelling salts on corvids? Maybe it's just a bizarre habit that one magpie learned by observing an eccentric magpie long ago. Further research would be required and hopefully will be done because that's a pretty interesting behavior to get to the bottom of.

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Not a magpie at all

That's a Norwegian blue, that is. Lovely plumage

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FAIL

Daft study if you ask me.

Most corvoids tend to work themselves in to a frenzy if they find a dead mate of theirs. Quite often they'll make enough racket that half the neighbourhood will come and join in. I've personally seen 50+(rough guess) rooks, crows, magpies and a couple of jays going mental over a crow decoy left on its side in a field.

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@Mannie3 - anthropomorphism: there's a lot of it about

"... the birds were waiting for the dead bird to respond/move/react. They poked it, nothing happened. They brought something which might stimulate the bird into reacting. Could have been food, something shiny, or some nesting material. Still nothing happened. The birds stood there, waiting for something to happen and it didn’t. One by one they flew off because we were observing the limited concentration span of individual birds. The first bird to go was the one that decided/realised nothing of interest was going to happen so it might as well go off and do other activities."

You appear to have described the process of scientific research rather well. Or perhaps I should call it - the science ritual.

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Headmaster

@Muscleguy

I'm not suggesting our emotions are in a different class - simply that we should be very wary before assuming that behaviours are close analogues of displays of human emotions and vice versa. Humans themselves aren't exactly consistent when it comes to grieving (or a lot of other emotions), so it's surely cultural-level special pleading to assume that because it looks like your version of grief it therefore must be grief.

That's why I like the gay necro duck article besides my delight in the macabre. No theories as to why the duck did what it did, it simply notes the observed behaviour, and why it is notable.

You don't have to draw conclusions - it's OK to await further evidence.

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Anonymous Coward

Sounds right to me.

I lived in a house in the Adeladie hills, on a huge block of land surrouded by trees, which were populated by a lot of Magpies. Occasionally I would find a large group of 20 or more standing close together in the driveway, for no apparent reason. They seemed to take turns in "Talking".

It looked for all the world as though they were having a meeting of some sort!

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FAIL

Doesn't really stand up, does it?

If it were robust, it'd be published in an actual biological journal, say Animal Behaviour. If it's in a mag with a name like a Laurie Anderson "poem", I'm not gonna bother, let alone pay for access (did you, Reg?).

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Joke

It in an Ex Magpie; it has ceased to be

'E's not pinin'! 'E's passed on! This parrot is no more! He has ceased to be! 'E's expired and gone to meet 'is maker! 'E's a stiff! Bereft of life, 'e rests in peace! If you hadn't nailed 'im to the perch 'e'd be pushing up the daisies! 'Is metabolic processes are now 'istory! 'E's off the twig! 'E's kicked the bucket, 'e's shuffled off 'is mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleedin' choir invisibile!! THIS IS AN EX-MAGPIE!!

The other magpies were checking to see whether it was really dead or simply pining for the fjords

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Boffin

Anthropomorphism is the base assuption

If someone wants me to assume that animals do not think & feel like humans, albeit in differing levels of complexity, they need to show me the proof that humans are magically distinct from the other animals in some fundamental way. Until then I will continue to agree with Darwin that dogs have a sense of humour and that elephants and whales can be sentimentally attached to non-mates.

What these magpies were up to is not clear, but it sounds like they wanted their dead chum to not be dead. More than that is hard to say.

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Ritual? Or curiosity?

I think I'd need more than one account before I could see the Ceremonial Laying On Of grasses as a crow funereal* ritual.

However, whether it's a one-off incident or a ritual which might be performed for any Fallen Feathered Friend, it's certainly interesting.

As I see it, it could be explained by curiosity as easily as emotion (Pecking at it to see if it reacts; nope. Balance things on it to see if it shifts and knocks them off; nuh-uh. Well, guess it's really dead then. Wonder what else is going on?)

Or a combination of the two ("Bob? you ok mate?" *poke* "Bob! Wakey wakey!" *poke* Oh God, check 'is breathing... *grasses dumped, remain in place* "No, he can't be dead!" says other crow, repeats the grass test. Eventually they come to terms with the loss, observe a moment's silence and fly off to grieve by themselves).

Don't think you should claim "funerals" (note the plural) without evidence that it's a frequent occurrence (one datum is not enough to base any theory on!) It could be evidence of Corvid emotion, or Corvid curiosity, or even that Corvids have the concept of checking-for-life-signs-before-pronouncing-them-legally-dead - but in whatever the theory, needs quite a few more examples before making general statements about how these fascinating creatures actually see the world.

*Just in case: Not a typo.

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@AC 12:34

"Making a tool doesn't give you a belief system - with all the cosmological and eschatological explanations that come with a belief system. All it means is that you can make a tool."

The act of *making* a tool shows that you have analysed a problem and identified some implement that can be made to help solve it, i.e. you can "looked forward" rather than simply react.

I never said that crows have a planed system of beliefs to the level of complexity (and stupidity) that humans have, what I said was it is no surprise that they could have something, e.g. a death ritual, or some other capability to contemplate the fate of the other bird.

What gives us this, and why so you think it is unique my cowardly friend?

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Not just carrion meat.

Corvids do eat carrion, but are quite capable of taking live prey if the opportunity arises. They're not quite as efficient in the killing and tearing up stakes as specialist birds of prey, but I've seen them grab, kill and peck apart goslings and songbirds. If they did want to make a meal of a fallen magpie, they would not need to wait for the corpse to "mature" before tucking in.

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