What is it that makes us human? What is the difference between us and other animals? Some might say that we are the only species that truly understands the concept of death - but elephants and giraffes have been known to mourn their dead. Now, researchers have also identified another species that may hold funerals: the western scrub jay.
The western scrub jay is a blue bird (not to be confused with blue jays, an entirely different species of bird) found in the western part of North America. Researchers have found that, when they identify a dead member of their flock, they all start calling one another and gather around the body. While researchers cannot say conclusively that the birds are performing a eulogy, they did find that the birds all stopped foraging for food for the rest of the day. They could not identify whether this temporary refusal of food was out of mourning. Researchers believe that these "funerals" may have come out of a need to alert other western scrub jays of predators in the area.
The study on the bird required the researchers from the University of California, Davis to place objects in residential backyards and see how the birds reacted. The objects ranged from pieces of wood, dead jays, mounted, stuffed jays and great horned owls. The stuffed jays and the owls indicated the presence of live, unknown jays and predators.
The jays did not react to the pieces of wood. But when they spotted a dead jay, they swooped down and surrounded it, calling to jays long distances away. When they spotted predators, they made the same call, but also swooped to try to attack it. Occasionally, they attacked the mounted, stuffed birds, a behavior in keeping with recorded actions. In the wild, the birds sometimes attack rivals and sick birds. They did not attack the dead jays.
The study says that "without witnessing the struggle and manner of death," the birds note a death as important as the presence of a predator.
The study was published in Animal Science.