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Animal Funerals

Do magpies express grief?


Yellow-billed Magpie

Tiny Gehrke

When a Yellow-billed Magpie dies, other magpies may descend on the carcass, hopping and making loud squawking noises for prolonged periods. Some biologists have described these reactions as "funeral behaviors," although their function has remained unexplained ever since their discovery in 1972 by Nicholas Verbeek.

Could the magpies be expressing grief? In human societies, death rituals sometimes involve coming into contact with the deceased, such as ceremonies centered on washing the body or open-casket wakes and funerals. Rituals that involve prolonged contact with the dead are puzzling, because contagion is always a potential cost, and because the benefits of these rituals are poorly understood.

Funeral-like behavior does not mean that animals feel the emotions we attribute to grief, nor does exploration of the adaptive function of funerals negate their psychological function for people. Is there adaptive value, for humans and other animals, associated with grief and the rituals surrounding death?

Because they are rarely observed, research on animal funerals has not progressed very far beyond simple observation. African elephants take a strong interest in decaying corpses, bawling around them, touching them with their trunks, burying the carcass with tree branches, picking up bones and tusks, and passing bones or carrying them off. Chimpanzees are also known to respond to death in a manner that resembles human grief by crying out for prolonged periods.

Like us, chimps, elephants, and magpies are all highly social; perhaps their grief reactions function as a social signal that allows for reshuffling of status relationships, facilitates filling of the reproductive vacancy left by the deceased, or fosters continuity of the group. One prediction of this hypothesis is that funerals should occur in animals that live in groups and, although there are few data, so far this appears to be true.

Janis L. Dickinson, Citizen Science director, and
Miyoko Chu, science editor

 

For permission to reprint all or part of this article, please contact Laura Erickson, editor, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, 159 Sapsucker Woods Rd., Ithaca, NY, 14850. Phone: (607) 254-1114. email: lle24@cornell.edu

 
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