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Do Crows Mourn?

October 22, 2014

Researchers at the University of Washington have discovered that crows might hold funerals, and sophisticated brain scans might tell why.

When a group of crows gathers it’s called a murder. But sometimes, “funeral” might be a more apropos term.

Crows, like people, are social creatures and highly intelligent. They have brains that are huge for their body size. And they share similar traits and social strategies with humans. They mate for life, associate with relatives, and even nest near other crows that you might consider neighbors. They pick fights with and sometimes even murder other crows. They lure prey to their death. They drink coffee and beer. They turn on lights to stay warm, design and use tools and even have been known to work in tandem to spray soft cheese out of a can. Their marvelous brains allow them to think, plan and potentially even reflect on their actions.

But the similarities don’t end there; crows appear to maintain a very human-like tradition. When one crow dies, dozens of birds will often gather around in what looks quite similar to a funeral.

A team of researchers from the University of Washington is trying to understand why the birds do this. Are they grieving their dead? Experiencing emotions akin to what humans do when a loved one dies? Or is it something else entirely?

University of Washington researchers set out a stuffed crow to see how wild birds react and whether they hold a "funeral."

To study this curious phenomenon, researchers set out a stuffed crow to see how wild birds react to it. Typically, a bird or birds will come across the body and begin cawing loudly. This attracts more crows to the scene. A dozen to several dozen will surround the body, cawing, fussing and maybe even showing a little reverence. After about 20 to 30 minutes they’ll fly off, leaving the body where it is.

“They seem to be taking in some information,” said Kaeli Swift, a University of Washington graduate student who studies these funeral behaviors in wild crows. “Maybe it’s a way for them to gather birds around and say, ‘Look at this place where we found this dead body. This place is dangerous. We should avoid it.’”

But to understand what’s really happening, researchers need to get inside the crows’ heads. To do that, renowned crow researcher John Marzluff captures wild crows and uses PET scans to see what parts of the crow brain light up when they’re exposed to a dead crow and other stimuli.

University of Washington researchers use PET scans to see what parts of the crow brain are active when they view another dead crow.

If, for example, the amygdala—the part of the brain linked to emotions—is active when the caged birds see a dead crow, it could suggest the birds are feeling strong emotions.

But early results indicate that the crows are using a different part of their brain, the area associated with long-term memory. It could be a similar reaction to what a human would have upon seeing a stranger lying dead in the road.

“If you see a stranger that’s dead, you might feel sorry,” Marzluff said, “but you’re also afraid and you’re also wondering, ‘What happened here? Should I be here? Am I gonna be the next one to be hit?’”

Learning about danger seems to be one of the most important functions of these funerals, Marzluff said. “But it doesn’t mean there aren’t other things also going on,” he said. “You know at the same time that you’re learning about danger, you might be feeling bad or afraid about it.”

The crow studies continue, and Marzluff and the team hope their results will shed new light on our understanding of crow behavior.

Crows share similar traits and social strategies with humans, among them — They mate for life and associate with relatives and neighbors for years. They drink coffee and beer. And they design and use tools.

“We’re allowing people to see how complex other animals are,” Marzluff said. “They’re not just a blank part of the background that we walk through every day. They’re actually very thoughtful and emotional animals that respond to things in very similar ways that we do. And that’s important to appreciate.”



Made possible in part by

Michael Werner

Michael Werner is a five-time Emmy Award-winning filmmaker and journalist. His work has been featured on The PBS NewsHour, HBO Films, Showtime, PBS QUEST, CBS This Morning, MSNBC, The Associated Press, PBS SciTech Now, Nat Geo Wild, PBS EarthFix, Voice of America TV, The World Channel, Gawker Media, The U.S. Olympic Committee, and the Cannes International Film Festival. In 2014 Michael won the American Association for the Advancement of Science Journalism Award for his story Wolves and the Ecology of Fear. He has won Emmy awards for producing, photography and editing and his work has taken him from the Arctic to the Equator.

More stories by Michael Werner

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Great story! Now can you post of picture of crows drinking beer?

About 10 yrs ago I was looking out the window of my mothers house when I saw an injured crow flapping its wings and scooting across the lawn. Trying to take flight.
I called wildlife rescue, covered the crow with a towel, like they said, and put it in a cardboard box and set the box under in the patio, under the roof. All the while its many crow friends were cawing at me from all the trees around. It turned out that the crow had a broken back. Anyway, I don't think they realized the rescue volunteer took it away cause every time, for days after, when I would go outside , they would all caw at me!! I assume they wanted me to give their friend back to them! Even weeks later it seemed I was the target of their cawing!!

A week ago I was traveling Hwy. 402 between Sarnia and London, Ontario. There was a dead crow along the road dead,feet up, and 8 or so other crows were gathered in a nearly perfect circle, looking at it quietly. It was as though they were contemplating/grieving their colleague. It is a limited access highway and stopping is not permitted and I couldn't get a picture.

Four days ago I found a dead baby crow about a week away from being self sufficient. It fell either from the nest or out of the sky (learning to fly) to in front of my apt. The mother and father was watching and cawing and dive bombing anyone who came near the dead baby.
The female for 3 days later kept watching it from a telephone wire across the street. Yesterday, was the forth day and she stayed there right up to 9pm watching and waiting. Now I believe she was grieving her baby. I actually started to cry. After dark I removed the baby to be disposed. I never knew the depths of a crow's love for their young. I know of a girl who had three abortions in a short period of time and never thought twice about it. I have had a wake up call from a bird that haunts me. She is back right now still cawing loudly. My heart is aching for that mother.

How many days soul stays inside crow?

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