22 October 2009
Magpie funeral rites?
The Telegraph has a curious report on a study by a Dr Bekoff from the University of Colorado who claims that magpies feel grief and even hold funeral-type gatherings for their fellow birds.
Dr Bekoff studied four magpies alongside a magpie corpse and recorded their behaviour.
"One approached the corpse, gently pecked at it, just as an elephant would nose the carcase of another elephant, and stepped back. Another magpie did the same thing, " he said. "Next, one of the magpies flew off, brought back some grass and laid it by the corpse. Another magpie did the same. Then all four stood vigil for a few seconds and one by one flew off."
After publishing an account of the funeral he received emails from people who had seen the same ritual in magpies, ravens and crows.
"We can't know what they were actually thinking or feeling, but reading their action there's no reason not to believe these birds were saying a magpie farewell to their friend," he wrote in the journal Emotion, Space and Society.
Those who see emotions in animals have been accused of anthropomorphism – the attribution of human characteristics to animals. However, Dr Bekoff said emotions evolved in humans and animals because they improve the chances of survival. "It's bad biology to argue against the existence of animal emotions," he said.
Who knows what the magpies were thinking or doing. Although it is dangerous to apply human emotions directly to animals, the elements of behaviour that have evolved into emotions in our species are present in other species. So perhaps they were conducting a rudimentary funeral rite. However it could have been that the dead magpie was an utter git and the other magpies were making sure he was really dead!