Birds do, apparently, have some capacity to grieve, and numerous anecdotes portray them as mourning, or at least recognizing when one among them has died, in what some have described as “funerals.”
However, not all instances of birds gathering around a dead bird’s corpse necessarily indicate that they are carrying out a "funeral" in the sense that humans define them. Crows and jaybirds, for example, are likely trying to assess any potential threats around the dead body by gathering and alerting others.
Different birds react to their dead differently, and their ways of "mourning" are often based on anecdotal evidence. Whether they conduct funerals of their own depends on the type of bird, the situation being described, and our own very human definitions of “funereal” behavior.
Do birds mourn their dead?
It seems that they can, according to a number of anecdotes and studies, but it is difficult to determine if they have “funerals” in the way humans would imagine.
Snopes readers asked us to determine if birds hold funerals for their dead, and the answer is as complex and wide-ranging as there are birds in the sky. Some readers shared a link of what could be black vultures, or another kind of dark-colored bird, gathering and spreading their wings as they see a dead bird on the road. The post asks: Is this a funeral?
We don’t know for sure what is happening in this clip. It is possible that the birds were gathering and acknowledging the death by sending out warning calls for possible danger around them. This pattern of behavior occurs with crows, magpies, and jays, according to some studies.
A University of California, Davis study, “Western scrub-jay funerals: cacophonous aggregations in response to dead conspecifics,” found that western scrub-jay birds would often gather and “alarm call” in response to finding one of their own dead. They did this to share information around risk, and to highlight possible danger in the area.
While the report itself doesn’t explicitly describe these actions as a funeral, lead author Teresa Iglesias told NPR that the word in the headline is used, “only to the extent that it is an animal paying attention to another dead animal.”
I do not wish to imply anything about the occurrence (or absence) of an emotional or cognitive response by using the word ‘funeral.’ The use of the term in the title is due to the fact that it has been used to describe animal responses to their dead in many other species (crows, magpies, ravens, elephants, chimps … ) and I wanted to make sure this work could be linked to those anecdotal observations.
One of the most notable Black-billed Magpie behaviors is the so-called “funeral”—when one magpie discovers a dead magpie, it begins calling loudly to attract other magpies. The gathering of raucously calling magpies (up to 40 birds have been observed) may last for 10 to 15 minutes before the birds disperse and fly off silently.
The gathering of birds around the body of a dead bird appears to have more significance than just mourning, but also as a way to signal to each other the presence of danger. With that said, birds do have the capacity to grieve their dead, as described by Marc Bekoff, a professor of evolutionary biology and ecology at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He wrote about observing a magpie funeral:
“One magpie approached the corpse, gently pecked at it, just as an elephant would nose the carcass of another elephant, and stepped back … Another magpie did the same thing. 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.” Afterwards, Rod and I also talked about how the surviving magpies seemed to tip their heads forward ever so slightly before they flew off. To date I’ve received numerous stories about these sorts of rituals primarily for crows, ravens, and magpies and one for starlings.
He added, “we need more data about how different animals grieve and mourn the loss of friends and family, but there is overwhelming evidence that individuals of many different species do.”
Furthermore, numerous examples highlighted from observations of different species of birds show them reacting to death, like the two domestic mulard ducks brought to a New York sanctuary in 2006 who formed a close relationship. One reacted to the other’s death by placing his head and neck on his still body for hours at a time before it also passed away two months later. In 2015 a camera recorded parents experiencing the loss of Osprey hatchlings from their nest — they had been stolen by a bald eagle. The mother was perched above the empty next emitting soft calls, perhaps in search of her missing chicks.
While these observations showed that birds have the apparent capacity to grieve and mourn, they didn’t necessarily prove that we know when or in what ways it takes place. Some argue that birds reacting to the deaths of others by changing their behavior could also be a result of confusion, not grief.
Birds may be holding “funerals” for their dead, but not necessarily in the ways we humans perceive funerals to be. Given that more evidence is needed, but anecdotal evidence suggests that birds may and possibly do mourn, we rate this claim a “Mixture.”