September 3, 2012 12:36 pm
“Darkling I listen; and, for many a time // I have been half in love with easeful Death,” wrote John Keats as he basked in a nightingale’s forlorn song. “While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad // In such an ecstasy! . . . Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!” he gushed.
Keats’ famous ode may have been addressed to the western scrub jay, however, if he’d been aware of the latest ornithological findings. Researchers recently observed that jays hold funeral reveries for fallen comrades. When the jays encounter one of their dead kind, they call out to each other and stop foraging. The birds gather around the dead body and start making calls known as zeeps, scolds and zeep-scolds to encourage other jays to attend to the dead, the BBC reports.
The puzzled researchers decided to test the jay’s behavior using a few different objects. They put brightly colored pieces of wood, stuffed jays, dead jays and stuffed great horned owls (jay predators) around backyards. The jays ignored the wood objects but began making alarm calls and gathering when they spied the dead jay. For over a day, they stopped foraging for food.
When the researchers exposed the birds to the stuffed owl, they made alarm calls and swooped at the predator, a behavior they never adopted when faced with their own dead.
As for the stuffed jays, they either ignored them or mobbed them, a behavior they often adopt when encountering an outside or a sick bird.
The researchers think that the jays are not approaching the dead birds as novelty objects, since they ignored the wooden blocks. Rather, the presence of a dead bird—just like that of a predator—is information worthy of public broadcasting. The researchers think this behavior might have evolved in order to warn other birds of potential nearby danger, lowering their risk of encountering whatever killed the original bird.
Other animals take notice of their dead, too. Giraffes and elephants hang out around the corpses of their deceased, and polar bears and chimps sometimes enter into depression after losing a close relative or mate.
More from Smithsonian.com:
Sign up for our free email newsletter and receive the best stories from Smithsonian.com each week.