Crows, highly intelligent and social birds, have exhibited behaviors that some observers interpret as resembling a form of funeral, or a ritual mourning of the dead. While this concept has drawn attention and speculation, there is no comprehensive scientific evidence in formal literature that definitively confirms crows hold funerals in the human sense.
How crows mourn their dead
Crows, renowned for their intelligence and adaptability, engage in a variety of complex social behaviors that mirror those of humans and other highly social animals. These behaviors include sophisticated communication, strong familial bonds, and communal activities. One of the most intriguing aspects of their social life is their response to death, which has led to the concept of “crow funerals“.
When a crow discovers a deceased member of its species, it often emits alarm calls or loud scolds to alert other crows in the vicinity. These vocalizations serve to rally the community and prompt them to investigate the cause of death. This behavior, known as mobbing, involves the crows gathering around the carcass and vocalizing in a manner that could be interpreted as mourning or concern.
Researchers have observed that during these gatherings, crows exhibit remarkable cognitive abilities. Their brains are hard at work, analyzing the situation and trying to discern if there is a threat that they need to be aware of. This process can take up to 15 to 20 minutes as the crows exchange information and assess the situation.
It’s important to note that these “funerals” are not merely social gatherings. They serve a practical purpose for the crows, allowing them to gather valuable information about potential dangers in their environment. This behavior highlights the intelligence and social complexity of these remarkable birds.
While these “funerals” are generally solemn affairs, researchers have occasionally observed behaviors that might be considered unusual. For example, there have been isolated instances of necrophilia, although this behavior is not a common feature of crow funerals and is not well understood.
Do crows really hold funerals?
While observations of crow behaviors resembling funerals exist, detailed scientific literature solely focused on this behavior might be limited. The exact motivations behind these behaviors in crows are still speculative and require further comprehensive research.
An important contribution to “corvid thanatology” comes from the researcher Kaeli Swift. An increasing number of crows have been observed to avoid areas where their fellow members have met their demise. However, the extent to which these experiences might help wild populations learn about new predators remains unclear.
In a series of experiments, Swift aimed to shed light on how wild American crows, Corvus brachyrhynchos, respond to the presence of dead conspecifics.
Her findings suggest that crows perceive dead conspecifics as a significant danger, similar to the observation of a predator. When exposed to dead crows or hawks, crows engaged in mobbing behavior and delayed their approach to food in the vicinity. Intriguingly, this response was not observed in another urban bird, the rock pigeon, Columba livia, when exposed to a similar stimulus.
Furthermore, Swift’s experiments showed that crows can quickly learn to associate humans with predators, dead conspecifics, or predators with dead conspecifics. After only one training event, crows remembered and reacted to humans who appeared to be complicit in these events, even up to 6 weeks later.
These findings not only support previous research indicating that crows learn and remember places associated with conspecific death, but also highlight their ability to recognize and respond to novel threats.