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Why did you say it like that?!

Hi all, I have recently published my first 1st-author paper after years of hard work on my PhD thesis at the University of California Davis with Gail Patricelli and Richard McElreath.

“Western scrub-jay funerals: cacophonous aggregations in response to dead
conspecifics”

I’m very excited about the attention the research is getting. Animal behavior in general is fascinating and I’m thrilled that so many are finding how scrub jays respond to their dead as interesting as I do. Unfortunately, given the current inaccessibility to published research by the public at large, most are not able to evaluate the information first hand. At most, I believe there is access to the title, abstract and some figures. While those that have read the abstract agree that the use of the word “funeral” in the title is not problematic as there is no hint of anthropomorphic treatment of the behavior, others are at least perplexed if not potentially offended by its inclusion in the title.

I would like to clarify that indeed, the word is only included in the title and there is no further assumption regarding the emotional or cognitive state of the gathering birds. This is an agnostic stance– not a refutation or a condemnation for considering such ideas. The problem is that current methodology does not allow us to explore these questions in a satisfying and conclusive manner. Otherwise, I’d be all over that!

I decided to include the word “funeral” only as a way to link this work to previous observations and reports of many other species reacting to dead fellows. Try googling “chimp”, “elephant”, “crow”, “magpie”, “bison” and probably many other animals followed by the word “funeral”. What you come across is a lot of interesting accounts about how animals respond to their dead. I chose the term “cacophonous aggregation” to denote this behavior in western scrub-jays. In the scientific literature, “ceremonial gatherings” was used to describe magpies’ response to a fallen fellow. I thought that even this term was too suggestive so I opted for a more descriptive and agnostic term as the label.

If you google “cacophonous aggregation” at most you may come up with a link to the abstract to my paper but you would be robbed of learning about all the other interesting stories out there about how animals react to their dead.

Just the facts! …ok and an opinion or two

In response to several misconceptions or assumptions arising from media coverage of the recent publication: ”Western scrub-jay funerals: cacophonous aggregations in response to dead conspecifics”

–When western scrub-jays see a dead jay they alarm call and attract other jays which then may join in calling. This loud gathering or “cacophonous aggregation” lasts a few seconds to tens of minutes then the birds disperse.

–Jays did not stop eating entirely over the course of 24-48 hours. I trained them to expect peanuts in a feeder every morning and then one day they got a surprise in the form of a wooden object, a dead jay, a stuffed jay, or a stuffed owl on the ground about 1 meter from the feeder. After the dead jay and stuffed owl they reduced or stopped taking peanuts from the feeder. They had been hiding (or caching) peanuts nearby this entire time so they simply turned to those peanuts if they wanted peanuts or ate other things.

–No jays were killed for this study. I had permits to collect (or salvage) dead birds and I made great use of these permits by amassing a respectable collection of birds killed by predators as well as cars. I had a great network of people that would call or email me if they saw a dead bird. Yes, many of the birds were very smelly and I still prepared them as dried skins for the love of the question!

–At no point do I or the other authors make statements regarding the occurrence or absence of emotions or cognitive depth in these birds in this context. The work does not address this question and realistically, there are no great methods to address such a question at this time. If there were, I would have grabbed that question by the horns…er, beak? At this time I remain agnostic about these issues but evolutionarily speaking there is probably some sort of continuity as the emotional response could conceivably act as a mechanism to facilitate outcomes that further an organism’s fitness– social and/or pair bonding is probably the most obvious.