Posted by: tiglesias | September 4, 2012

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.  

 

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