Full text of animal behaviorist Dr. Kaeli Swift’s talk: What crows can teach us about death at TEDxSalem conference. In this talk Dr. Swift explores what animals, particularly crows, do around their dead and what this might teach us about the evolution of our own behaviors.
Listen to the MP3 Audio here:
Dr. Kaeli Swift – Animal behaviorist
How many of you have ever found yourself thinking about death? Most people, I see.
Whether we want to or not, humans spend a great deal of time considering death. And it’s possible we’ve been doing so since shortly after Homo sapiens first began roaming the landscape. After all the first intentional human burial is thought to have occurred around a hundred thousand years ago.
What might those early people have been thinking as they took the time to dig into the earth, deposit the body, and carefully cover it up again? Were they trying to protect it from scavengers or stymie the spread of disease? Were they trying to honor the deceased?
Or did they just not want to have to look at a dead body?
Without the advent of a time machine, we may never know for sure what those early people were thinking. But one thing we do know is that humans are far from alone in our attention towards the dead.
Like people, some animals, including the Corvids… the family of birds that houses the crows, ravens magpies and jays also seemed to pay special attention to their dead. In fact, the rituals of corvids may have acted as the inspiration for our own. After all it was the Raven that God sent down to teach Cain how to bury his slain brother Abel.
But despite this clear recognition by early people that other animals attend to their dead, it’s only fairly recently that science has really turned its attention towards this phenomenon. In fact, a formal name for this field, Comparative Thanatology, wasn’t first introduced until 2016.
In this growing field, we are beginning to appreciate what a rich place the natural world is, with respect to how other animals interact with their dead. And it’s in this growing body of knowledge that that time machine to our early ancestors might be possible.
So what are we learning in this growing field?
Well, right now we can split our understanding into two main groups. In the first, we have animals that display stereotyped predictable behaviors towards their dead, and for whom much of what we understand about them comes from experimental studies. This group includes things like the social insects: bees, and ants, and termites.
And for all of these animals, colony hygiene is of critical importance. And so as a result, these animals display rigorous undertaking behaviors in response to corpses. For example, they may physically remove carcasses from the colony; they may consume them; they may even construct tombs.
We see similar hygiene-driven responses in some colony-living mammals. Rats, for example, will reliably bury cage mates that have been dead for 48 hours.
In our other group, we have animals that display more variable, perhaps more charismatic behaviors, and for whom much of what we understand about them comes from anecdotes by scientists or other observers. This is the animals whose death behaviors I suspect might be more familiar to folks. It includes organisms like elephants which are well known for their attendance to their dead even in popular culture. In fact, they’re even known to be attracted to the bones of their deceased.
It also includes animals like primates which display a wide variety of behaviors around their dead from grooming them to prolonged attention towards them, guarding them, even the transportation of dead infants. And that’s actually behavior we’ve seen in a number of animals like the Dolphins for example.
You may remember the story of Tahlequah, the Orca in the resident J-Pod in the Puget Sound who during the summer of 2018 carried her dead calf for an unprecedented 17 days. Now a story like that is both heartbreaking and fascinating, but it offers far more questions than it does answers.
For example, why did Tahlequah carry her calf for such a long period of time? Was she just that stricken with grief? Was she more confused by her unresponsive infant? Or is this behavior just less rare in Orcas than we currently understand it to be?
But for a variety of reasons it’s difficult to do the kinds of experimental studies in an animal like an orca or many of these other large mammals that might elucidate those kinds of questions.
So instead science is turning to an animal whose behaviors around death we’ve been thinking about since BCE: the crows. Like insects, and primates, crows also seem to pay special attention to their dead. Typically this manifests as the discovering bird alarm calling like you can see in this photo, followed by the recruitment of other birds to the area to form what we call a mob.
But it can be a little different than that too. For example, I’ve had people share with me seeing prolonged silent vigils by crows in response to deceased or dying crows.
I’ve even had people tell me of witnessing crows placed objects like sticks and candy wrappers on or near the bodies of dead crows. And this mix of observations puts these birds in a really important place in our scheme. Because it suggests on the one hand they might be like the insects displaying these very predictable behaviors, but on the other hand we have this handful of observations that are more difficult to explain and feel a bit more like what we see in some of the mammals like primates and elephants.