Cultures around the world have unique funeral traditions to honor the deceased, but did you know crows do, too? Clad all in black, the crows gather around their deceased family member and caw over and over again.
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Crows are the Einsteins of the bird world, and for a good reason. They can problem-solve, make their own tools, and hold grudges against those who harm them.
Your curiosity is piqued now, isn’t it? Let’s talk about how crows’ funerals were discovered and why they happen.
First, let’s talk a little bit more about this special bird. You’ve probably seen one before — crows are very common. Just like ravens, crows are part of the Corvidae family, but smaller.
They’re social birds that gather in the thousands.
Tip: With social distancing, we humans can't gather together (like crows can) for a funeral or event. Instead, many people are turning to virtual funerals over Zoom. Services like GatheringUs make it possible to invite more guests to a virtual funeral so you don't have to leave anyone out.
Crows are scavengers and will eat anything remotely edible, including small animals, other birds, and deceased beings. In the past, crows would circle a battlefield, waiting for soldiers to die and feast on their bodies. That’s why many people consider crows to be a symbol of death.
They’re good luck charms for Native Americans, however. Many tribes use crow imagery in their death rituals and customs. Native Americans revere crows for their intelligence. Some tribes even celebrate their deceased ancestors as crows. For example, the Hopi tribe celebrates the Crow Mother as the guardian of children and crops.
Crows have a longstanding history with other cultures, too, like the Greeks, Hindus, Romans, and Muslims. A Muslim myth says that a crow betrayed the prophet Muhammad when he was in hiding. The bird gave away his location, so Muhammad cursed the animal and turned it black. In Greek mythology, the god Appollo turned his mistress into a crow when she betrayed him.
Farmers and urbanites view crows as pests since they scatter garbage and destroy crops.
Despite their pesky nature, a five-year study at the University of Washington proves crows’ intelligence. Researchers trapped crows while wearing “dangerous” masks. Over five years, researchers walked the same route.
As time passed, more crows showed threatening behaviors toward the masked researchers, like cawing and tail flicking. Not only do crows hold a grudge, but they also “tell” other crows about their animosity.
It’s not a surprise that crows can solve complex puzzles that even small children cannot. A New Zealand researcher trained crows to use rocks and sticks. Later, the crows solved a multi-step puzzle to get food. The crow knew where to find hidden sticks and to drop rocks in a chute to get the prize.
Another study found that crows can understand water displacement. The crows chose objects that would sink to raise the water level of a tube and bring food to the surface.
If crows know how to solve puzzles and hold grudges, it’s very possible that they can process the death of one of their own.
Why Do Crows Have Funerals?
Researchers went a step further to find out whether crows can mourn the dead. As it turns out, humans aren’t the only animals to learn from a deceased's mistakes.
Crows may gather for funerals not to mourn the dead, but to learn about dangers. Researchers found that crow funerals are a way for the birds to “talk” about dangerous places and avoid them.
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Crows are so social that they can make friends with humans. For example, an eight-year-old girl in Seattle feeds crows in her backyard, and in return, her feathered friends leave her trinkets. She’s received LEGOs, paper clips, rocks, and jewelry. Kaeli Swift, a researcher in Seattle, took advantage of crow friendliness to find out why they have funerals.
Swift visited the same crows in a Seattle park to feed them treats. Once she gained their trust, she visited again, this time wearing a mask and wig. The masked stranger wasn’t holding treats. Instead, she was holding a deceased crow. The crows instantly mobbed the researcher as they screeched in displeasure.
The next day, Swift returned to feed the crows without a mask. The crows were much more hesitant to eat. Not only did they remember that another crow had died there, they learned to be wary of the location. Swift was no longer carrying the dead crow, but she was still cawed at.
The most exciting part of Swift’s research was that the crows that mobbed her were all different. Not all of them had seen her holding the deceased crow with the mask on. This research shows that crows learn socially.
Crow Funeral Rituals Explained
Crows come together to decide the fate of other crows in their flock. This group is aptly named a “murder.” When Swift performed her experiment, the “murder” came together to perform a ritual for one of their own. You may know what to expect at a traditional funeral, but this is different.
During a crow funeral, the birds gather together in the trees. As the minutes pass, more crows flock to the scene, cawing intensely. It’s intimidating when the crows shriek at their deceased member and bystanders. The crows fly away, but if they see the person associated with the death of their friend or family member, they resort to mobbing behaviors again.
Crows also reserve certain less savory actions for the dead, including necrophilia and cannibalism. In a startling display, some crows approach the deceased and mate with the body. They may also attack the deceased crow, dragging and pecking it.
Researchers found that the sight of a person holding a dead crow activates a crow’s hippocampus, the part of the brain that responds to danger. Later, the necrophilia and cannibalism suggest that during the breeding season, the crows lose their sense of self-control due to their hormones.
Can animals grieve?
Can animals have their own funeral rites? Crows might not know how to accept death, but their funeral rituals point to an understanding that death happens. It may be a combination of brain activity and fear, but crows aren’t the only animals to grieve their deceased.
Elephants show great interest in the bones of their deceased. They pass them around, smelling and touching them. Chimpanzees clean the bones of their dead. Other members of the Corvidae family, like magpie birds, hold funerals. Scientists can observe animal behaviors but it’s difficult to understand the motivation. Studying intelligent animals gives us clues about our own funeral practices.
The Great Equalizer
Questions about death are common, like “Why do we bury the dead?” and “Do only humans mourn?” Studying crows gives us a chance to think about our own mortality. After learning about their funeral traditions, you probably won’t look at a murder of crows the same again.
Like animals, we value life and mourn the deceased. Instinctually, animals know what to do when a group member dies. Humans are more complicated. When it comes to death, you’ll have to make your final wishes known for your friends and family to follow them. Death is the equalizer that unites all living things. Have you planned for yours?
- “Native American Crow Mythology.” Native Languages of the Americas. www.native-languages.org/legends-crow.htm
- “Crow Facts.” PBS. 21 February 2013. www.pbs.org/wnet/nature/a-murder-of-crows-crow-facts/5965/
- Gaukel Andrews, Candice. “Crows Are as Intelligent as a Seven-Year-Old Child.” Natural Habitat Adventures and WWF. 23 October 2018. www.nathab.com/blog/crows-are-as-intelligent-as-a-seven-year-old-child/
- Pierce, Jessica. “Do Animals Experience Grief?.” Smithsonian Magazine. 24 August 2018. www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/do-animals-experience-grief-180970124/
- Swift, Kaeli. “Wild American crows use funerals to learn about danger.” The University of Washington. Diss. 2015.
- Yong, Ed. “Crows Sometimes Have Sex With Their Dead.” The Atlantic. 18 July 2018. www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2018/07/crow-necrophilia/565442/
- Gardner Ross, James. “The Secret Life of Urban Crown.” Seattle Met. 2017 June.