do birds mourn their babies

It started with a question from a reader: “Do birds mourn?” He described a scene at the family cabin, where a pair of barn swallows had been nesting under the deck. Unfortunately, one of the pair was killed in a collision with a cabin window. The other swallow then seemed to be holding a vigil, sitting halfway between its dead partner and its nest for some time.

The question of whether birds feel emotions — and grief is surely a major emotion — is a contentious area in avian research. Some say it is likely that birds experience feelings, while others hold out for some kind of proof. The problem is that emotions are a tough thing to pin down, even in humans. Were a very expressive species, easily able to read facial expressions to assess how others are feeling, but birds are a pretty expressionless bunch, at least to us.

So, we tend to look at bird behavior to try to gauge what might lie behind it.

Many people seem to have observed what is often called a crow funeral, with crows flying in to gather near a dead crow, usually on a roadside, calling and standing in a semicircle. Is this truly a funeral, or is something else going on?

An adult osprey returns to its nest to find it empty, both young osprey having been snatched by a great horned owl. The osprey stands on the edge of the nest and makes soft calls for a half-hour or more. Is the adult osprey lamenting the loss of its family, or is there something else at work?

And how about the barn swallow seeming to mourn the loss of its partner after a collision with a window?

Fifty years ago, experts would only say that the birds in all three cases were reacting to stress or change. Theyd label as anthropomorphism any suggestion that anything more was at work in these scenes.

But since the 1970s, those who study birds, either in the lab or in the field, have found more and more instances where bird behavior often seems similar to our own. Birds have been shown to be having fun, getting angry, expressing pleasure.

“We have made a lot of progress,” says animal behaviorist Tim Birkhead (in his excellent book, “Bird Sense: What Its Like to Be a Bird”). “The more we find out, the more it seems that birds do have feelings.”

But as Laura Erickson (renowned author and birder in Duluth) points out, “The complexities of how our own species feels grief are hard enough to tease out. It must be very complicated for scientists to break down grief into its components for any other species.”

Lets look again at that gathering of crows around a dead crow. Is that a funeral, or are the birds assembling to warn each other that roads present perils? Might they be assessing how the crows death affects the local hierarchy, territorial claims or the sudden availability of a possible mate?

The osprey parent could very well be lamenting the loss of its healthy chicks or she may primarily be shocked and stressed by the empty nest, unsure what to do next.

That could explain the barn swallows behavior, as well: It might be saddened by the loss of its partner and the now-reduced chances for raising their brood alone. Or the swallow might be stunned by the dead swallows lifeless body, its normal equilibrium destroyed in a moment.

Humans have come a long way from the days when the operative theory was that birds were stimulus/response machines. We now grant them the ability to learn from their experiences, to vary their behavior to fit a situation and even, in some cases, to speculate about future events.

But do they grieve? The jury is still out on this question. Lets let John Marzluff, noted corvid researcher at the University of Washington, have the last word: “Birds certainly possess the capacity to mourn — they have the same brain areas, hormones and neurotransmitters as we do, they can feel what we feel”— but that doesnt mean we know when its happening.

St. Paul resident Val Cunningham, who volunteers with the St. Paul Audubon Society and writes about nature for a number of newspapers and magazines, can be reached at

The osprey mother may be grieving over the death of her healthy offspring, or she may just be taken aback by the empty nest and uncertain about what to do next.

However, since the 1970s, researchers studying birds—both in the field and in the lab—have discovered an increasing number of situations in which the behavior of birds frequently resembles that of humans. It has been demonstrated that birds can express joy, become irate, and have fun.

When the dominant theory was that birds were stimulus/response machines, humans had advanced significantly. We now enable them to draw lessons from their past, modify their behavior to suit a given circumstance, and, in certain cases, even make predictions about what will happen in the future.

Therefore, we frequently examine bird behavior to try to determine what could be causing it.

The jury is still out on whether or not they grieve. Finally, let’s listen to renowned corvid researcher John Marzluff of the University of Washington: “Birds certainly possess the capacity to mourn—they have the same brain areas, hormones, and neurotransmitters as we do, they can feel what we feel”—but that doesn’t mean we know when it’s happening.

Still, to support her point, King points to Kohl and Harper, two domestic mulard ducks that were brought to a New York-based rescue sanctuary in 2006. Both suffered an awful liver disease that resulted from their rougher days of force-feedings at a foie gras farm. Over the following four years, the ailing duo cultivated a very close relationship. “Ducks are social birds, but even so, the intensity of their bond was unusual,” King wrote in Scientific American in 2013. Eventually, Kohl’s injuries got the best of him and he was euthanized. Harper was by his side. After Kohl passed, King writes, Harper kept pressing up against Kohl’s still body. Eventually he lay down and placed his own head and neck upon Kohl’s, resting in this somber position for some hours. Two months later, Harper passed away as well. When two animals share such closeness, King writes, “grief results from love lost.” Of course, King can’t determine the cause of poor Harper’s death. But it’s worth noting previous accounts of birds dying strangely after the loss of a close comrade: There was the duck that drowned itself after the death of its mate, as well as the young swan that committed the same act this year after discovering an older, lifeless swan—bystanders suspected it may have been the mother—floating in the lake.

But Barbara J. King, an anthropologist at the College of William and Mary and author of the 2013 book How Animals Grieve, sees things differently—to her, the mother’s nudging of the tiny body with her bill, the vocalizing, and the camaraderie of her female companion all hint at something akin to grief. But to be scientifically sure, she argues, it would need to last longer. In clear cases of grief, she says, “we should observe prolonged signs of altered behavior in the survivor.” But for Marzluff, proving grief would need to be measured through the vista of a brain scan: If the mother’s hippocampus—the region in bird brains that is comparable to the emotional hub in mammal brains—lights up, “that might indicate grief,” Marzluff says. It’s this kind of deep evidence, he argues, “that we need to make a rock solid interpretation.”

Birds can mourn, of course; they share our brain regions, hormones, and neurotransmitters, “so they too can feel what we feel,” according to Marzluff. However, this does not imply that we can detect when a bird is grieving.

It’s difficult to picture what a mourning bird would resemble. However, if I had to guess, the video of two female Emperor Penguins huddled around a dead chick from the BBC series “Penguins-Spy in the Huddle” comes very, very close:

Kenn Kaufman, field editor for Audubon, views poignant instances such as Ospreys, Kohl, and Harper as extremely subtle evidence of birds in mourning, despite their profound emotional impact. He cites instances of flock birds—such as Eskimo Curlews—that frequently lose members of their group to hunters. Occasionally, the entire group will return to the spot where a fellow bird fell. Kaufman notes that while it would be simple to see this as a sign of grief, it’s more likely the result of confusion. ”.