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Magpies hold funerals for fallen feathered friends

One for sorrow

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A University of Colorado scientist has claimed that magpies hold "funerals" for fallen friends, demonstrating that they're all a lot more touchy-feely than they might appear.

Dr Marc Bekoff observed four magpies alongside a fallen comrade, and recounted: "One approached the corpse, gently pecked at it, just as an elephant would nose the carcass of another elephant, and stepped back. Another magpie did the same thing."

"Next, one of the magpies flew off, brought back some grass and laid it by the corpse. Another magpie did the same. Then all four stood vigil for a few seconds and one by one flew off."

He suggests in the journal Emotion, Space and Society (payment required): "We can't know what they were actually thinking or feeling, but reading their action there's no reason not to believe these birds were saying a magpie farewell to their friend."

Publication of his findings prompted others to tell Bekoff they'd seen the same ritual in magpies, ravens and crows. Bekoff dismissed the idea that such observations were merely cases of anthropomorphism, and defended: "It's bad biology to argue against the existence of animal emotions."

Bekoff cited a further example of animal empathy among a herd of elephants in Kenya, where one cow elephant was having trouble keeping up with her comrades. He explained: "Despite her disability the rest of the herd walked for a while, stopped to look around and then waited for her to catch up. The only obvious conclusion we could see is the other elephants cared and so they adjusted their behaviour."

None of this will come as a surprise to regular Reg readers, who already know that sheep pine for absent friends and cows bear grudges. Neither bovines nor ovines have been observed to hold funeral rites, but we suspect there's probably not much time for such niceties down at the abattoir. ®

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