Every now and again a book comes along that not only deals with the behavior of a fascinating group of animals but also raises important questions about science in general and what sorts of information can be used to say that we really know something about this or that behavior.
A few months ago I read through the galley proofs of John Marzluff and Tony Angell's book Gifts of the Crow so that I could write a brief supporting statement. I couldn't put the book down and just this week when I received the published version I wound up reading through it as if I hadn't previously seen it. It's really that good. Marzluff and Angell are also writing essays for Psychology Today under the category "Avian Einsteins" and offer fascinating stories and data about crows and other amazing birds. Crows, for example, make and use more complex tools than chimpanzees, are socially complex and incredibly adaptable, playfully frolic with others, and occasionally entertain themselves by snowboarding down a roof.
The plural of anecdote is data
Gifts of the Crow is filled with wonderful stories and solid research data about these amazing corvids. The authors "base every thesis about their humanlike behavior on how the birds of a brain is known to function." (p. xiii) There's a lot of solid science between the two covers.
One aspect of this book I really like deals with the authors' handling of anecdotes, often written off as "just-so-stories" with no credibility at all. Marzluff and Angell note that some researchers dismiss stories about animal behavior "because of laypeople's lack of formal training, lack of documentation, overinterpretation, and uncontrolled influences." (p. xii) They go on to write, "taken individually, such stories are anecdotal, but collectively they provide a unique body of information that stimulates scientific exploration and becomes an assemblage of possibilities." (p. xiii)
I couldn't agree more especially for behavior patterns that are difficult to observe and/or rare, such as grieving ceremonies and other instances in which animals display amazing cognitive skills and emotional capacities. My colleague NYU philosopher Dale Jamieson and I like to say "the plural of anecdote is data." We must pay attention to the accumulation of stories that have a similar ring. Marzluff and Angell weave the theme of skepticism throughout their excellent book, noting that all accounts, including those of "citizen scientists," must be given careful attention because the credibility of accounts of "rare and exceptional behaviors cannot be limited to the few specialized researchers who study corvids" (p. xii) and "Science teaches us to be skeptical, especially of the fantastic." (p. 43)
I also like to stress that many observations that some of my colleagues call "surprising" aren't really all that surprising. Many of them study animals in situations where they are unable to express their full behavioral repertoire because they live in unnatural social groups or small impoverished cages or enclosures. The only way we will come to a more complete understanding of what birds and other animals can do and what they feel is to study free-ranging animals. This point is made in a recent journal devoted to social justice in animals.
A magpie and crow funeral
In some earlier essays I wrote about grief in animals, noting that it's arrogant to think that we're the only animals who mourn.
Chapter 7 of Gifts of the Crow deals with passion, wrath, and grief. Animal grief is a hot topic and as I reread this chapter I found myself once again reflecting on the ways in which nonhuman animals deal with the death of others, how they say goodbye. I wrote about animal funerals in a previous essay and have followed up on new observations of animal grief from time to time. Raven expert and renowned biologist Bernd Heinrich also writes about this general topic in his new book Life Everlasting: The Animal Way of Death.
Years ago I observed what I called a magpie funeral. My friend Rod and I came upon a magpie corpse in the middle of a street in Boulder, Colorado. Here's what we saw: "One magpie 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." Afterwards, Rod and I also talked about how the surviving magpies seemed to tip their heads forward ever so slightly before they flew off. To date I've received numerous stories about these sorts of rituals primarily for crows, ravens, and magpies and one for starlings. To be sure we need more data about how different animals grieve and mourn the loss of friends and family, but there is overwhelming evidence that individuals of many different species do.
Marzluff and Angell note that "crows and ravens routinely gather around the dead of their own species [but] rarely do they touch the body ..." (p. 138) When I wrote to John to congratulate him on the publication of his and Tony's book he sent me a story about a crow funeral that closely resembles what we saw in the magpies. Vincent Hagel, formerly the president of the Whidbey Audubon Society wrote, " ... my good buddy and I were in his mother's kitchen as she prepared an after school snack for us. Suddenly, she told us to quickly look out the kitchen window. Just a few feet from the house lay an obviously dead crow, and about twelve other crows were hopping in a circle around the body. After a minute or two, one crow flew off for a few seconds, then returned with a small twig or piece of dried grass. It dropped the twig on the body, then flew away. Then, one by one, the other crows each left briefly, one at a time, and returned to drop grass or a twig on the body, then fly off until all were gone, and the body lay alone with twigs lain across it. The entire incident probably lasted four or five minutes ..."
So what's going on? Who's "eating crow?"
Clearly, when we pay attention to the observations and data of researchers and the stories of non-researchers, other animals grieve and mourn the loss of friends and family. The database isn't just a motley of overzealous just-so-stories offered by untrained animal lovers.
Skeptics need to keep an open mind about these events and we must appreciate animals for who they really are and what they are capable of doing and feeling. Those who give anecdotes the consideration they deserve while at the same time asking for more formal study are not necessarily going to be "eating crow." Those who still think we don't really know if other animals are conscious or hold funeral services, for example, when existing data show they clearly are conscious and do formally say goodbye to friends and families, should be eating lots of crow, metaphorically that is.
I ended a previous essays as follows and more recent information is consistent with these conclusions. Why do animals grieve and why do we see grief in different species of animals? It's been suggested that grief reactions may allow for the reshuffling of status relationships or the filling the reproductive vacancy left by the deceased, or for fostering continuity of the group. Some theorize that perhaps mourning strengthens social bonds among the survivors who band together to pay their last respects. This may enhance group cohesion at a time when it's likely to be weakened.
Clearly we're not the only animals who possess the cognitive and emotional capacities for grieving and mourning the loss of others. Grieving and mourning rituals show that nonhuman animals are socially aware of what is happening in their worlds and that they feel deep emotions, they're sad and broken hearted, when family and friends die. Grief itself remains something of a mystery for there doesn't seem to be any obvious adaptive value to it in an evolutionary sense. It doesn't appear to increase an individual's reproductive success. Whatever its value, grief is the price of commitment, that wellspring of both happiness and sorrow.
Animals offer many valuable life lessons
Animals give us many gifts and all we have to do is open our senses and our hearts to these valuable life lessons. We learn much about ourselves when we recognize the treasures that other animals freely offer to us when we take the time to learn about their fascinating lives. Grieving and mourning say so much about the character of individuals of numerous diverse species.