Grief in Prairie Dogs: Mourning a Death in the Family
A unique interaction between an adult prairie dog and a road-killed youngster
Posted May 16, 2017
Grief and mourning are more widespread among nonhuman animals (animals) than previously thought (please also see). Today, while riding my bike north of Boulder, I observed an interaction between an adult Black-tailed prairie dog who looked to be a female and a youngster who had been killed by a car. It looked like the accident had happened a few minutes before I happened on the sorrowful scene. I was astounded by what I saw, so I stopped and dictated some notes into my phone that went as follows:
I just watched an adult prairie dog who I think is a female trying to retrieve the carcass of a smaller prairie dog off the road five times – she clearly was trying to remove the carcass from the road – I stopped and finally after the cars stopped she dragged the carcass off the road, walked about 10 feet away, looked at me and looked at the carcass, went back to the carcass and touched it lightly with her forepaws, and walked away emitting a very high-pitched vocalization.
I waited a few minutes to see if she would go back to the carcass and she began to move toward it, looked at me, and stopped -- so I left because I didn't want to disrupt her saying good-bye if that was what she was going to do -- minutes later, when I finally caught up with another rider who was about 100 meters ahead of me, he told me he saw her try to remove the carcass from the road twice.
This encounter reminded me of another chance observation, sad as it was, I was most fortunate to observe a few years ago with my friend, Rod. This time it was a magpie funeral about which I wrote in an essay called "Grieving Animals: Saying Goodbye to Friends and Family" (please also see "Magpies grieve for their dead (and even turn up for funerals)."
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.
Since we saw the magpie ceremony, I've received numerous emails and a video about similar rituals in magpies and one note about a group of sparrows who engaged in the same sequence of behaviors. Along these lines, in their wonderful book called Gifts of the Crow, John Marzluff and Tony Angell note, "crows and ravens routinely gather around the dead of their own species [but] rarely do they touch the body ..." (p. 138)
John also sent me a story from Vincent Hagel, formerly the president of the Whidbey Audubon Society, about a crow funeral that closely resembles what we saw in the magpies. He 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 ..."
Was the prairie dog saying good-bye?
I honestly don't know what the adult prairie dog was thinking and feeling, but her persistence in trying to remove the carcass from the road, her finally succeeding and then touching the corpse and emitting a high-pitched vocalization, and a few minutes later trying to return to the dead body, tells me that she may have been grieving and wanted to say good-bye to the youngster, perhaps her own child.
I could find no other similar observations in the literature, including in the excellent book called Prairie Dogs: Communication and Community in an Animal Society by prairie dog expert Dr. Constantine Slobodchikoff (please see "If We Could Talk With the Prairie Dogs, Just Imagine it ...") and his colleagues.1 Because I'm not an expert on prairie dog behavior I wrote to Dr. Slobodchikoff right after I saw what I saw and he immediately responded:
Amazing! But I am not surprised. I haven't seen this with prairie dogs, but I recently saw a male quail trying to push a dead female off the road. The female had been killed by a car and was lying in the middle of the road. The male kept nudging her and pulling her, oblivious to all the cars that were going right past him. Like you, I left because I didn't want to disturb him. Sadly, when I went back, I found that he had managed to pull the female halfway across the road, and then some insensitive motorist ran over him and killed him as well.
I think that all sentient beings grieve for their mates, their relatives, their friends. We're just too blind to see it.
I hope this unique observation stimulates more formal research. It's best to keep the door open about the amazing cognitive and emotional capacities of other animals. Animals give us many gifts and all we have to do is open our senses and our hearts to these valuable life lessons. And, citizen science can surely help us along.
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. I imagine it's far more widespread than we currently imagine.
1After I published this essay I received this email message: We witnessed this very same scene in Boulder -- on Diagonal Highway near IBM. Prairie dogs were trying to drag a loved one from the road who had died. They were making chirping noises. We actually helped them move the body closer to the grass because he/she was in the middle of the road and they were going out to the middle of the road to get him/her. As we drove up a bit after this, we stopped to make sure this didn't upset them. They luckily came out again to their loved one but this time were safer.
Marc Bekoff’s latest books are Jasper’s Story: Saving Moon Bears (with Jill Robinson); Ignoring Nature No More: The Case for Compassionate Conservation; Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed: The Fascinating Science of Animal Intelligence, Emotions, Friendship, and Conservation; Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence; The Jane Effect: Celebrating Jane Goodall (edited with Dale Peterson); and The Animals’ Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age (with Jessica Pierce). Canine Confidential: An Insider’s Guide to the Best Lives For Dogs and Us will be published in early 2018. Marc's homepage is marcbekoff.com.