Do crows mourn their dead?

Eyeing their favorite food, Cheetos, crows gather in the Town Center. - Kaeli Swift / Special to the Reporter
Eyeing their favorite food, Cheetos, crows gather in the Town Center.
— image credit: Kaeli Swift / Special to the Reporter

Kaeli Swift, a graduate of Mercer Island High School is a researcher at the University of Washington conducting research on the complex and fascinating world of corvids, a.k.a. crows.

The social and smart creatures have been found to learn from their environment and adapt. What  has also startled researchers is how they learn from humans.

But there is a new twist. Their treatment of their dead.

Swift and others have observed that when a crow dies, others gather around to vocalize and will place sticks and objects near the dead bird. Crows have also been seen trying  to move a dead crow.

Crows do not cannibalize their own or other birds, she said.

Swift is now conducting a more formal study of these behaviors — some of which will take place on Mercer Island.

She wants the community to know what is going on if they come across such a scene. And she is hoping that Islanders will pitch in to help with her project.

Swift has nurtured her passion for corvids ever since first reading about their complex social lives and intelligence in Bernd Heinrich’s “Mind of the Raven.” After graduating from Mercer Island High School in 2005, Swift went on to attend college at Willamette University where her advisor, Dr. David Craig, encouraged her passion.

In 2012, Swift was awarded a highly competitive, $90,000 National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship that has allowed her to begin graduate studies at the University of Washington.

For its ability to have Swift on board, the university has waived her tuition while she earns a Ph.D.

Swift is now part of the ground-breaking research on crows, or corvids conducted through the UW School of the Environment and Forest Science. She works with UW scientist and professor, John Marzluff.

Marzluff has studied the effects of increasing urbanization on crows and their evolution. He has authored two books, and was the subject of a documentary shown on the PBS television show, “Nature,”  in 2010. The film,  “A Murder of Crows” was filmed in Seattle and focused on facial recognition by crows and their ability to pass on such information.

Swift wants to accomplish more than a study on the birds — she hopes that people will understand and appreciate them more.

“In general, we tend to think of birds as being rather 'stupid,’” she explained. "I feel a real drive to show people that intelligence comes in all shapes and sizes.”

And often people dislike crows who can be quite disruptive and noisy.

“Crows produce a lot of vitriol,” Swift said. Crow hunting is still common practice.

Understanding the minds and behavior of these birds, may provide clues for non-lethal ways we can control crows, she continued.

Swift said her study is looking specifically at the behavior of the birds when they find a body of another crow and how their use of a place changes after witnessing a funeral at a particular place.

What has been observed beyond the placement of sticks and the vocalization of a group that might gather around a body, is that the crows may avoid such a place later.

This could give important insight into how we can use effigies to deter problem roosts, she explained.

Starting this month, Swift will be conducting experiments across the north and south side of the Island.

People may be walking through Luther Burbank Park and notice a pile of Cheetos (their favorite food) and peanuts, Swift said. “That means I’m nearby, watching.”

Swift is also hoping that Islanders will help her in her research by helping fund this project. They are about one-third of the way to their goal, but still have a ways to go.


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