About This ProjectCrows have been observed to gather and vocalize around dead members of their own species both anecdotally and scientifically. While the occurrence of these "funerals" is no longer in dispute, their function remains mysterious. Through both field and non-lethal lab techniques we hope to address if American Crows are using "funerals" to learn about dangerous places, people, and what areas of their brain are activated during these experiences.
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What is the context of this research?
Humans are not alone in responding profoundly to the death of others. Elephants, apes, dolphins, and bison touch, smell, and carry the bones of their deceased in what are described as funeral rituals. Even birds, such as crows and jays gather around the dead. Could these animals also be struck with grief? Or are their responses more utilitarian, perhaps simply allowing them to learn about an obvious danger or social opportunity? Come along with us as we explore this behavior in the field and pioneer the use of brain scanning technologies in a novel way to answer these questions.
Given the challenge of maintaining control in the wild, most contemporary corvid behavior studies take place in captivity. While the use of hand reared, or other captive birds can provide critical information, it does not always allow for general application to the behaviors of birds in their natural setting. By simulating everyday dangerous experiences in the wild, with wild birds, our field study will give us the closest look at the how's and why's of crow "funerals" in their natural context. This will provide essential information to help address how crows respond behaviorally to the sight of a dead crow. The second part of our study will take this information and examine how this external behavior is mediated by their brain.
We will voyage deep into the brain of the crow to discover how they use emotion and memory to make sense of a dead flock member. This will take us beyond the intriguing observation of animal funerals and allow us to record the thought processes of the attendees. Together we will discover how the many distinct parts of the brain conspire to inform the crow and command its behavior. Additionally, we will do so without harming the animals, which are released back to the wild at the conclusion of our study. As we delve into specific questions, we also test the general idea that birds, who are often viewed as mental simpletons, are actually much more like mammals, including ourselves, than many care to believe.
What is the significance of this project?
With your support we will discover similarities and differences between
the mental activity of crows and other animals, including people. Our study of funerals will generally inform the comparative study of cognition and neurobiology across species, as well as give us a deeper appreciation for the complexity of ways crows are responding to their environment. We will determine the relative roles that emotion and memory play in shaping intriguing animal behaviors. We may discover that the hippocampus and amygdala (regions of the human brain that are important in learning, memory and emotion) of the crow brain are important to the crow’s behavior, or it may be much simpler. Importantly, we aim to address these research interests through minimally invasive techniques that allow for future study of the individuals used.
Most prior research on the animal brain concludes by sacrificing the animal. While sometimes necessary, this approach does not allow us to study how animals accumulate knowledge over their lives or how they adjust to new situations, and it adds an ethical burden to critically important research. By investigating intriguing questions and those with general significance to the study of neurobiology and animal behavior, using non-lethal techniques such as we propose, we are demonstrating the productivity of a different path. Our procedures are minimally invasive and include anesthetizing and scanning an animal, allowing it several days of recovery followed by release.
As we understand how the brains of other beings work we are able to understand our similarities and differences. This understanding builds appreciation for other species, even those as simple as a crow. Appreciation is the first step in tolerating others, and as such the knowledge that you will help us gain will not only inform science, it is our hope that it will also profoundly widen the space humanity affords those with whom we share our planet.
What are the goals of the project?
With your support, field studies beginning in April 2014, are ensured robust sample sizes, unconstrained by funding. During this time researchers will continue to augment existing field data observing the foraging and behavioral responses of crows exposed to various dangerous scenarios, including their response to dead crows. Through these studies we aim to address:
- If crows makes associations between humans and dangerous stimuli.
- How their foraging behaviors change in response to these experiences.
- If the mechanisms of danger learning are shared between crows and mammals.
- The longevity of their response to the associated humans and dangerous places.
Your support will broaden appreciation for an often reviled, but ever so
intriguing bird. You will directly fund graduate and undergraduate students at the University of Washington involved in crow research, and pay for the specialized team and equipment needed observe funeral behaviors in the wild, and scan the brains of crows as they join a funeral. To humanely house and safely scan birds costs about $200 per crow; your support will allow us to obtain a statistically robust sample. Additional funds go towards field costs, including animal food, researcher transportation costs, and stipends for critically needed technicians.
Meet the Team
Team BioKaeli Swift, MS student
I am a graduate student at the University of Washington studying cognition and social relationships in crows. As we are faced with more complex questions regarding our relationship with the natural world, studies like the one we propose provide an important bridge from humans to other animals. Crows are a uniquely accessible animal, and offer a wealth of opportunities to connect people of all interests and backgrounds to the environment in which they live. It is through these kinds of questions that I hope to expand our knowledge of animal behavior and connect people with the creatures we share our lives with.
Dr. John Marzluff
I am a professor at the University of Washington who's passion is the study of bird responses to human action. I teach about birds, conservation, and ecology. My research strives to understand how we can settle land and extract resources while still providing space for the birds that so engage us. With my graduate students and colleagues we have demonstrated that crows recognize and remember people, and I suggest that this is part of the reason crows and ravens have had such strong influences on human culture from our earliest time. I write for my scientific colleagues, but also for practitioners and the lay public. By writing accessibly about the science that is my passion, I hope to inform and engage policy makers, wildlife managers, and all citizens who are curious about their natural world.
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