Like humans and other animals, birds play, dance, love and do things just for the pleasure of it. Birds, like humans, like company, move in flocks, preen each other, play together and share nest duties. Similarly, they grieve just like we do. The evidence is largely anecdotal, from ornithologists and bird watchers. I am willing to believe it because a creature that sings and laughs and fights and cheats on its mate can also feel sadness. After a car killed a coucal’s (a member of the cuckoo family) mate, he refused to leave her side or stop trying to revive her. One account on the Net is of a man who witnessed the sorrow of a magpie after its mate was killed on a roadway. The magpie swooped, time after time down to its dead mate shrieking and wailing.
In my last house, the sparrows decided to build nests in the bookshelf of the room I worked in. It meant that I had to get up every two minutes to let them in and out of the room with their grasses as the doors facing the lawn were kept closed because of the airconditioner. They made the nest, laid their eggs and were all set to live happily ever after when a gecko ate the eggs while they were away. The parents were devastated and flew in angry circles with loud cries. Their grief was so immediate that I felt guilty and sad as well.
Birds that mate for life, like peregrine falcons, geese and pigeons will not take a second mate if their first is lost. There are many instances of birds showing signs of grief when a mate has been killed. The anguished bird is known to remain near the body of its dead mate and mope. Signs of grief include the loss of appetite and the plucking of feathers. Parrots bond for life and are miserable if their mate is out of sight. Birds mourn like people – some never get past the loss of a mate, others become normal in a few months. Doves are monogamous. If a dove loses its mate it spends the rest of its days alone. This is particularly sad for the Mourning Dove ( which gets its name from its plaintive call) because in America alone, many million are shot annually for “sport”.
“A greylag goose that has lost its partner shows all the symptoms of grief”,” wrote Nobel prizewinning ethologist Konrad Lorenz. “The eyes sink deep into their sockets, and the individual has an overall drooping experience, literally letting the head hang.”
Biologist Marcy Cottrell Houle studied two falcons as they worked to feed their five nest-lings. In her book “Wings for My Flight: The Peregrine Falcons of Chimney Rock” she narrates how one morning when, the female failed to appear, the male called out again and again and when the female did not return , the male uttered an unfamiliar sound “like the screeching moan of a wounded animal, the cry of a creature in suffering.” After the cry, the male sat motionless all day long. The next day he went on a frenzy of hunting to try and save the nestlings.
People who keep caged birds ( may the gods bring them back as caged birds next time) have reported how their birds on the loss of a mate / companion lose their appetite and weight. One owner recounts how her grieving bird would eat only when the owner was at home and would scream when she left the room. Another owner writes how when one of her Conures died, the other one moaned herself to sleep for ages. She also kept saying “one,” over and over. Before the other bird died she said “one, two” when the lady would ask how many birds she had. Captive birds whose companions have died become depressed, pine and die of broken hearts
A French newspaper published a series of photographs of a flock of birds that stopped on a highway in the Ukraine. A passing vehicle had hit one of the birds who could not move away from the road. Her mate lingered nearby offering solace and even brought food to her. One his return from a food gathering trip, he found her dead and tried to shake her awake, crying out. Each time a car passed, the bird flew up and then returned to the body. A photographer, concerned for the safety of the living bird, put down his camera, picked up the dead bird and removed it from the road. The grieving bird lingered in a nearby tree, “crying” and reluctant to move on.
A traveler recounts he spotted a gathering of swallows sitting on a gravel road. Getting close enough he saw that the swallows were sitting by bodies of dead swallows probably young ones whose first flights had ended in disaster. On the overhead electrical lines were other swallow families all teaching their young ones to fly.
Anecdotes abound about people who have seen injured or dead birds on a road with their mates sitting by them. One person writes how he removed an injured bird from the road and put it under a bush. Its mate came along and just sat there for hours.
A biologist was witness to a young boy shooting a female starling. A larger male starling, obviously her mate, landed next to the dead female and sounded a distress call, flapping its wings in challenge. It put itself at risk with its courage. The boy slowly approached. The male starling stood his ground, trying to protect his mate but when the boy was just a few feet away, the bird flew onto a nearby branch and continued to cry and flap its wings. When the boy picked up the bird and started walking away, the male flew a short distance behind till the boy entered a building.
Birds, like humans, don’t just grieve for birds but for companions of other species as well. The owner of a ringnecked dove also had an old Pekingese who became irreversibly ill. Becky the bird sat next to the dog on the sofa. Finally when they had put the dog to sleep and came from the vet without him, Becky started looking for him on the sofa, then returned to her cage, then went back to his place, then to her cage. Eventually she stopped eating, became lethargic and sat in her cage rather than flying around the house as she did earlier. Chickens are by nature very social animals who form special bonds to other birds or humans, and mourn them when they die. Birds, animals, humans, insects, plants…all of us are the same. Why not live and help live?