Monday, January 09, 2012

Do Birds Mourn?

Do birds mourn? Do other species have complex family relationships that we don't recognize because we don't take time to observe? Yesterday at dusk, a band-tailed pigeon sat at the feeder trying to eat. It struggled to move the food from it's crop (a kind of holding pouch in the throat) down into its stomach. It's feathers were slightly fluffed up, a definite sign in warm weather that a bird is not feeling its best.

I had seen this bird the day before. Band-tailed pigeons are the largest birds that come to my feeder. They stand about 10 inches tall and are heavy bodied like the imported rock pigeons you might see in a parking lot. But the band-tailed pigeon is a native Californian and historically flocks of them thrived on acorns in our oak woodlands. Diminished numbers of old-growth oaks have meant fewer of these beautiful gray birds with iridescent green at the back of their neck and a whitish band across the tail. For the past seven years these birds have been regulars at my feeder. They first appeared in 2004, but by 2005 we were seeing them year-round.

On Saturday, I noticed that this band-tail came to the yard alone, (unusual because they typically are in family groups), and it seemed punch-drunk, unstable, like it had just survived a predator attack - most likely from a Cooper's hawk. A few of its feathers were askew. It sat quietly perched in a tree trying to compose itself. Later it was gone.

The Cooper's hawks have been hunting our neighborhood intensely for about a month and the band-tailed pigeons have actually become weekly visitors rather than daily. When they come they eat, drink and move on. They don't dally.

Last night when I watched the injured band-tail trying to swallow, my hope that it had survived the massive impact that a hawk attack can deliver began to dwindle. I've seen this before, a bird that escapes a predator attack may suffer internal injuries that are fatal. Cooper's hawk attacks band-tailed pigeon.

As night fell the injured band-tailed pigeon bedded down about five feet off the ground in a small lavatera shrub, unusual for a bird that typically roosts overnight in a large tree 40 feet or higher.

Sometime in the early morning the band-tailed pigeon died. I found its quiet body at the base of the bush. As I gently picked it up and grabbed a shovel to bury it on the hillside, I realized I was being watched. Four adult band-tailed pigeon perched in the large pine tree next door. Were they waiting for their injured family member to emerge from its evening roost? Had they spent the night here, watching over their injured companion?

I held the silent gray form up for them to see before I buried it in the earth. Eight eyes followed my movements. They remained silently perched. I refilled the feeders, but they did not come down to eat.  They do not appear to be here for food. Do they understand that this bird has died? Do they mourn the loss of a family member? I have seen one band-tail risk its life to alert another of a predator. What really goes on in their family relationships?

Too often we paint ourselves as emotionally superior to other species and point out that humans have complex communications and relationships. But I have seen crows solicit help from ravens to drive off an owl - Mobbing an Owl. I've seen an Allen's hummingbird mother become distraught over a destroyed nest - Rescuing Hummingbird. I've watched a female Allen's hummingbird fend off another female trying to steal her nest and documented the soap opera interrelationships of a group of nesting females - Allen's Hummingbirds.

I don't know if the band-tailed pigeons are mourning the loss of one of their own this morning, but they are here for a reason. And the more I watch the creatures around me the more I am amazed and humbled by them.

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