I’m Kaeli Swift, a PhD student at the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences at the University of Washington. I have been passionate about animal behavior all my life, but what started as an early love affair with wolves has turned into a fierce ardor for corvids. Specifically, my area of research is the thanatology of crows.
Crows, like a number of other animals that includes non-human primates, elephants, dolphins and other corvids, appear to respond strongly once they discover a dead member of their own species. Among these animals the responses can include: tactile investigation, communal gathering, vocalizing, sexual behaviors, or aggression. For people who live or work closely with animals it’s tempting to anthropomorphize these behaviors based on our opinions of how smart or emotional the animals we care about are. But as a scientist my job is to separate my personal feelings about animals, and use research techniques that allow me to objectively ask questions about animal behavior. By conducting field experiments and employing brain scanning techniques developed by our team, I hope to gain insight into the purpose of crow funerals. Perhaps they play a utilitarian purpose of learning about danger or social opportunities, or perhaps they are akin to the grieving process we experience as humans. The brain scanning technique we use allows us to peer into the brain of a living, thinking crow, without ever having to euthanize the animal.
Studies that provide bridges from humans to other animals are critical to fostering a culture that respects and protects the natural world, and this is one of the reasons I most enjoy working with crows. No matter their feelings for them, nearly everyone has a story about crows, even those people who otherwise feel quite separated from nature. The fact that they are conspicuous and thrive in all kinds of human dominated environments, means that crows are a uniquely accessible animal, and offer a wealth of opportunities to connect people of all interests and backgrounds to science. It’s my hope that our research will provide a more compassionate lens with which to understand crows, and contribute to a growing movement of corvid enthusiasts. Feel free to ask questions or share your own stories in the comment section!