Birds Cope with Loss by Strengthening Other Relationships

Molly Harwood
Molly Harwood / Molly Harwood

You can’t keep a great tit down. Scientists say the little birds deal with the loss of a flockmate by forging new relationships and strengthening the ones they’ve got, much the same way grieving humans seek solace in community. The researchers published their findings in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Can animals grieve? A mounting pile of observational data suggests that they can, and do. Elephants, wolves, apes, parrots, and lemurs—all intensely social animals—are all known to alter their behavior after a death, visiting grave sites, moaning, or refusing to eat.

As human settlements continue their creep and sprawl into wild populations, understanding how a single animal’s death affects others is more important than ever.

To learn more, researchers focused on a group of more than 500 great tits (Parus major) in Oxford, England, that have been part of ongoing research since the 1960s. All of the birds wear ID anklets, some of which contain microchips for even easier tracking.

The researchers followed the birds through the winter breeding season, monitoring each individual’s movements among the group. Once a week for four weeks, the scientists carefully netted a few birds and took them back to an aviary for a few days to see how their flockmates would respond. The “missing” birds hung out there over the weekend, then rejoined their mates the following Monday.

Molly Harwood

Their absence was noted. Each temporary abduction prompted a sort of social huddling together of the birds that remained. They grew tighter with birds they knew and formed new relationships, turning to the bird community for support. When the missing birds returned, they were welcomed back into the fold, and were mostly able to pick up their relationships where they'd left off.

“Great tits are very sociable birds, and their relationships shape almost every aspect of their lives,” lead author Josh Firth of Oxford University said in a statement.

“A real benefit of studying these birds is that we can run experiments to test the principles of social behavior. Interestingly, in this case the results appear surprisingly similar to what has been suggested for humans.”