Magpies feel grief and even hold funeral-type gatherings for their fallen friends and lay grass “wreaths” beside their bodies, an animal behaviour expert has claimed.
Dr Bekoff, of the University of Colorado, said these rituals prove that magpies, usually seen as an aggressive predator, also have a compassionate side.
The discovery raises the debate about whether emotions are solely a human trait or whether they can be found in all animals.
Previous studies have suggested that gorillas also mourn their dead while rats have empathy and cats form friendships.
Dr Bekoff said he studied four magpies alongside a magpie corpse and recorded their behaviour.
“One approached the corpse, gently pecked at it, just as an elephant would nose the carcase of another elephant, and stepped back. Another magpie did the same thing, ” he said.
“Next, one of the magpies flew off, brought back some grass and laid it by the corpse. Another magpie did the same. Then all four stood vigil for a few seconds and one by one flew off.”
After publishing an account of the funeral he received emails from people who had seen the same ritual in magpies, ravens and crows.
“We can’t know what they were actually thinking or feeling, but reading their action there’s no reason not to believe these birds were saying a magpie farewell to their friend,” he wrote in the journal Emotion, Space and Society.
Those who see emotions in animals have been accused of anthropomorphism – the attribution of human characteristics to animals.
However, Dr Bekoff said emotions evolved in humans and animals because they improve the chances of survival.
“It’s bad biology to argue against the existence of animal emotions,” he said.