Ph.D Candidate Kaeli Swift from the University of Washington saw something that she deemed interesting, and has decided to study it. Swift was watching crows encountering their dead, seeing them make the typical alarm calls for fellow birds, looking on as the crows held “funerals” for the dead, when suddenly she saw a crow behave differently. Popular Mechanics reports that Swift discovered crows committing necrophilia on reoccurring occasions.
After the initial finding, Swift set about further studies by first collecting copious amounts of dead crows from Seattle’s natural history museum. Once the bodies were collected, Swift then asked a taxidermist friend to fix up the birds from decaying, explains The Atlantic. With the tools she needed in hand, the researcher then set about driving through Seattle, placing the dead crows at random on the sidewalks, waiting for another crow to fly on site so that she could record whatever response took place. She recorded the responses from hundreds of crows.
As was expected, the typical reaction from these test subject crows was an alarm call to alert fellow kin or to dive onto the corpse, treating it as a danger sign and holding what some describe as a sort of “funeral.” Swift spoke to journalists, stating that her findings resulted in a 24 percent discovery of birds pecking at the bodies and pulling or dragging the corpses. Four percent, however, went full-on necrophilia.
“In the most dramatic examples, a crow would approach the dead crow while alarm calling, copulate with it, be joined in the sexual frenzy by its presumed mate, and then rip it into absolute shreds.”
Swift claims the crows were not aiming to scavenge or consume the dead crows, nor were the corpses being mistaken for live crows. She also explained to reporters that during her study, she witnessed these crows having sex with their dead while a living mate was watching, suggesting that sexual frustration was not the cause of this necrophilia. Her belief is that there is a minority of crows which go a bit crazy during breeding season, therefore when seeing a dead crow, the response is confused. The dead crow seems to have the characteristics of a mate, food, and an intruder. As a result, the living crow performing such an act of sex is likely a way to respond as if the dead crow is all three things.
“It’s the result of them not quite processing all this information correctly and just responding with everything.”
Swift’s discovery and study is the first experimental look into necrophilia behavior in wild animals. Although crows are not the first species to be witnessed having sex with their dead. Ground Squirrels, humpback whales, bottlenose dolphins, as well as some toads and lizards have been seen committing necrophilia in what is believed to be a way to grieve for the dead.