May
26
2010

After a friend has a stressful event in their lives, it is human nature to want to console that person. Maybe give them a hug, or just spend some time with them to ease their distress.

A new study suggests that ravens have a similar emotional depth. In the study, after a conflict between ravens (defined as chase-flight, hitting or forced retreat), the researchers would observe the ravens for 10 minutes. They found that the victim would often be approached in a friendly way by another raven, or sometimes the victim would seek out another raven. These interactions were terms bystander affiliation and solicited bystander affiliation.

Bystander affiliation was recorded when another raven (that was not involved in the conflict) approached the victim and “affiliated” with it (defined as contact sitting, preening or beak-to-beak or beak-to-body touching). A solicited bystander affiliation was recorded when the victim sought out a bystander for affiliation.

The researchers attempted to answer the question: Does this behavior suggest empathy or does it serve some other function? After observing the birds in an aviary over a two-year period, the authors suggest that the birds are actually feeling empathy.

“According to the predictive framework, our findings are consistent with a distress-alleviating function for bystander affiliation and should thus be considered to be consolation,” the study says. “The term ‘consolation’, however, infers not only the function of the interaction, alleviating the victim’s post-conflict distress, but also its mechanism, empathy for the distressed victim.”

They found that in both bystander affiliation and solicited bystander affiliation situations, the birds affiliating often shared a valuable relationship. The relationship’s “value” was measured by observing the interactions between the bird pairs. If birds spent time preening and sitting next to each other and displayed agonistic support, their relationship was deemed more valuable.

Ravens console each other after conflicts
The common raven (corvus corax) is capable of showing a degree of empathy toward its peers thought only to be present in apes. (Photo courtesy of National Park Service)

Lead author Orlaith N. Fraser, PhD, acknowledged that the study could have been affected slightly by the fact that the birds were not in the wild. However, based on observations and preliminary studies, the essential behavior of wild birds would be similar.

“Certainly the fact that our subjects were captive ravens did not impact on our finding that ravens are capable of consolation,” Fraser said. “But there may be some variation in the rates of consolation provided between wild and captive ravens, as it’s possible that, for example, dispersing after a conflict is easier in the wild, and so conflicts might not be so stressful and might not require the same frequency of consolation.”

She said the ravens’ behavior was surprisingly similar to that of other species’.

“The most surprising outcome of the study was that the ravens seemed to behave in exactly the same way as apes in terms of deciding whether and when consolation should be provided and by whom, despite the large differences in their evolutionary history and the way in which they live,” she said.

The study, “Do Ravens Show Consolation? Responses to Distressed Others,” is available online in the journal PLoS One.

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