After ravens see a friend get a beat down, they approach the victim and appear to console it, according to new research.
Orlaith Fraser and her co-author Thomas Bugnyar watched the aftermath of 152 fights over a two year period between 13 hand-reared young adult ravens housed at the Konrad Lorenz Research Station in Austria. What they found was the first evidence for birds consoling one another.
“It’s not a good thing for your partner to be distressed,” Fraser explained. “It’s interesting to see these behaviors in animals other than chimpanzees. It seems to be more ingrained in evolutionary history.”
And there might be a bit of self-interest embedded in the birds’ actions, too. “Maybe if you are involved in a fight they might come and console you,” Fraser said.
Ravens are one species of corvid, a famously smart group of birds, so they are natural study subjects for researchers probing the uniqueness of mammalian behaviors like empathetic consolation. The consolation of fight victims has only been definitely shown in chimpanzees and bonobos. Recent studies show similar behaviors in dogs and wolves, but how consolation works in those animals hasn’t been tested.
Bugnyar noted which ravens were involved in the fights and how bad the fights were. They classified the animals into three categories for each altercation: aggressors, victims and bystanders. They noticed that those birds with whom the victim spent a lot of time were most likely to approach it after a fight. A victim’s “friends” seemed to notice when it was stressed by the fight, said Fraser.
“The findings of this study represent an important step towards understanding how ravens manage their social relationships and balance the costs of group-living,” Fraser and Bugnyar wrote. “Furthermore, they suggest that ravens may be responsive to the emotional needs of others.”
The results from these studies were published May 12 in the open-access journal PLoS One.