Monday, April 9, 2012

The Trolling Blue Jays

I am delighted to say that my home rests on a parcel of about 14 acres of really varied habitat. There is a mix of yard (barely kept mowed enough that the neighbors don't utterly loathe us), lots of various brush and groundcover, a stand of hardwoods, and a goodly bit of very brushy swampy area. Excitingly, this means that there are no shortage of wild birds around.

One of the birds we commonly have visit are Blue Jays. My husband and I affectionately call these birds "Wamps" because...
They say "WAMP!"
(we also call Goldfinches "Potato chips"...)
I digress.

Blue Jays have had a rough time with their populations in the last decade or so. This area is NY state was hit pretty hard with West Nile Virus, and when I was interning with NY's Department of Environmental Conservation, there were a lot of studies and samplings going on. While official studies showed that 29% of the Blue Jays tested were positive for West Nile, the biologist I spoke to emphasized that most dead birds are never found and that even amongst those that were, many weren't tested. His opinion was that it was almost certainly wiping out a lot more than the study could prove. Regardless, the visits from Blue Jays in our backyards were more and more slim.

When I moved to our new home here, we were infrequently visited by a single pair of skittish, shy, nervous jays. They would scope out the feeders for 30 minutes or more, hop on to grab some food, and then were gone again in an instant. If they saw me peeking out a window to watch them, that was it. It was over. I wouldn't see them again for a week. My little eyeball squinting out from behind the curtain was just too much for them.
Then they had baby wamps  Blue Jays.
Out of necessity to fill the ever gaping, endless and bottomless crops of the baby jays, mom and dad Blue Jay started to come to our feeder more and more once the kids fledged. My peeking eyeball was still not okay, but it didn't result in a week without jays. Instead, my watching only caused them to depart for a few minutes before they were back again.
And thus, once the kids were grown, the next year they had their own baby Blue Jays.
Three generations later, and the jays are once again bold, noisy, and somewhat plentiful. They now allow me to be outside and working in the yard when they visit. My peeking eyeball is of no concern, as each new generation became more and more used to my presence. Finally, I have been accepted by the Wamps. *tear*

The reason I am explaining about the generations is that I have noticed something positively fascinating with the newest generation! But I will keep you in suspense for a moment more while I explain something else about Blue Jays.

Blue Jays make an amazing array of noises. They are fantastic mimics and not only that but they have a lot of their own noises, and have a fairly complex language to communicate very exact situations to one another. Now, I really need to make the disclaimer that I am not a trained avian behaviorist, ornithologist, or any other ologist. I have not done studies or tests or research papers. I've just watched the birds in my yard. But to observe them and say that they don't communicate very exact situations to one another would be silly.

Here is an actual conversion that I've had with many people:

Friend/relative/husband person: "Whoa! What is that noise? What bird is that?"
Me: "Oh, that's just a Blue Jay."
Other person: "That cannot be. That sounds like a (baby crying/cat mewling/crow/mockingbird/someone shaking a can full of quarters/hawk)*)
*these are all things that people have actually answered me.

Which brings me to the last one. Blue Jays mimicking hawks.

Surely this is not a new phenomenon, but the newest generation of jays in my yard are the only ones that I've heard doing it. They are also the most rambunctious generation, if that means anything.
Not only do they mimic hawks, but they mimic the one vocal species of hawk that we have here most commonly, the Red-Shouldered Hawk.
Not only do they mimic these hawks, but they do so unerringly well, and they do so in context.

Okay, I'll wait a second for you to consider that.
They mimic the hawks, in context.

Now, the hawks have their own sort of language. It's nothing as varied or complex as what the jays say, but the hawks seem to have pretty simple calls such as territorial calls and so forth. The jays have learned this language, which might not seem terribly remarkable. After all, a bird is a bird, right? But this is a misleading way of thinking.... Blue Jays are no more related to Red-Shouldered Hawks than a mouse is related to a lion. They are the same only to class, if you want to be technical. This puts their lingual accomplishment into a new light.

So what do the Blue Jays do with their new hawk language?
Well.. they troll other birds with it, of course.

I have observed the jays, sometimes singly, and sometimes groups of two or three, mimicking the hawk's territorial scream (specifically) from a tall tree on my property. Soon enough, a real Red-Shouldered Hawk hears it and comes screaming in to kick the tail feathers of the imposter hawk.
Only there is no imposter hawk.
There is a gang of Blue Jays that called the hawk in just to mob it and drive it away again. This is a game.

The second way that the jays troll is that they will freak out smaller birds. I've seen this one a lot. The scenario is this:

A jay or three sits in a neighboring tree, scoping out the situation at my bird feeders. They are usually all abuzz with activity from Juncos, Chickadees, Goldfinches, Cardinals, and various sparrows. Sometimes (oh and the jays love this) there are even Mourning Doves.
The jay will then make a soft "kree-ayyyh" that sounds amazingly like a Red-Shouldered Hawk that is in the distance.
All of the bird-feeder occupants become alert.
The jay(s) wait for a moment. They are playing their time. They know what to do for the maximum entertainment.
Suddenly, one or more of them will swoop down from the tree to the feeder area, full out screaming in perfect imitation of a Red-Shouldered Hawk. All of the feeder birds freak out, and fly for cover. If there are doves- what a delight to the jays!- they explode, turn inside out, pop out their eyeballs, and pretty much do everything they can to get away before the fake hawk eats them.
After blowing up all of the feeder guests, the jays will sometimes take a seed or two. It is somewhat clear that they didn't even do this so that they could have the feeders to themselves-- they seemed to genuinely delight in scaring the everliving beetleborgs right out of all the other birds. Sometimes they will hop from branch to branch with their crests up, all but laughing.


  1. they do the hawk scream in Ontario too! This entry was fantastic :D

  2. We have quite a few jays around our yard, and they are notorious for mocking my cats as the cats perch in the windows, tails twitching. When a cat is very excited, they'll sometimes cat-chirp or meow at the bird within visible range.

    Our bluejays will hop onto a nearby tree branch, look straight at our window....and meow. This drives my cats BONKERS> I find it hilarious.

    Bluejays and doves are some of my favorite birds to watch..though we have LOADS of cardinals and purple finches, and I enjoy them too.

  3. Nice :) I think it's only a matter of time before some birds and primates at the very least are recognized as having language and culture.

  4. I'm enjoying your new, uh, online journal Jennifer. It will be an adventure to follow you around!

    My Steller's Jays have a thing they do that involves me: I will be "pishing" to get all the birds in the brush near my feeder to come up and show themselves. When there are lots of various birds chirping out their alarm calls in response to my noises, the jays with scream like a Sharp-shinned or Cooper's Hawk and all the other birds will freeze and become silent. The jays will then jump around in the trees doing their signature Jay squawk, like thy are laughing, which is probably exactly what they are doing!

  5. We got to see a Steller's jay trying to scare away my botany group last week while we were hiking around. He had me totally fooled at first, too (and I hear a LOT of red-shouldered hawks, there must be about eighty million living behind my house), but a classmate pointed him out a moment later. He seemed to get confused when we didn't flee in terror and decided to make a bunch of other random noises instead. That was the highlight of my trip (birds are much more exciting than plants, you see).

    I wish we had blue jays over here, too, though. Corvids are amazing.