Minnesota Outdoors: Blue Jays are highly intelligent birds
One of Minnesota’s most attractive wild birds is the year ‘round resident blue jay. Much maligned for numerous and invalid reasons, blue jays are a species worth a closer look and appreciating.
Yes, blue jays can and do rob other avian species’ nests of eggs and sometimes even nestlings, and yes, blue jays can be obnoxious when screeching at raptors or mammalian predators, even at us, yet blue jays are only doing what blue jays do. They are, after all, just a wild creature trying to survive in a very harsh and unforgiving world.
Let it be known that the raucous blue jay whether alone or playing a role in a tightknit flock vocalizing loudly at an intruder, is also informing the entire woodland of potential danger or something worth being aware about. How many times have you been outdoors and have suddenly heard the commotion of a group of shrieking blue jays and have looked in their direction to search for a clue for what was going on?
In so doing do you realize that you understand some of the language of wild creatures? Indeed, the blue jay’s alarm calls are pretty much universally understood by not only us, but most, if not all, wild animals sharing the backyard and forest with blue jays.
Sounding alarm cries is something blue jays and other corvids do quite well and very often. Think of other corvids such as crows and ravens. Woe is the daytime owl that’s spotted by a mob of crows or ravens (and blue jays, too!). The hapless owl will need to endure relentless noise as the entire flock informs the countryside that a big bad owl has been sighted. And believe me, other creatures are taking cue.
One October morning while sitting on a timbered mountain slope in the Colorado Rockies several years ago, I was alerted to the alarm calls of a half a dozen Steller’s jays. This species of jay, which looks quite similar to blue jays, has also similar language and behaviors. Like blue jays—boisterous, skittish, and always moving—are typical take-home observations of this species, too.
Turning to look in the direction of the ruckus to see what was happening, I quickly found out why the Steller’s jays were making such a stir. For on the ground in an attempt to go about its business undetected and undisturbed was a pine marten. This predator is well known as a dangerous adversary, and the group of jays wasn’t about to leave the marten alone. As the marten continued on its journey, no doubt on its morning hunt, the jays followed the furry predator wherever it went and never once stopped screeching.
Blue jays, like all corvids, are highly intelligent birds. Blue jays even engage in a vocal practice that’s not only devious, it’s humorous as well. How such a behavior evolved is interesting to say the least, but it certainly speaks to the intelligence of the bird. Blue jays are known to perform a vocal trick to fool other creatures by mimicking a hawk’s call, presumably to scare other birds from a preferred food source that the blue jays want for themselves.
There’s another theory as to why blue jays impersonate a hawk’s vocalization, too. It could be that there actually IS a red-shouldered or red-tailed hawk nearby and that the mimicry serves as a warning to other jays to be on the lookout for danger.
Regardless of how or why the call is used, it seems to work, especially in the former example. I have observed the hawk imposter call used by blue jays at my backyard bird feeding station and have been amused by seeing other birds scatter at the sound of the hawk call.
The beautiful blue jay is a bird of unique beauty, habits, and language. That they live here with us throughout the year is especially endearing given the fact that most of Minnesota’s birds are only seasonal residents, as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.