birdnote q&a: the blue jay’s loudmouth lineage

Blue Jay - Rodney CampbellEVER WONDER WHY BLUE JAYS are so loud? This insight might explain it:

“They’re related to crows,” I said on the phone one morning to a friend, who was noting both the large numbers of Cyanocitta cristata this winter—and how much loud-mouth behavior that’s amounting to at his feeders.

Really?” he said, and then I thought what I often do when a “fact” pops out of my mouth so quickly to the blank look of my audience: I momentarily wondered if I’d made it up. Grabbing my Sibley’s guide, I was reassured to see I hadn’t: Family Corvidae—the jays, magpies (speaking of mouthy birds), crows and ravens.

“Yes,” I said, with renewed confidence. “Corvids.” As Sibley says, “relatively large, sturdy songbirds with thick bills, strong legs, and loud voices,” plus “noisy and aggressive,” and “rather social and usually travel in groups.” The Cornell Lab of Ornithology website mentions tight family bonds, intelligence, and complex social systems when it describes the blue jay—again, like crows.

Then I emailed Ellen Blackstone of the BirdNote public-radio program, who has been the tour guide for our ongoing series of bird stories here on the blog. (Browse all past installments.) Before I spouted off another “fact” I was unsure of—that blue jays were having an uptick in sightings that winter, something I swore I’d read somewhere—I wanted to be sure.

Yes, she said, and thankfully knew the link I was thinking of: The annual Winter Finch Report by Canadian Rob Pittaway that year had predicted more jays on the move from Canada. Pittaway includes blue jays in his report because they may move for the same reason purple finch, pine siskins, redpolls and the other winter finches do: not enough tree seeds and nuts up north in a given season to eat. (Update: The 2018-19 Winter Finch Report again forecasts an uptick.

“Acorn, beechnut, hazelnut and soft mast crops averaged low in northeastern, central and eastern Ontario,” Pittaway had reported in 2014-15.

Less mast any winter to eat up in Canada, more jays (and winter finches) on the move, in search of food. Blue jays love acorns, in particular.

Steller's Jay © Tom Grey“I grew up with these guys and miss them,” typed Ellen from her Pacific Northwest perch. These days she’s more likely to encounter the Steller’s Jay (above) she says, and this BirdNote show compares the Eastern and Western species—and explains how they behave like big-mouth mobster types at the sign of a predator. That behavior, by the way, protects not just the jays but other birds, who benefit from the alarms and subsequent mobbing of invaders.

If asked what a blue jay sounds like, I’d be quick to answer: a loud, insistent jeer. In that case, my answer would have to be marked as incomplete, Ellen reminds me. The blue jay actually has a number of different vocalizations, including these–which prove it can even mimic a red-tailed hawk if the going gets tough. Impressive.

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FIND ANSWERS to other bird questions in the BirdNote show archives, or on their FieldNotes blog. All of my past interviews with BirdNote can be found at this link.

Meantime, listen to BirdNote’s latest podcast by visiting their website, where you can subscribe to the podcast or RSS, free. More than 100 public radio stations playing BirdNote are listed here; if you like what you hear, why not ask your local station if they’ll carry it.

The BirdNote backstory: In 2002, the then-executive director of Seattle Audubon heard a short public-radio show called StarDate. “We could do that with birds,” she thought. In 2005 the idea became a two-minute daily public-radio show. Lucky for all of us!

(Photo at top of page by Rodney Campbell. Steller’s jay by Tom Grey.)

Categoriesbird sh-t
  1. Joe says:

    We’ve seen a lot fewer birds, including Blue Jays, this winter, but I think it’s my fault. We moved into a new house a little over a year ago, where a large portion of the yard had not been maintained by the previous owners. So we cleaned up a couple thousand square feet of weedy mess, turning it into lawn and a vegetable garden. It occurred to me a couple weeks ago that what I saw as “weedy mess” the birds probably saw as a great source of seeds and hiding places. We’ve put out bird feeders to try to counteract this, so we’ll see what happens.

  2. Laura says:

    Not only are those blue jays loud, but my mom would always call them sassy! So true! As an adult now, that always how I think of them when I hear their call.


  3. PepperReed says:

    <3 the Blue Jays bell call! I thought we'd seen more than we normally do here in urban mid-Michigan; thanks for the insight on seeing more Jays in our area.

  4. melody says:

    I laughed out loud when you thought you made up a “fact”, (I do that too!) and then check my facts to find out that I was right. Somewhere in my brain wrinkles I keep massive amounts of trivia I find interesting.
    Blue jays are interesting for sure. I put peanuts (in shells) out and watched blue jays hide them in the grass and then place a leaf over them. So smart.
    PS Margaret I am jealous of your life. I am a nurse and look forward to the day I get to retire and know my yard, plants and seasons as intimately as you know yours. I get my seeds and plants in in a timely fashion and sometimes miss the harvest because of my scheduled shifts. The vegetables seem to go from not ready to overly ripe so fast.
    I enjoy you.
    Hope to someday take one of your tours.

  5. Linda says:

    I have a soft spot in my heart for blue jays. When I was a kid I raised one my dad brought home after finding it on the driveway at a friend’s home where there were a lot of outdoor cats. It still had some down, but it’s feathers were starting to grow in. I named him Chipper. He was so smart. I researched what to feed him, and raised him successfully. As he was learning to fly I let him be loose in my room, and outside in the yard. He would come back to me and land on my shoulder. I kept him outside for longer and longer periods, hoping he’d learn to find food, and he did. I tried to set him free in the back yard but he kept coming back to me even after a full day, and later days at a time on his own. Eventually before the summer was out and it was time to go back to school, my mom and I took him to a nearby forest preserve. Starting a few days later, and every day after that in every season, every morning at 7:00 a.m., the time I would always wake up, he was my alarm clock, shrieking in a tree outside my bedroom window. This went on for about three years. I can’t say for sure it was actually him, but I believe it was.

  6. Linda says:

    In northern MN, the community public radio http://www.kaxe.org has a great short program several times a week called Laura Erickson “For the Birds”. She is a wonderful story teller of interesting facts of the bird of the day. They also have a phenology report and walk on the wild side that nature lovers would enjoy.

  7. Lorie says:

    This winter, with horrendous wind chills, brings an interesting pecking order at the feeders. It’s red-headed, red-bellied, hairy, and downy vs. jay and starling. It appears that the woodpecker tribes have the brains while the jays and starlings depend on bullying. The flickers, however, operate on size, hit and run mentality.

  8. Carol Greenman says:

    Our dog, a hound, pays close attention to the crows & jays. He’s learned that they are making noise about something he’d like to chase! His ears perk up and he runs to the fence to see what’s out there.

  9. Beverly, zone 6, eastern PA says:

    I have very few blue jays in my garden, not sure why. I am loaded with dozens of other types of birds. When the blue jays show up, they are NOISY and announce their presence.

  10. David Kramer says:

    Love the story from Linda. Have seen a lot of Jays feeding during this very cold spell here in Baltimore. No Orioles though!

  11. Mary says:

    I love jays for their flashes of color in deep winter. I’ve admired them ever since witnessing several jays repeatedly dive bombing a kestrel hawk while it attacked a sparrow at my feeder. The hawk prevailed but the jays were gutsy.

  12. Carol says:

    I live in Georgia, and while growing up Blue Jays were everywhere. Now I do not see so many, but have seen more this year than I have for a while. I got so excited the other day when I heard “Jay! Jay! Jay!”, turned around and there were several in one of my birdbaths.

  13. Brian Tremback says:

    Part of the jay’s mouthiness may have to do with their alarm calls – alerting their buddies to the presence of predators. It puts other animals on the alert as well. I’ve seen jays issue what appear to be false alarms to clear other birds out of feeders.

    1. margaret says:

      They are the public-address system of birds, aren’t they, Brian? And yes, I agree — real alarms, false alarms, all of it is in their repertoire.

  14. Nancy Dawson says:

    I live in southern Alberta and we have a few brave jays that hang around for our cold winters. One announces his arrival and keeps it up until I give him some treats. He comes right up close to eat, no fear at all. My grandkids love watching them. They are such beautiful birds.

  15. Louise says:

    We have what seems to be a pair and I love it when they are around. They love the flowers and shrubs and seem to have a nest in a 30 ft tall pine tree.

    I love them.

  16. Susy says:

    I love the flash of color that they bring to the garden. I used to say I had trained them but in reality, I was the one trained! They call out and I get up and throw out a handful of peanuts. My cats sit at the window and watch and chatter, they love Blue Jays as well!

  17. Simone says:

    As I write this in below-zero NH, I have the pleasure of watching at least 8 blue jays eating bird seed under the feeder and quietly at that. This is the second time in recent days I have been given such a beautiful royal blue show set against the bright white snow.

  18. Kurt Schluter says:

    I thought I read somewhere that Blue Jays flock together as a family. Aunts, uncles, cousins, siblings and so on. They argue like family does! They act as hawk alarms with the crows to protect my chickens. They alert our rooster, Lucky, to shoo the hens into the coop when he hears them making a racket.

    1. margaret says:

      They do Kurt, yes, and Cornell says they have “complex social systems with tight family bonds.” I agree that they act like the alarm system when any danger is about–I actually love seeing how all the other birds take notice. Thanks for saying hello.

  19. Patricia says:

    Thanks for this article! I have noticed birds in a conservatory near me chipping away at the paint so presumably they are interested in the lime component of the paint!

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