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Blue jays: Fool me once...

By Robert Tougias

Publication: The Day

Published September 21. 2012 4:00AM

In my previous column, I wrote about the pair of red-shouldered hawks that nested close to my house. I shared the experience of living with these magnificent birds of prey and their behavior over the course of several months.

Since then, the hawks have been rather quiet, and now that it is September it will not be long before they leave completely. So you can understand my excitement when I heard one calling sharply outside near the deck.

I jumped from my desk, tripped over my cat and hurried out to see it. To my surprise there was no hawk - instead I found a frantic blue jay hopping around, head cocked, crest slightly raised and what looked like a menacing twinkle in its eyes. I had been fooled!

Astonished, I stood there and watched the jay let out a perfect imitation of my resident red-shouldered hawk. It wasn't the first time the old jay tricked me like that. Every time it happens it seems the jay is laughing at me, but I try not to anthropomorphize.

Yet, jays are clever birds and somehow it wouldn't surprise me if somewhere in that bird's brilliant little brain there wasn't some sense for humor or jest. Although the jay is a common bird that most of us are very familiar with, few of us know that they are skilled mimics. Blue jays can accurately mimic song birds, rusty gates, squeaky swings, car alarms, pets and even human voices. I have been told about one jay who had 50 different mimics in his repertoire and was able to place some to specific objects.

Most of us are unaware of their high intelligence. Ever since the research of Otto Koehler emerged in Germany - Koehler taught corvids to count in the 1940s - science has continued to document the keen intellect of jays. Ornithologists now know that the corvid family, including our native ravens, crows and jays, are quicker on the up-take than higher mammals such as cats, dogs and monkeys.

Ravens have scored higher than some graduate students on memory tests. They have used simple tools to solve problems under observation in captivity. Jays are able to recall the general timing, place and sequence of important events. They can plan ahead and operate levers at the right time to obtain food.

Perhaps, we cannot ever ascertain whether jays have a true sense of humor, but jays in captivity have been observed bouncing balls and hiding objects on their keepers. Even scientific literature admits the "playfulness" of jays.

It is well known that blue jays like to mimic red-shouldered hawks. My casual observation leads me to believe that mimicking the call notes of the hawk frightens other birds away from food sources to eliminate competition, and maybe, for one menacing old jay, it is a great way to make a fool out of a local birding columnist.

Robert Tougias is a Colchester birding author. He is available for presentations and can be reached at rtougias@snet.net.

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