Monday, March 28, 2011

Conversations with a Cunning Corvid

I feel very honored to be able to work so closely with wild animals and get to know the personalities of every species and each bird as an individual. I love every species of birds there are; from the large carrion-eating Turkey Vulture to the tiny nectar-drinking Ruby-throated Hummingbird. They are all spectacular.

One group that I've been particularly impressed with and surprised by is the family Corvidae. This family consist of mainly Crows, Ravens, and Jays, and they are extremely intelligent birds. I have gotten to know the resident American Crows very well and am constantly blown away by everything they are capable of.

Spending so much time with these animals allows us an opportunity to witness some of their behaviors that we may not normally be able to see. One of the first things I noticed about corvids is that they are experts at mimicry. There are many many bird sounds at REGI all the time, and the resident crows have learned to mimic most of them; the clucking of the chickens, the trumpeting of Sandhill Cranes, the hoots of various owls, the cooing of doves, and I'm sure there are more that I'm forgetting.

We are lucky to share our lives with a completely wild adult female Blue Jay that lives and nests on the REGI property. Although 100% wild, she has learned to mimic the sound of our ringing phone which she hears through open windows!

Photo above: A young Blue Jay recuperating from a broken wing at REGI. He's warming up to show off his amazing mimicry skills.

Currently, we have a couple of young Blue Jays with us recuperating from broken wings; during their stay they have been showing off their mimicry skills. This morning I was able to catch some of their skills in action. One of the Blue Jays went through three different vocalizations in less than 5 minutes, and he was so convincing that if I hadn't been standing there watching his beak move, I would have a hard time believing that all those sounds came out of him!

In this video, the Blue Jay is mimicking the screeching call of a red-tailed hawk.

In this video, the Blue Jay is mimicking the calls of American Crows. It looks like he's not saying anything and it is such a convincing crow call, but watch his beak closely. He is actually making the crow sound that you hear!

In this video, the Blue Jay is performing the classic Blue Jay "wheedle wheedle" call.

Photo above: A young Blue Jay recuperating from a broken wing at REGI.

Mimicry might seem like a silly skill to have, but it can serve a valuable purpose. A Blue Jay can mimic the sound of a Red-tailed Hawk to scare other birds away from a feeder, allowing them first pick at the best food. They can also use the mimicked call to alert other Blue Jays that an actual hawk may be near. However, the reasons why they mimic American Crows are unclear. Although from the same family, Blue Jays and Crows are enemies, so perhaps mimicking them can alert others that crows are in the area, similarly to mimicking hawks.

Other birds, such as the Northern Mocking Bird of North America and the Superb Lyrebird of New South Wales and Victoria, Australia, use their mimicry skills to impress females. The theory is, the male that can mimic the most sounds is the most exciting and industrious mate and therefore attracts more females to pass on his genes. The Superb Lyrebird is so adept at picking up and mimicking sounds, they have been recorded sounding like many other birds plus car alarms, chainsaws, dogs barking, camera shutter sounds, and basically anything else they hear. The Northern Mockingbird mimics many other birds, but has been known to mimic "unnatural" sounds as well.

Whether Blue Jays mimic sounds to attract mates is unclear, but I'd like to think they do it just to have fun...

Photo above: A young Blue Jay recuperating from a broken wing at REGI shows off his brilliant blue feathers.

I know that this is off the topic of mimicry, but it is a fun fact about Blue Jays that I've always loved, so here goes. Blue Jay feathers have NO blue pigment in them. The brilliant blue color we see is a product of the refraction of light, not pigment. If you were to take one of their feathers and grind it up, the resultant powder would be gray. The feathers have special prismatic cells on them that refract light so our eyes perceive them as blue. If you ever find a Blue Jay feather, look at it under the light, it will appear blue. However, if you hold it up to the light, the light passing through it will make it look gray because the refraction is lost. So interesting! Make sure not to keep the feather though, as it is illegal to possess any part of a bird protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. :)

Take some time to watch your neighborhood birds, and keep an ear out for bird songs, you never know what you might hear!

Karissa Mohr
REGI Wildlife Educator


  1. Hi there Marge and crew,

    Diesel here. We have lots of blue jays here in Upper Jay (do you think they like the name?). Literally, they hang in packs, which, I wonder if they are family groups or age grade related? Some of our guys are pretty big...I think I can tell the young of last year from the adults, but otherwise, its difficult to understand the relationships. Sometimes, the gangs just gather in our cedar trees to have a talk fest...they start with the blue jay call/cry but then it turns into a wheedle-wheedle fest with some riffing of other sounds- up to 60 birds can participate.

    Warblers passing through here, robins all over the sumac... Must be spring.

    REGI rocks!

    Your friend in fur,


  2. As always - wonderfully instructive and totally fascinating! Thank you so much.