When I think of September and October, the first thing that comes to mind is the silence. The resident birds are indifferent now, the need to announce their breeding territories gone with the season. The migrants are reticent, too. A “chip” now and then is all you hear.
So it is silence, not the smell of decaying leaves, I think of when I remember early fall trips to the woods. But the second thing that I think of is sound – the sound of a noisy band of roving brassy voiced Blue Jays that move through the summer-tired trees like a crested wave. They surround you, taunt you, jeer at you, accuse you of trespass. They are in your face like drill sergeants, screaming and cussing. Then, turning on their branches and looking back into the trees for reinforcements, they stop as quickly as they began. They murmur among themselves, scratch a few lice, pick at a leaf or two, sidestep down a limb, and look at you slyly. “Just a joke,” they seem to be saying. “Nothing personal.” Then they fly away to look for another victim.
It’s hard not to smile when they leave.
There are 11 jay species in North America: Blue, Steller’s, Mexican, Florida Scrub, Western Scrub, Island Scrub, Pinion, Gray, Green, Brown, and Clark’s Nutcracker. All are bold. All are brash. Most are colorful, and with the exception of the Gray Jay the males, females, and young of the species are identical.
Only one lives in Georgia.
Blue Jays have been described as being mischievous as a small boy, destructive as a monkey, and disliking the company of other species of birds. They are accused of maliciously drowning the songs of other birds with their harsh screams and shrieks. But I see another side of this year-round resident of our woods, yards and parks. I see a flamboyant fraud, an innocent disguised as a truant.
During nesting season, they are quiet and furtive. One summer, I watched a pair of nesting Blue Jays. Their loose-stick nest with its core of woven rootlets was set deep in the branches and fifteen feet up in a big cedar. The male never flew directly to the nest with food. He would sit across the yard in a holly and wait; then he would fly to the lowest branches of the cedar and move up the tree, twig by twig, until he reached the nest. The food offered and accepted, he would leave – always by the back door.
Nothing excites Blue Jays like the sight of a roosting owl. A common way to find a sleepy owl is to go toward the screamed alarm calls of Blue Jays. They surround it, shrieking insults in its face. Why?
Some bird behaviorists say their motive is altruism – by mobbing the owl they are warning other birds that danger is close. Mobbing may also drive a predator away. I think they are showing off. I translate “jay, jay, jay” as “Look at me, look at me, see how close I can get to you, I’m braver than you” – reminiscent of children taunting a playground bully. I’ve watched them edge toward a perched Cooper’s Hawk – moving within feet of a mortal enemy. When the hawk charges, they retreat scolding and screaming – a high-stakes game of tag.
Blue Jays have good memories. I have followed the sounds of scolding jays to a place where I’ve seen them pestering a hawk only to discover they were playing a game of pantomime. They are scolding, sometimes poking their heads into a cavity, sometimes hovering around an imagined predator’s perch. But there is no predator – at least not now. Is the location a visual stimulus that triggers a mobbing reaction? Are the Blue Jays re-enacting an old encounter just for the fun of it? Maybe.
Blue Jays may not be mimes, but they are mimics. They imitate the calls of a Red-shouldered Hawk with such accuracy that good birders routinely fall for the ruse.
Blue Jays have bad points to balance the good. They sometimes prey on the nestlings of other birds. They are aggressive at feeders and carry off more than their share of the sunflower seeds. But when the days turn cool and all the pretty, sweet singers of summer are gone Blue Jays add color to the landscape and the world still echoes with their calls.
Tate is a Carrollton resident and bird enthusiast.
Copy Right Stanley Tate, Carrollton, Ga., 2010.