Early this morning there was a great commotion in the trees at the back of my house. I could hear the loud cawing of crows and the edgy screeching of blue jays echoing around in rising sunlight. I sat at my desk by the back window and watched a battle between two often unappreciated and frequently un-loved birds.
There were, in spite of the volume of sound, only two crows and two blue jays. There was no direct contact between any of the birds (while I was watching, anyway) but there was a great deal of intrusion by the blue jays into the “personal spaces” of the crows. Here’s how it went down:
The crows flew to some close branches in the middle limbs of the black locust, red maple, and blue spruce trees that surround the backyard. As soon as the crows landed, the two blue jays streaked in and landed on branches just above them screeching loudly and repeatedly diving down past the heads of the bobbing and ducking crows. The crows lifted their wings and fluffed their feathers cawing loudly all the time at the passing jays. The four birds stayed in position for about a minute, and then the crows flew to another tree and the whole process was repeated. This went on for about fifteen minutes until one of the crows broke it off and flew out of the tree perch area. The second crow followed the first immediately and then the two jays followed. The battle, at least within my viewing range, then was over.
Both crows and jays are members of the Family Corvidae. Corvids are noted for their intelligence and for their wide ranging feeding habits. Although blue jays eat mostly seeds, nuts and insects, I have seen them pick robin hatchlings out of their nests and fly off with them. I have also seen them flying past with small eggs in their beaks. I have also seen crows who are even more omnivorous than jays, knock cardinals out of the air and pounce on them to feed and have also seen them pick baby red squirrels off of tree branches as the squirrels walked along behind their mother. These feeding behaviors are some of the reasons that corvids aren’t widely loved birds! The battle this morning was undoubtedly triggered by one corvid (the jays) reacting to the menacing presence of the second. Blue jays are in the height of their nesting right now and even if they haven’t laid eggs yet, their protective instincts will kick in if any potential predator enters their nesting territory.
Blue jays play a complex role in the avian community. Although they do eat other birds’ eggs and nestlings, they also serve as an early warning system for predators, especially hawks and owls. If a group of jays sees a hawk or an owl they scream their warning cries and then fearlessly mob the larger predator and drive it from their territory benefiting not only the blue jays but also all of the other bird species in the area.
Corvids are also accomplished mimics and can not only pick up numerous calls and songs from their environment but can also be taught to produce many human words and even phrases. One sound that I have frequently heard blue jays make is the call of a red-tailed hawk. What a fantastic tool to clear a bird feeder and, thus, have all of the seed to yourself! Once, high up on a nearby ridge, I followed the call of a red-tail through a dense copse of young red maple trees. After several minutes of hunting I finally spotted a bright, shining blue jay perched at the top of one of the maples screaming out over the valley like a hunting red-tailed hawk. I think that the sound and its echo were quite pleasing to him!
I have a great fondness for crows and can forgive them their predatory ways in appreciation of their amazing intelligence. Their ability to solve problems, devise hunting strategies and communicate those strategies among the individuals of their flocks are extremely impressive behaviors. Crows also recognize people and learn who are potential threats to them (like ornithologists who check on their nestlings or catch and band them!) and maybe even those people who feed and care for them! I have a plan to try to ‘communicate” with the cohort of crows who regularly patrol around the parking areas up at Penn State New Kensington. My plan is to carry some crackers out to these crows each afternoon as I head for my car. It will be interesting to see if they begin to anticipate my schedule and maybe even begin to line up to wait for the food offerings. I will keep you posted!