Signs of Spring 10: Crows and Jays

Photo by D. Sillman

Photo by D. Sillman

All winter I have had the same early morning routine seven days a week: I take my dog Izzy out for her morning walk somewhere between 6:30 and 7 AM. She has had her breakfast and is ready to reacquaint herself with the scents out along my street and, most importantly, do her “business.” Every coat I own has a stash of little blue, dog waste bags in their pockets! After a 15 or 20 minute walk about, I return Izzy to our glassed-in porch and take a bucket of black oil sunflower seeds, a scoop of shelled corn, and a triple handful of peanuts in the shell out to fill up the bird feeders. I have to do this every day because the deer come in every evening and eat any seed that managed to last the day. I try to balance the birds’ appetites with the portions I put out so that I don’t end up spending too much money feeding (really expensive!) sunflower seeds to deer!

When I go out with my seed buckets and peanut bag I always have a couple of acquaintances watching me. Up in a nearby red maple there is usually a crow staring down into the yard in silence, and up in the blue spruce tree that borders the front yard there is a blue jay who inevitably starts “pinging” his pure whistle tone at me.

Photo by D. Sillman

Photo by D. Sillman

I fill the feeders and dump the peanuts and go right back into the porch. I then let Izzy in to get her dog biscuit reward and look back out the window at the peanut pile. There is always at least one, sometimes three blue jays on the peanuts frantically stuffing as many peanuts as they can into their gular, throat pouches. They only have a few seconds before the look-out crow lands on the edge of the road and after a careful evaluation of the yard starts walking in toward the peanut pile. Usually a second crow lands and joins him just as he reaches the pile. They send the blue jays scattering.

The crows sit and methodically finish off all of the peanuts (unless the school bus drives by and scares them off. Then the jays might have another crack at the stash!).

I remember sitting at my writing desk four or five years ago watching a group of crows and blue jays argue about the fading winter and the coming spring. It was early April and the blue jays were probably starting their spring nests and the crows were checking out the nest area for some edible eggs. The racket was incredible! And, there were only four birds doing all of the high volume fussing!

Photo by D. Sillman

Photo by D. Sillman

Both crows and jays are members of the Family Corvidae. Corvids are known 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 acting even more aggressively than that! I have watched them knock cardinals out of the air and pounce on them. I 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!

Photo by D. Sillman

Photo by D. Sillman

Blue jays play a complex role in the avian community. Although they do occasionally at least 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. This is a behavior that benefits 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 also can be taught to produce many human words and even phrases. One sound that I frequently hear 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 maple screaming out over the valley like a hunting red-tail. 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! There was one well known ornithologist at Cornell had conducted an active, and somewhat intrusive egg count in the nests of the campus crows who was unable to walk across campus without being followed and harassed by mobs of angry crows!

Maybe crows even recognize those people who feed and care for them! My “morning crow” recognizes me and I am sure begins to anticipate the satisfying taste of breakfast peanuts as soon as he sees me come out to the feeder with my seed buckets! Although he’s too cautious to come any closer than the top of the maple tree while I am out in the yard, perhaps someday he will communicate with me more personally.

I will keep you posted!

Happy Spring!

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1 Response to Signs of Spring 10: Crows and Jays

  1. Mardelle Kopnicky says:

    We also have “pet crows” that we feed peanuts to on the porch next to sunroom 7ish in the morning. They look in the sunroom and Caw that they want their peanuts .
    This weekend our grandsons stayed over and after breakfast about 10 they wanted to see the crows eat the peanuts. They could not locate a crow in the sky. We put our peanuts and from a distance a crow flew in Britain a minute or two and then another. How did they know we just put out the peanuts?

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