You Gotta Love ‘Em. Really?

Posted by Marcia Penner Freedman

I received the following email from a friend after she read the post Danger! Danger!

The animal world can also be cruel.  I once heard some scrub jays making a racket in a bush.  I snuck up and peered into the thicket and there were 10-13 scrub jays screaming, and on the ground was a scrub jay all bloodied.  As I continued to watch, some of the scrub jays would jump down to the bloodied scrub jay and peck at it.  Not sure what I was watching. I thought maybe they were trying to get him to get up, but as I continued to watch I realized they were attacking one of their own, pecking at it and killing it.  It was a communal execution…. was all I could think.  I could not continue to watch (it was horrible) and went away.  Came back about an hour later and the bird on the ground was dead.  Soooo weird.  Ever since then I look at scrub jays as killers!

I have to admit, this story of mob murder of a jay by jays really shook me up. ‘Cruel’ certainly seems like an apt term. I tried to find out whether this occurs normally, but I found nothing about this type of behavior amongst jays.

Was it just an anomaly?

I did find out that jays are aggressive by nature and will engage in mob intimidation when they feel threatened or when they perceive a breach of their territory by other birds. Also, they have been known to kill young birds and to steal birds’ eggs, but that is all part of the hunt, not a social act. Plus, there is some evidence that this behavior does not occur with any frequency.

Ornithologist and editor of Audubon Magazine, Les Line, cited a study from the early twentieth century that found only 6 out of 530 blue jay stomachs had traces of eggs and young birds. “Mainly,” Line wrote, “the omnivorous blue jays feast on insects, nuts, berries, seeds, and now and then small animals like deer mice, bats, lizards, and tree frogs.”

A more recent look at the extent to which jays rob nests and kill young birds comes from Tom Gardali of Point Reyes Bird Observatory (PRBO) Conservation Science in West Marin County. He believes that jays do not contribute significantly to the death of young birds or the depletion of eggs. “Most nest camera studies,” he says, “show that corvids [jays are a type of corvid] are relatively minor nest predators — snakes seem to be the stars.”

Jays are extremely intelligent and in Gardali’s words, “stunningly observant.” In the course of conducting their study the research team discovered that the jays can learn to spot and follow an ornithologist on the way to study a bird nest, “in anticipation of a tasty bird egg or baby bird treat.” Researchers at PRBO have had to learn how to outsmart the jays when they head off to study sites, to make sure they are not being followed by the crafty birds.

But many folks really hate blue jays, and numbers and statistics cannot erase the antipathy they feel towards the jay’s bullying and aggression.

Line believes that the bad rap for the blue jay might have had its beginning in 1831 when ornithologist and bird illustrator John J. Audubon wrote in his Ornithological Biography, “Who could imagine that selfishness, duplicity, and malice should form the moral accompaniments of so much physical perfection!” In the mid-20th century, a photographic plate of Audubon’s illustration of three jays sucking eggs “pilfered from the nest of some innocent dove or harmless partridge,” was reproduced on calendars and handed out widely by insurance companies.  This, according to Line helped foment blue jay hatred.

Can a jay-hater be swayed from his aversion to the bird by learning that they are loving mates and devoted parents? That they are considered to be among the most intelligent species? That they can solve problems? Could the loathing they feel be assuaged by knowing that the jay seed caching practice, called scatter hoarding, has played an important ecological role in the proliferation of oak and pine forests?*

It’s hard to tell. These days, we are being challenged in so many areas to examine our prejudices and to become more accepting. Probably the blue jay is way down on the priority list as an object of concern. But imagine. It could be a good place to start.

*In scatter hoarding, the jay creates many small hoards of seeds and disperses them over a large area. Inevitably, many of the seeds will be left, contributing to the chance of germination.

Here is a copy of the title page of Audubon’s book: