Blue jays. I often wish they were more tolerant of us. Few birds are as skittish behaving as blue jays are. Though we dutifully pour expensive black-oil sunflower seed and other favorite morsels into feeders that these birds readily flock to and consume, just open the door of your house and step outside and the whole bunch of them immediately scatter while crying in unison their loud and obnoxious alarm calls.
To tell you the truth, I take their overly dramatic conduct personally. Don’t they realize that I’m the one who feeds them? Who keeps their feeders full? Haven’t they figured out by now that I represent good and not evil? Alas, for as intelligent and clever as blue jays are, I believe they fall woefully short in the grateful department.
But I still adore them.
Blue jays belong to a beloved group of highly intelligent wild birds—corvids. A member of the family Corvidae, blue jays are our only crested corvid here in Minnesota. Indeed, of the seven North American so-called species of jays, the blue jay and the Steller’s jay are the only two species of jays in North America that sports pronounced crests on their heads. Other well-known Minnesota corvids include American crow, common raven, gray jay, and black-billed magpie.
Among the many fascinating characteristics that all corvids share, is a command of language that is not only unique, but complex as well. Ravens top the list in linguistic complexity, but blue jays, though we often think of as a bird with only one vocalization—the cry or jeer—emit numerous other calls and sounds.
Many bird field identification guides tend to disclose blue jay vocalizations within the brief descriptions as fairly one dimensional, which normally are described as the telltale “jay-jay-jay” cry. The fact is, however, there is so much more to the beautiful language of blue jays. Spend enough time outdoors observing and listening to blue jays, you will soon learn that blue jays have a lot to say.
Common blue jay calls and songs include a variety of barely noticeable clicks, whirrs, chucks, liquid notes, and whines. You’ll need to listen closely to hear most of these types of vocalizations, but once you tune into blue jay jargon and understand what you’re listening for, you’ll never forget. It’s believed that the whirrs, clicks, liquid notes, and chucks are sounds collectively associated as “contact calls”, sort of “I see you” calls projected to other nearby jays, especially at mates.
These guttural calls are low volume, low intensity sounds that generally can only be heard when close by or during calm environmental conditions when sounds carry well. Such calls are often produced by mated pairs communicating to one another during foraging, nest-building, and other activities where interactions are shared.
My favorite blue jay songs are the variety of piping notes they sing. For your listening enjoyment and education (if you’re not already familiar with blue jay vernacular), check out Audubon’s recordings: https://www.audubon.org/field-guide/bird/blue-jay The recordings reveal a host of blue jay dialect—everything ranging from rattles to twee-dees, to squeaks and nasally notes, the blue jay says it all.
One interesting vocalization underscores not only a blue jay’s intelligence, but also its talent in mimicry. Blue jays mimic almost perfectly the call of red-tailed or red-shouldered hawks and other closely related hawks. These impersonations are thought to be employed by blue jays either as ways to fool other species in thinking an avian predator is nearby or as a warning to other blue jays that a real hawk was spotted. From my experience, I tend to believe the former.
Learning the songs and calls of blue jays only adds to our appreciation and understanding of this familiar, year ‘round Minnesota avian resident. Without a doubt, learning the songs and calls of as many different species of birds as we can will assuredly enhance our birding experiences as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.