In the column “Since You Asked” in every issue of BirdWatching, Contributing Editor Julie Craves answers readers’ questions about birds and bird behavior. Here is a question from our April 2015 issue:
Why do Blue Jays imitate hawks, even if no other birds are around? — L. Mann, Dexter, Michigan
Blue Jays have an impressive vocal repertoire that includes not only many sounds beyond their raucous jay! jay! calls but also other familiar oddball noises that resemble gurgles, rattles, and squeaky gates. Like other members of the corvid family, jays are pretty good mimics; they commonly impersonate Red-tailed and Red-shouldered Hawks. I’ve also heard jays do credible Cooper’s Hawk and Broad-winged Hawk calls, and I’ve read reports of them imitating American Kestrel and Osprey.
Several theories attempt to explain the behavior, two of which are most accepted and logical. The first says that jays are trying to warn other birds that a hawk is or was present. The second suggests that jays want to dupe other birds into thinking that a hawk is nearby, perhaps to gain access to a feeder. While on woodland walks, however, I have heard solitary jays impersonating hawks when apparently I was the only audience.
Since jays often produce the calls when they’re excited, I may have unknowingly been near a nest (and perhaps appeared to the jay to be susceptible of being scared by a hawk). A more mundane explanation is that jays just mimic sounds they hear, and hawk calls are similar enough to jays’ other standard sounds that they are an easy addition to their vocal array.
About Julie Craves
Julie is supervisor of avian research at the Rouge River Bird Observatory at the University of Michigan Dearborn and a research associate at the university’s Environmental Interpretive Center. She writes about her research on the blog Net Results, and she maintains the website Coffee & Conservation, a thorough resource on where coffee comes from and its impact on wild birds.
New to birdwatching?
Sign up for our free e-newsletter to receive news, photos of birds, attracting and ID tips, descriptions of birding hotspots, and more delivered to your inbox every other week. Sign up now.