Christine Pitto of Trail submitted this photo of a Steller's jay for the 2015 Oregon Outdoors Wild Bird Photo Contest.

Steller's jays are good liars

Nature has liars? No, lying is not a uniquely human trait.

Male fireflies of one species mimic the flashing pattern of the female of another species to lure in the male of the second species ... and eat them.

A harmless gopher snake will shake its tail in dried leaves or gravel when threatened, sounding exactly like a rattlesnake.

This discovery on my part was accompanied by a wildly accelerated heart rate. If you spend time in the forests in the region, you have probably been fooled by still other liars, maybe without ever knowing it.

The red-tailed hawk is a common bird in our area. They nest up and down Bear Creek and up into the edges of the forests surrounding the valley. They are usually quite sedate birds, perching stoically for hours until some hapless mouse or squirrel takes a fatal step too far from shelter. When patrolling territories, they soar high and may give a distinctive harsh cry when their mate approaches or an intruder tests a boundary.

Mates, intruders and humans are not the only ones listening. Starlings often imitate the call of the red-tailed hawk, but then they imitate almost anything from tree frogs to wood ducks. The Steller’s jay is famous for its imitations of red-tailed and sometimes red-shouldered hawks. This has always bothered me.

Why only hawks? If a species is prone to imitate other sounds, why choose just these two species?

Maybe the hawks are something special to the Steller’s jay. These hawks do catch and eat birds, including the occasional jay. Red-tails are not as quick or maneuverable as other hawks, so most birds don’t feel much of a threat from them, but predation does happen. Jays have relatively few predators, so maybe we have a respect thing going here. Imitate what is important to you.

It could be that the sound of a red-tailed hawk is easy to imitate. Although jays are officially songbirds, they have no great melodic talents. The call of the Steller’s jay is not that different from that of the hawk. Both are harsh, and the pitch is rather similar. Maybe it’s a case of imitating what you can.

I was speaking with a friend a short time back and learned of a third possibility. He feeds the wildlife in his backyard. He tosses out peanuts for the jays and squirrels and has noted that when the gray squirrels are numerous at the feeder and apparently making it difficult for the jay to get a share of the food, the jay chooses this time to imitate the red-tailed hawk. Panic! It’s bushy tails scattering in every which direction. Squirrels know exactly what this call means. Red-tailed hawks prefer squirrels to jays as a lunchmeat.

Wow. Are they really that smart? Are jays purposefully lying to gain advantage? I am skeptical, but it would explain why Steller’s jays imitate just this bird. Jays are noted for their intelligence, exhibiting a variety of problem-solving skills, but this would take matters to a new level. Now where can I find a student to help test out this idea?

Stewart Janes is a biology professor as Southern Oregon University. He can be reached at janes@sou.edu.

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