...Before the story, a reminder. My novel, DEAD FISH and What the Blue jays Know, will be released on Earth Day, April 22. (publisher Bedazzled Ink Publishing). Preorder is available now. Click on the book cover above. Thanks.
OK...now back to blue jays and squirrels.
Based upon my various readings, blue jays are very territorial, particularly during nesting season. However, does the blue jay territorial protective instinct extend beyond the nest, beyond even their own extended family?
All birds police territories, particularly the red-winged blackbird, one of the most vicious creatures on earth if you're anywhere near its nest. I've seen red winged blackbirds attack hawks, herons, crows. They're certainly the most courageous birds around. But their primary concern is that nest. They could care less about the rest of the neighborhood.
I suspect bird specialists would say the same thing about the blue jays. They protect each other, the nest, and all the screaming relates to their self-interest. But, I don't know. Based upon my observations, blue jays appear to protect the yard and everyone in it, not simply their clan. I've seen them congregate and mob alert for reasons that go beyond self-interest. They are on constant alert during nesting season. They're on alert off season, too, just not dramatically. I have seen them protect rodents you'd never believe they'd care about.
Like squirrels. Squirrels are yet another creature most people find obnoxious. Like the blue jay, they can be aggressive at the bird feeder. They're eager to try different acrobatic feats necessary to conquer the feeder challenge. This makes them a pain to manage. It's really hard to figure out a way to protect the feeder and provide cover in case of hawks. Providing that cover for the birds requires placing the bird feeder close to bushes and small trees, which then gives the athletic squirrel that little boost up to conquer the bird feeder. This makes them difficult. But I like difficult.
OK, I toss squirrels peanuts,. I know. I still do it because I toss blue jays peanuts and if I toss blue jays peanuts, the squirrels want some, too. On some spring days I've managed to entice a few to take a peanut from my hand. Feeding jays and squirrels at the same time can cause competition, which I do not want, so I toss peanuts to blue jays in a particularly location--closer to the feeder, and to the squirrels in another location--close to the Japanese maple. I toss enough so there's no need to quarrel. I've actually made friends with one squirrel who had no tail. I have no idea why she was missing a tail, only assumed it probably had something to do with determination-- determination not to be eaten by a Red-tailed hawk. Anyway, I liked the tailless squirrel and it liked me. It would walk right up to me. I still miss her. She's now resting in peace. The hawk won. When the tail is gone, there's nothing left to chew off in order to escape, I suppose.
So, the squirrels, while annoying, became a part of the yard family.
Cooper's hawks are the greatest threat to birds, and are most prevalent around the feeder. But when the squirrels congregate, the Red-tailed hawks visit, too, because a squirrel dinner is like steak for the Red-tailed hawks.
A little bit about that screaming first. The blue jay screaming is actually an alert system. Unlike other bird's quick alarms then escapes-- the blue jays coordinate their voices. One stands guard, then screams his warning to another who then conveys his message to the others.. and so on. If the hawk puts prey in imminent danger, the blue jay mob alert begins. This alert is meant to warn their own immediate nesting area, but I also believed they intend to police the entire territory. When I say territory, I don't mean my yard, but perhaps several yards. They flock everywhere, screaming alarms about predators to everyone.
One day they mob alerted right by my feeder. My window in my study faces the feeder and I counted at least two dozen blue jays -- all mob alert screaming. A few jays appeared to be looking through my window at me as they screamed. By the time I made it to the back door, blue jays were everywhere. At least three dozen blue jays were up in the white pine, birch, and one large fir. They were hysterical, so hysterical I imagined a Cooper's hawk or Sharpie was eating an offspring. I opened the door expecting to see a horror story.
In the yard stood a huge, imperious looking Red-tailed hawk staring at the feeder. Actually, not the feeder, but the tube that covers the feeder stand--which protects it from squirrels and raccoons (see below). I opened the door and the hawk flew away, the blue jays trailing him. I at first didn't realize the hawk was staring at the tube, so I assumed the prey was in the yard or up a tree. I walked around and heard this faint dog whine. As I approached the feeder the dog whine grew louder. It came from inside the tube. There was no dog inside the tube, there was a squirrel, hanging on to the stand for dear life. It had crawled up the tube to hide, then found itself trapped. The hawk knew it couldn't hold on forever and was patiently waiting for his meal.
When I knocked on the tube, the squirrel fell down and ran for its life, stopping briefly at the tree to look back and regard me. The yard went quiet. The blue jays were gone.
They had all saved one squirrel.
OK, this is not too unusual. As I mentioned, mob alerts are common with jays. But in this case, there were literally dozens of blue jays, pulled from every nesting area. I don't think our yard, or even the adjacent yards, have this many blue jays. They were called in. And a few blue jays had looked into my window, screaming at me. The alert was more than a warning to all of their species, or even birds. This huge raptor was no real threat to the birds. He only wanted one thing and one thing only--the squirrel. And these birds wanted to save that one squirrel. Dozens and dozens of of them wanted to save this one squirrel.
Why? Why this one squirrel? I wondered if it was one of the squirrels I had fed one day. The only way I could actually identify squirrels was the missing tail, back when the tailless squirrel was alive. I could also distinguish females from the males during mating season. But other than that, I just didn't know. But I bet the blue jays could tell one squirrel from another. Maybe this was one of the squirrels who took peanuts from my hand. This may have marked it as special friend, and so when it looked like it was about to be eaten, they all went on high alert.
Or maybe not. Maybe they simply protect anything in their territory. Squirrels were part of their territory. But if they did save this one squirrel because by feeding squirrels when I fed them, I had somehow created this "family." Does this means the blue jays have a certain level of empathy and community loyalty that goes beyond their species?
So, when the blue jays scream, I think of that squirrel and realize that scream may be about a huge Red-tailed or broad shouldered hawk, not just a bird eater. They scream quite often because hawks fly over our area often. I wave at hawks when I see them to warn the birds.
But what if a huge hawk was accepted by me? OK, cautiously accepted (One cannot completely trust a hawk). What if I befriended a hawk big enough not to be a threat to birds, perhaps one that helps them by chasing away the Cooper's hawk? Would they scream at this hawk? Could they accept a hawk, as long as that hawk agreed never to eat them? That's the next story.
I like to write about people, animals, dogs. I enjoy ideas, good books about ideas, funny books about ideas, funny people who have ideas, advocates for people who don't have voices to express their ideas, and animals who have ideas we can't understand.