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Biodiversity Blog

 

CAMPUS BIODIVERSITY: Blue Jays

 Bluejay Cyanocitta cristata 1547 Relic38
 Photo: Darren Swim

Blue Jays (Cyanocitta cristata) on campus are hard to miss. With their striking colors and shrill calls, in addition to their assertive behavior, they are one of the more attention-getting birds at UT.

The genus name Cyanocitta derives from the Greek words 'kyaneos,' 'kitta,' and 'kissa'. ‘Kyaneos’ mean blue, and the 'kitta' and 'kissa' translates into chattering bird. The specific name cristata (crested, tufted) derives from Latin referring to the prominent blue crest of the jay.

Blue Jays are omnivores, eating primarily nuts, seeds, fruit, and insects. Their favorite seed is that of the acorn, and because of this, they are attributed with spreading oak trees after the last glacial period. However, Jays are also known to eat dead or injured vertebrates and to raid nests for eggs and nestlings. They also watch squirrels in the act of hiding nuts, and then steal those nuts when the squirrel is gone. They store food for later consumption and are capable of transporting up to five acorns inside their gular pouch at a time.

The Jay exists in a very complex social system. They frequently mate for life and have tight family bonds.

One of the most striking features about Jays are their methods of communication. These birds use both their crests (feathers on their heads) as well as their calls which vary considerably. A bird will lower his or her crest when feeding nestlings or associating with a mate or flock. A bird will raise his or her crest when becoming aggressive, such as when driving off predators.

For their vocalizations, Blue Jays are excellent at mimicking other animals, and even man-made devices like car alarms. Jays will also mimic predators like the Red-tailed or Red-shouldered hawks. They do this when approaching a feeding site in order to drive away other birds. They also mimic hawks to drive parents from a nest so they may eat the eggs or young there. Another reason Jays mimic a predator is to warn other birds about the presence of one.

Interestingly, this predator-mimicking can be acquired as shown through the UT campus Jays and the Peregrine falcon that nests in the UT tower. Because of the slow flying speeds of the Jay, it makes them easy targets for predators like Tower Girl. As observed by Dr. Tim Keitt, Professor in the Department of Integrative Biology, the campus Jays have learned how to warn each other about her presence by mimicking the Peregrine’s call. (Listen to a Peregrine falcon call here: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Peregrine_Falcon/sounds)

The general range of the Blue Jays in Texas starts from the east part of the state into Central Texas, whereas Peregrines range from the west into Central Texas, meaning their habitat overlap is here on campus. This suggests that Blue Jays mimicking Peregrine falcons is unlikely widespread, and quite possibly restricted to campus.

Sources:

Keitt, Dr. Tim, Department of Integrative Biology, UT Austin.

All About Birds. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Blue Jay Identification (accessed online June 7, 2018: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Blue_Jay/id

Texas Parks & Wildlife (accessed online June 5, 2018: https://tpwd.texas.gov/huntwild/wild/species/bluejay/

"The blue jays are coming! Hide yo kids, hide yo nuts!". Seriously, Science?  May 7, 2014 (accessed online June 5, 2018 http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/seriouslyscience/2014/05/07/blue-jays-coming-hide-kids-hide-nuts/#.WxbFDqnNtUd)

Sandrock, James (2014). The Scientific Nomenclature of Birds in the Upper Midwest. University of Iowa Press. p. 48. ISBN 978-1609382254.

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