To Live is to Fly

After finishing what may have been my last (and most rigorous) academic semester, I feel relieved. My thesis is written, all courses (to teach and take) are completed, and I have left the university (!!) with a graduate degree.

Two years of my life were dedicated to decoding the language of Blue Jays. Yes, Blue Jays – the bird that is probably in your back yard if you live in the United States, a species which may annoy you. What I did seems (to many people) like something that a parent would incredulously describe their child as having once done when young, rather than something an adult would do. “Do you remember when Josie spent the entire summer following those birds, and naming their calls?” The ultimate reason that this hypothetical child and I would devote effort to listening to the calls of birds is the same: fascination with the natural world. Children are natural scientists, hard-wired to ask questions and wonder why. As we age, there are many pressures (including genetics) to become more pragmatic, and to therefore ask less questions that have been deemed useless in providing benefits to humanity. There are many questions, though, which are not ‘useless’ to ask in this regard. Maintaining the ability and desire to ask questions (both questions which could benefit humanity and those that probably won’t), I believe, makes life much more interesting, and could even transform the ‘annoying’ Blue Jay into a fascinating subject of study, even for an adult. And yes, I think that better understanding birds can benefit humanity. I will explain why.

Blue Jays are in the family Corvidae, which includes the crows, ravens, magpies, and jays.  All of these birds are smart. Here is a cool documentary about crows!:

In addition to being smart, most Corvids are also noisy. Some have described Corvids as having ape-like intelligence (humans are, according to those who classify the relatedness of living things, apes). To say that ‘a bird is a bird and that all are the same’ is as incorrect as saying that a ‘mammal is a mammal and all are the same.’ We are better problem-solvers than cottontails, for example, and Blue Jays are better problem-solvers than Mallards. For us to understand how another smart and noisy species can communicate vocally is important for understanding how advanced vocalization systems develop. For example, identifying factors that make it advantageous to have large vocal repertoires, by studying species like Blue Jays, may allow us to understand a little bit about why we are the way we are (specifically, why do we humans use thousands of distinct vocal signals to communicate when many other species can get by with only a few?). Certain factors have been identified. For example, the FOX-P2 gene (one of about 20,000 genes that together make us human) has been linked with our advanced ability to communicate vocally. Social complexity has been linked with large vocal repertoire sizes in some species (like Blue Jays), which is to say that species which interact more often with other individuals have a greater need to be able to make many different distinct sounds to communicate. A solitary species has little need to have a large vocal repertoire, as there is no need to communicate most of the time, while a super-social species like human beings may create a dictionary with 170,000+ words in it for just one, of many, languages.

After recording for more than 30 hours, and recording 7,213 calls, I identified 42 distinct Blue Jay vocalizations, which is considerably more than the average bird uses (5-14 vocalizations is typical). I used spectrograms (visual representations of sound) to identify the different call types. Here is an example of a spectrogram from my study:


This large repertoire size is likely due to the ability of Blue Jays to learn new vocalizations. Most species can utter only sounds that are encoded in their genes. Human beings and songbirds (which include Blue Jays) are among the few species which can learn a new sound based on experience. For example, Blue Jays in my study area that lived near Bald Eagles imitated Bald Eagles, and those that lived near Red-shouldered Hawks imitated Red-shouldered Hawks. Further, jays appeared to understand the meaning of the calls that they uttered. Only predator calls were imitated by Blue Jays (non-dangerous species weren’t), and these calls were often uttered in situations of danger for the vocalizing bird. So, rather than saying ‘look out, it might be coming to kill you!’ jays often utter a very convincing imitated predator call (for example, a Red-tailed Hawk call) to indicate the presence of danger (they sometimes use these calls when there is no apparent danger, too). This would be like us imitating a gunshot to say that a dangerous person is coming, which would be a very efficient way to transmit important information.

Interestingly, different groups of Blue Jays may have, to some degree, different languages. Different calls are learned at different locations, and those calls may be transmitted from generation to generation (culturally). Further, the same call at different locations may be used differently, which I learned by associating contexts (like predator-related, food-related, etc.) with the use of certain call types. Essentially, Blue Jays located at different places may have as hard of a time communicating with each other as a monolingual, native-speaking Eskimo would have trying to communicate with a monolingual, native-speaking Australian Aborigine. It seems that in this way, too, jays are not much different than us. Maybe understanding how amazing, and sometimes similar to us, other species are may encourage human beings to protect and respect them, and to therefore improve the situation here on planet Earth? I hope so.

Now I am travelling across the Great Plains conducting bird surveys, to help better understand how bird populations are doing in this part of the world (I will keep you posted!). Studies such as my Blue Jay project, I think, show how important it is to protect and pay attention to other species, because there is a lot that we can learn from them. Not only can we learn from other species, but we depend on them to maintain the conditions which sustain all life (more on that in another post). I will admit, it feels good to be done with the Blue Jay project (mainly because of all of the difficult steps that are required to complete a Master’s thesis), but I am glad that I took the time to observe and better understand another living creature, especially one as fascinating and misunderstood as the Blue Jay. Often when I watch birds, I’m reminded of the Townes Van Zandt song, To Live is To Fly, which I have found to be beautiful and inspiring:

And in a way, now, I do feel like I’m flying, with the wind of the natural world beneath my wings. The weight of graduate school has been cut loose, and I’m ready to soar, so that I can see, understand, and hopefully protect the wind that holds me up.



4 thoughts on “To Live is to Fly

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