Blue Jay Calls: Hawk Mimicry

On Monday I was leaving campus at the end of another long day. My partner and I were in the library parking lot and I was worn down after a lot of time at the computer working on dissertation research. I decided to study wildlife to be outside, but after data are collected—especially as one’s career progresses—most time tends to be spent inside analyzing data and writing about it. As we were about ready to get into our car, I heard what I was pretty sure was a Blue Jay imitating a Cooper’s Hawk from a row of oaks that bisected the parking lot. I’d seen a Blue Jay in the oak trees in that direction just before I heard the interesting call.

Here is the type of call, uttered by an actual Cooper’s Hawk, that I thought I’d heard:

XC554004 Cooper’s Hawk (Accipiter cooperii) :: xeno-canto

Like I often do, I wandered away toward a bird with little or no explanation. Maybe I said, “there is a Blue Jay over there.” Luckily, my partner is an ecologist, so she understands—or, at least accepts—my strange behavior.

As I approached the tree line, it became clear that indeed a Blue Jay was imitating a Cooper’s Hawk while foraging. Here is the footage:

Foraging Blue Jay Imitates Cooper’s Hawk – YouTube

Blue Jays have been observed on many occasions imitating/mimicking other species. Often, I’ve noticed, they imitate their potential predators. There are several reasons that the jay I saw could have been imitating a Cooper’s Hawk. Given that it appeared to be foraging alone, the bird might have been calling as a way to deter other birds from competing for a valuable food source. Little acorns were just beginning to form on the oaks, but I think the jay was eating something else on the ground. The Blue Jay might have been just showing off a unique call which it had learned that could, when combined with the other calls in its repertoire, impress another jay. It is also possible that the bird was indicating nearby danger, though I don’t think that was the case in this instance. However, when I studied Blue Jay vocalizations for my Master’s research, I frequently observed jays imitating predators (Red-tailed Hawk, American Crow) as I approached Blue Jay nests. It was as if they were indicating danger to their mates by imitating a species that was dangerous to them. Or maybe they had been trying to scare me off by imitating something that scared them.

My favorite memory from my Master’s research is the afternoon when I heard a pair of Blue Jays utter uncannily-convincing American Crow calls as I approached their fledglings. A recording from that day of that call type, as well as other Blue Jay call types that I described in a recently-published study, can be found at the below link. The most convincing American Crow call is at the very end of the file called ‘NamesAndCalls_Row3.’

The vocal repertoire of Blue Jays (Cyanocitta cristata): spectrographic snapshots and suggested nomenclature | Zenodo

Yesterday, when I was leaving campus on my bike, I noticed a Cooper’s Hawk flying high overhead. I was only a few hundred yards to the northwest of where I’d recorded the Blue Jay on Monday. I put down my kickstand and watched as the hawk boldly flew above me, clearing carrying something in its talons. Was it my Blue Jay friend?!? No, I was able to tell, it was some kind of rodent. A little relieved, I pedaled home.

This morning, at around 7:00 am or so, I was sitting in the backyard with my loyal canine companion at my feet. We were both thinking about what we wanted to accomplish today. As I thought, I listened to several Blue Jays calling around the neighborhood. Within the last couple weeks, a pair of Blue Jays successfully hatched young from the sycamore behind our house and ever since I’ve been listening to the calls of hidden fledglings as they beg for and then noisily receive food. But this morning it was just adult calls, mostly the ones that jays utter when they are flying and attempting to stay in contact with allies. The calls suddenly changed to what I call ‘Burry Descending Jay,’ and several American Robins began ‘tutting,’ so I wondered if they were concerned about something.

Then, like a low and straight arrow about 15 feet above the ground, a Cooper’s Hawk flew from east to west across our backyard almost right over me. And the jays kept calling, as if I needed to be convinced more to share about the special birds that we call Blue Jays and one of the many challenges that have shaped them. Gradually the ‘tuts’ of the robins stopped and the Blue Jays resumed calls that generally don’t indicate danger. I carefully listened for what jays and other birds will teach anyone who pays attention. And all, for the moment, again became calm.

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Sandhill Cranes, Egg Hatching

Last weekend, my partner and I stopped during a road trip by a small pond amidst natural habitat in southeast Michigan. While we were stretching our legs, and our dog was diligently collecting sticktight seeds on his fur, we heard the excited, sharp and rapid bugles of a few sandhill cranes as they glided down to the water’s edge. They were noticeably bigger than the Great Egret that was wading nearby. Their slate-gray feathers, I thought, offered a striking contrast both to the flowering goldenrod behind them and my memories of this summer when I got to see Sandhills in their rusty-brown plumage.

Seeing those cranes last weekend reminded me that this spring, when I was walking through the marsh for fieldwork, I happened upon a Sandhill Crane nest at a special time. One chick had just hatched and another was breaking through its egg. Before I respectfully left the area, I recorded video footage that I’m sharing today.

I like to think that those chicks, along with their devoted parents that are heard in the video, are preparing to head south for the winter, or maybe even have embarked on their journey already. Given that the chicks I was lucky enough to see were about 70 miles north of the pond where we stopped at last weekend, the thought even crossed my mind that maybe I had seen the chicks again, all grown up. Though that is very unlikely, I like to think that the birds in the below video will soon be awkwardly leaping with others and adding to the amazing, seemingly-joyful chorus of thousands of migrating Sandhill Cranes at nearby places like Phyllis Haehnle Memorial Audubon Sanctuary.

What is a Naturalist?

As you may know, my blog is entitled, ‘Thoughts of a Naturalist.’ A worthy question, which I’ve never discussed here, is: “what is a ‘naturalist’?” For many of us, the word carries much meaning and perhaps even is a big part of our identity. Nature-lovers, philosophers, environmentalists, and ecologists all likely tend to use the word at least a little differently. If you have an opinion that you’d like to share about what being a ‘naturalist’ means to you, please share your thoughts as a comment. I’m curious how my views, which I’ll share below, relate to yours.

I think that it is probably fair to say that I’ve been a naturalist—at least a budding one—since I was in high school, even though I don’t remember using the word then. At that time, I began going out to natural areas with the primary goals of paying attention and learning. I remember walking through a nature preserve near to my house teaching myself to identify trees, which was perhaps inspired by mother’s and grandmothers’ interest in flowers. My naturalism probably started even earlier, when my grandfathers got me ‘hooked’ on fishing.

My brother and I at one of our favorite fishing spots, with a tiny fish.

During those many fishing trips, I learned to patiently sit outside and to pay close attention to my surroundings. I thought about where fish were likely to be, when they were likely to be there, and what they would want to eat. Not only did I get exposed to an incredible diversity of life—including aquatic vegetation, several fish species, and a variety of other animals—but I also learned to be comfortable outside. And to be there alone.

My definition, part 1: A naturalist is someone who seeks experiences in the natural world with the main goals of paying attention, feeling, and learning. 

A naturalist could be defined simply as ‘someone who studies natural history.’ This includes amateurs of all skill levels. The term ‘natural history’, like ‘naturalist,’ has a variety of meanings. Here is website—which I think is worth checking out especially for naturalists looking for a sense of community—where people explain what natural history means to them. As I see it, natural history is the story of a landscape, including its living and non-living parts. The timeframe of that story could be a day, a season, a year, or many years. For example, by noting when you see the first monarch butterfly each year, you are on the path to learning something about that animal. Just like by observing what plants the monarch caterpillar eats, you learn something. Before you know it, you are thinking about how the butterfly depends on the landscape, how the landscape depends on the butterfly, the long history they have together, and how changing the landscape could cause the butterfly to disappear and then cause the landscape to change further.

Stages of Monarch butterfly development
Monarch butterfly stages of development on a milkweed leaf.
Photo credit: US Fish and Wildlife Service

An ‘ecologist’ is also a word to indicate someone who studies relationships between living things and their environment. However, in my experience, this term tends to be used to indicate someone who does so professionally. Not all ecologists, however, are naturalists. Not in my opinion, at least. I think that the best ecologists tend to be naturalists (though not necessarily vice versa). It is possible to be an ecologist who doesn’t spend considerable time in the natural world and who doesn’t even want to. An ecologist’s work could be done solely in a lab and/or on a computer and not require any trips to the field (i.e., the forest, the prairie, the river, etc.). Results generated from such ‘field-less’ investigations can be valuable, especially if they are cautiously interpreted and cause field work for further examination. If ecologists do go to the field for work, their trips likely pertain to formal data collection in some way.

As a naturalist-ecologist, I cherish the times I get to go to the field for my ecology work. I do my best to observe a wide variety of phenomena. The birds singing, the plants flowering, mammal tracks in the snow, the way a river is flooding, etc. However, when in the field for research, I have a job to do and generally cannot sit and take it all in for two hours or so like I otherwise might. I have 5 radio-tagged birds to track (for example), a field assistant to coordinate with, and a manuscript to write based on the data that we collect. In other words, I’m out there primarily to take something (data) rather than to feel something. I get the impression that there are some ecologists who only ever go to the field to take. I don’t consider those people to be naturalists.

My definition, part 2: A naturalist is someone who seeks experiences in the natural world without the primary goal of taking something.

I’m not saying that those who go to the field to hunt, fish, take pictures, or formally collect data aren’t naturalists. Most naturalists, I’d guess, actively do or have done at least one of these things (I think that going fishing taught me to be a naturalist; when I fish again it will be as a naturalist). My point is that partaking in these activities alone shouldn’t indicate that someone is a naturalist. Some of the best naturalists are certainly hunters, for example, given the necessity in many cases of paying close attention to the natural world and being quiet (which I think generally go together). But there are also hunters who simply want to drink beer and shoot at things and pay little attention to their natural surroundings. Similar to naturalist-hunters, there are some ecologists who carefully observe and reverently experience the natural world while taking careful measurements so that we can better understand and conserve it. There are also ecologists, though (a small minority, it seems), whose primary goal is to collect data that will corroborate a pre-defined story that they want to tell in a scientific journal to advance their careers and perhaps feed their egos. Don’t get me wrong – I think ecology is a great profession that tends to produce solid and useful knowledge. I just wanted to point out that the process of taking, even in ecology, can come at the cost of experiencing and some people may want only to take.

My best moments in the field don’t tend to be when I’m collecting data. Rather, they usually occur when I can go out there to just sit and think about what is going on around me and to better understand what has led to what I see. Those thoughts and natural observations actually could help me with ecological research later, and probably are required for the best ecology to be done, but that’s not why I go seek the natural world on Sunday mornings. My weekly trips to the field are mainly to nourish what some would call my ‘spirit.’ I go there to feel connected to a location—often achieved by purposefully not thinking—and to understand how I fit into a larger place. Sometimes I get distracted and don’t pay attention to my environment or begin focusing on what I can take. But at my best, when I’m out there, I’m a naturalist.           

My complete definition of a naturalist: A naturalist is someone who seeks experiences in the natural world with the main goals of paying attention, feeling, and/or learning without the primary goal of taking something.  

Fox Snake Swimming in Marsh

While I was completing a marsh habitat survey where a King Rail that I’ve been tracking had been hanging out, I noticed a large snake swimming across the water nearby. It was easy to catch up to. I identified the snake as an Eastern Fox Snake (herpetologists, feel free to correct me!). Regardless of what it is called, I think the snake and the way it moved through the water is beautiful. So, I thought I’d share. Here is the video:

Don’t Litter! Save a Life

While driving to get groceries, my mother noticed something strange at the very edge of the road. So, she pulled over and investigated. Only inches from where traffic sped by, she saw this (she took the picture):

Was it a raccoon? Or a opossom? Whatever it was, she could see that it was shaking, she tells me. So, despite being worried that she might get bit, my mom took a brave step forward and pulled off the bag. And what did she see?!? This:

What a relief it must’ve been for the little cat to be freed from the greasy darkness! It ran away, and luckily didn’t get hit by a car while doing so. A life saved. Good job, mom!

If anyone needs convincing why not to litter (or knows someone who needs to be convinced), I thought that these pictures could help. Individuals of many species could be similarly imperiled by people who litter, or by people who don’t pick up trash when they can, and none of them deserve the fear and further suffering which can result.

Domesticated outdoor cats, I have to point out, can cause great environmental harm. Because they tend to be fed by humans, their instinctive killing is especially hard on their prey (e.g., song birds). Unlike in a natural predator-prey relationship, domesticated cat populations don’t decrease after the populations of their prey decrease. And so the relentless killing by outdoor cats can consequently drive their prey to local extirpation, or even extinction.

Hopefully this cat that my mom’s kindness saved ran home to a relieved human friend, who will keep it inside. Maybe after its ‘cat in the bag’ experience, this particular feline won’t want to go outside again!

A song: ‘Donkeys, Elephants, and Caribou’

I made it my goal for today to write a song about doing a better job of conserving our natural heritage. The song that I came up with is called ‘Donkeys, Elephants, and Caribou.’ The lyrics are below the link to me playing the song, so that you can read along (or read only) if you’d like.

Donkeys, Elephants, and Caribou

Paul wakes up and makes his eggs,

he says: ‘here we go again.’

The old engine fires, moves his tires

to the place that hollows his years.

By the forest-bordered river he drives

where there’s so many memories

that for a moment he forgets

the radio’s conspiracies.

 

With hair done and makeup on,

Winona walks through the park.

The girls will be indignant today,

the news never disappoints.

But, for a moment, the gossip-world erodes.

As a young fox pounces on a leaf,

Winona feels a warm glow

that she hasn’t felt in weeks.

 

But Evelyn the politician says:

Pauls shouldn’t trust Winonas,

because donkeys and elephants don’t mix.

And demonizing and dividing she knows,

gets herself far more votes.

And people become so dizzied that they

fail to see the beauty that she sells to

get profiteers to give her money.

 

The Evelyns of the world will do whatever they can

to change the image that in the mirror they see

But they’re just reflections of Paul, Winona, you, and me.

And their charisma is often meant just to deceive.

Don’t listen when they say to disagree, without thinking.

 

So, let’s prove the politicians wrong.

Let’s tell them loud and clear

that there’s something about which we all agree.

Whether we’re ‘R’s’ ‘D’s,’ or ‘L’s’,

We won’t sleep under your spell.

We demand our natural heritage to be protected,

Or you won’t be elected

Or you won’t be re-elected

Or you won’t be elected.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Stranger, Sagan, and Science

In the spring of 2013, I was a junior undergraduate university student. I was studying wildlife science, and had just gotten to the point that I could take some ‘free elective’ courses, which didn’t have to be directly related to my sought after degree. That semester, I decided to take an introductory astronomy class, for non-majors. I remember enjoying the course, but I do not remember much about it specifically. Parsecs, astronomical units, blue dwarfs, red giants, and parallax shifts. Those are some (maybe most) of the few terms that I remember learning in that class. Admittedly, I did not gain much knowledge from that course that I still possess. As is the case for most of the classes that I’ve taken, however, the main value that I gained was not the knowledge that I can recall, but the motion that it caused. I forget almost everything that I learn, but the act of learning moves me in a direction which could guide for a lifetime.

As I look back, there are very few moments in my life that I can point to which I’m sure had an exceptionally large impact on helping/causing me to become who I now am. And that person who I am now, in a single, simplistic sentence is: ‘I’m a scientist and writer who cares about conserving and experiencing the natural world.’

I attribute much of that sentence to a single moment. And that moment was when I was leaving the aforementioned astronomy course, namely a ‘lab’ portion of that course which occurred every week, at night. If I recall correctly, my in-class assignment for that lab was to try to make a telescope out of materials like cardboard, paper towel tubes and mirrors. When I was leaving the classroom that night, I think that it is safe to say that I couldn’t see anything more closely, nor more clearly, than when I had entered.

But as I walked alone through the hallways, I recall looking for a restroom. I don’t know how I ended up talking to the short, older man who was wearing a stocking hat. I think that he was writing on a paper, beside a cart that held cleaning supplies. Maybe I asked him where the bathroom was? Regardless, for some reason, we began talking.

With a spark of life in his eye that I don’t see often, I remember him asking ‘what did you learn in class today?’

Clearly, I remember saying, ‘I learned how small I am.’

And I think that that was, to some degree, actually true. In preparation for making the telescopes, we were first informed about the far away things that some telescopes (not the one I would make) can show a viewer.

I recall that then the man (who I’ll call Allan) and I began discussing a number of things related to learning. Somehow, I found out that he held the pursuit of knowledge in very high esteem, despite many obstacles, and that when he was not working as a janitor he was working to complete an engineering degree. Allan had nearly completed the degree, and was obviously proud. For some reason, the conversation led to him taking out from his stack of papers by the window a piece of paper, for me. And he wrote down the name of someone who, looking back, I am surprised that I had not heard of at that point in my life: Carl Sagan. I needed to look up this amazing scientist, my friend for the moment said as he handed me the paper. It was as if Allan were speaking of someone who had provided him a key that had freed him from unbearable, stifling chains.

Carl
The paper that I was given, with Carl’s name on it. Thanks to my mother for finding this paper in my library and sending me a picture of it!

After he finished praising the work of Sagan, I told Allan that I’d heard of Neil deGrasse Tyson, who I thought must be similar. He replied by saying that I’d be more impressed by Carl. So, thrilled to have had such a nice, unexpected, inspiring conversation, I said that I would look up Carl. We shook hands and I never saw Allan again.

For a variety of reasons that I think are commonly experienced by young (or older) people trying to acquire independence in a complex and challenging world, I was at the time a bit psychologically battered. Therefore, I was receptive to suggestion, and open to possibilities. I think that it is safe to say that the man’s enthusiasm about learning and science that night, and his seemingly sincere awe about reality, was something that I had never seen before. Not in my fellow students, not in my professors, certainly not in myself. At the time, science was just a vague concept that didn’t seem like something that I could actually do, which I felt was at odds with my ‘creative’ self, and about which I knew embarrassingly little. But that night, for maybe the first time, I felt truly excited to learn more about it.

And, so, when I got back to my dorm room, where my roommate was sleeping on the other side of his desk, I did look up Carl Sagan. In the dark, from my glowing laptop computer, I learned that Carl was an astronomer and science communicator with broad interests, who rightly insisted that science is a way of thinking that anyone can relatively easily participate in. He had gained most of his fame by writing the book ‘Cosmos,’ and by producing a compliment to that book in the form of a TV series, for which he also was the host. After I listened to several videos of Carl speaking that night via headphones (his voice and rationality are still soothing to me: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wupToqz1e2g), I eventually acquired and read the book ‘Cosmos’ a few months later. Reading a book like that either in a tent or from my car (i.e. house), during a summer spent travelling thousands of miles across the Great Plains, hiking deep into natural areas to identify what birds were present in those areas, was transformational. The words of a scientist/poet like Sagan, who confronted the strangeness of reality by looking at it hard rather than hiding from it, was the most intense jolt of scientific inspiration that I’ve had. That inspiration, I think, was just enough to keep me on my journey toward becoming a scientist.

That journey toward understanding and participating in conservation-related applications of science, and to become a conservation biologist, has been a circuitous, difficult route that is still being blazed. Scientists are people, too, and can be difficult to deal with. I’m sure that Carl was no exception. I’m sure that I‘m no exception (though I try to be good!). There are limited funds to support science, and many fiercely seeking them. The entire process of being a professional scientist can be isolating and exhausting. However, as Carl wrote, ‘science exacts a substantial entrance fee in effort and tedium for its insights.’ To pay that fee and to be able to understand even a microscopic fraction, from my minuscule human perspective, of the incredibly vast process of which I’m a part has become a truly awe-inspiring experience.

And I have the kind man in the hallway who told me about Carl Sagan to thank for that.

Rocky Raccoon Almost Meets His Match

 

When I was walking to our urban study site, hoping to catch a pesky Song Sparrow before sunrise, I heard what struck me as an unidentifiable sound. I can identify most natural sounds that I hear, but this one had me stumped. A shrill, persistent, screaming-type sound had me wondering if some tropical bird of a species unfamiliar to me had been blown north by a hurricane to Indiana, where it was complaining about a lack of friends in its new environs – or about some other injustice. This didn’t seem likely, but I needed to know what the sound was, regardless.

It was clear that the sound was coming from a spruce tree next to the city street that I was walking on, so I took a few moments to peer into the dark. And this is what I saw (pay close attention at second 40):

 

I know that I’ve heard raccoons calling before, but never quite like this little guy/gal was. I’m not sure if at the end of the video he/she was scolding me for not lending a hand, thanking me for moral support, or assuring me, ‘I meant to fall, you know’, but I am sure that I’ll never forget what a young raccoon hanging on a branch (apparently terrified) sounds like! The deer and rabbit which were standing directly behind me when I was filming this (unbeknownst to me at the time), who were as far as I can tell possibly interested in the wails, too, may not forget what a stressed out raccoon sounds like, either. In the natural world, it certainly pays to listen to your neighbors, who might warn you of danger. Who knows, they might also warn you which branches to avoid…

P.S. The title of this post is in reference to a great song by the Beatles. If you don’t know it, then maybe you should change that!