Birds show skill and flare in coping in urban environment

A few years ago, while outside on my Mercer Island back deck, I watched a Steller’s Jay belt out an exact mimic of a Bald Eagle’s call. If I hadn’t been standing close enough to see its beak moving, I wouldn’t have believed the call actually came from the jay.

I’d just set out peanuts for the jay on the deck railing, then paused for a few minutes to enjoy the warm afternoon. First the jay scolded me with its own alarm call, trying to get me to go inside so that it could fly down and grab the peanuts. Then, after several more unsuccessful tries to scare me inside, it pulled out its ace-in-the-hole, the alarm call of the top predator in the neighborhood.

Since that event I’ve read extensively about birds’ brains and learned that mental abilities of birds vary considerably. Some, like jays, parrots and crows are skilled mimics. Other more primitive species, like cormorants and grebes, can barely utter a breeding croak.

Recent studies claim that jays are as smart as apes—some bird biologists even call them flying monkeys. In fact, when comparing the relative size of the birds’ brains to their body size, jays, crows and parrots are closer to primates than to other birds.

I’m particularly astounded by a recent article explaining the work of bird behaviorist Nicola Clayton. She has been studying a close cousin to our local jay, the Western Scrub-Jay that lives throughout the southwestern United States.

In the fall these jays each stash 3,000-5,000 nuts and acorns. Months later they return to consume their food cache. But they do not just stash the nuts randomly. To learn more about the process, Professor Clayton devised an experiment that proves the jays employ future planning when it comes to when and where they hide their horde.

Clayton’s test involved setting up a large enclosed aviary for her flock of captive jays. At one end of the aviary was a room that she called a Bed and Breakfast. That room had a bountiful supply of breakfast acorns. A separate room at the far end of the aviary was a stripped down Motel 6 with no food.

On separate occasions Clayton isolated the jays in just the B & B or just the Motel 6. Later all the doors were opened and the birds could fly freely throughout the aviary. During this open door time, the jays took the opportunity to stash food in the Motel 6 room, but didn’t bother to stash in the B & B room. According to Clayton, they must have remembered the hungry hours enclosed in the Motel 6 and wanted to prevent that from happening in the future.

Clayton called that future planning and I agree.

Many of us have watched our local crows show their own brand of cleverness and creativity. I’ve watched them fly up with a clam and drop it on a hard surface to break it open. Also, they have been observed placing a nut on the street where cars will roll over and crack the shell.

A friend told me of watching a crow scare a squirrel under a car parked near a busy street. Then the crow dive-bombed the squirrel when it tried to scamper out from under the car heading away from the traffic. Yet when the squirrel ventured into the street toward oncoming traffic, the crow just watched. My friend was convinced that the crow was hoping for a road kill dinner.

Recently I viewed a video showing crow behavior that, like the jay mimic on my deck, I wouldn’t have believed if I hadn’t seen it.

In the video a clever New Caledonian Crow is trying to get to some food. The crow treats are in a small bucket at the bottom of an eight-inch-long clear plastic tube placed upright on a table. Several straight pieces of wire are scattered near by.

For the first few seconds the crow eyes the situation, then picks up a piece of wire and jabs it into the tube, with no success. Next the crow uses its beak and feet to bend the end of the wire forming a simple hook. The crow then grasps the straight end of the hook in its beak and reaches down into the plastic tube, catches the basket handle with the hook and lifts it up and out. Voila, dinner in a bucket!

As an interesting side note, humans didn’t learn to make hooks until rather late in our tool-making development: A mere 100,000 years ago.

Since the encounter with the Steller’s Jay on my deck, I’ve taken to watching bird behavior more closely. Birds never cease to amaze me with their intelligence and resourcefulness. And, on occasion, I’ve wondered if the jays just might just be watching me as intently as I’m watching them.

Frances Wood is author of Brushed by Feathers: A Year of Birdwatching in the West. She can be reached at

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