Nearly every time I take a walk in my neighborhood or in the woods in early fall, I hear what for me has become an iconic sound of the season — squawking blue jays.
I even hear one now from somewhere outside as I write this column in my Decatur home. To me, squawking blue jays are as much a part of fall as changing leaf colors and Friday night football.
No one knows for sure why blue jays are noisier in autumn, but the Cornell Lab of Ornithology has a theory: “Early in the summer they’re nesting, and being as secretive as possible. Now families have joined flocks and are migrating to new areas … so they’re all squawking their heads off about new food discoveries, predators, greeting relatives and old neighbors. They’re no longer concerned about predators finding their nests.”
An ornithologist told me that blue jays seem to make up for having to keep quiet all summer by squawking loud and often during fall when they can be brassy and raucous again.
In nonbreeding season, they tend to move about in family groups or small flocks searching for food and perhaps for protection.
Male and female jays sound and look alike. Each sex sports identical plumages of blue feathers of varying hues and large blue crests. In the fall, both sexes are vocal with a multitude of complex sounds and calls that include bell tones, whistles, chortles and shrill jeers.
In particular, the jay’s ear-splitting “jeer-jeer-jeer” call has been likened to screaming. Henry David Thoreau described it as a “steel cold scream.” In a flock of jays, one or two birds may serve as lookouts. If they spot a cat or an owl or a hawk, they’ll sound off with jeer calls, and then the whole group may erupt in blaring jeers.
Blue jays also have the uncanny ability to imitate the calls of red-tailed, broad-winged and red-shouldered hawks.
IN THE SKY: From David Dundee, Tellus Science Museum astronomer: The moon is in its first quarter tonight. Mercury is low in the west just after dark. Venus is very low in the west just after dark and sets shortly thereafter. Jupiter is low in the southwest at dusk and sets a few hours later. Saturn is low in the south just after dark and sets in the west around midnight. It will appear near the moon tonight.
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