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What Makes a Blue Jay Raise Its Crest?

Monday, November 26, 2018

One thing I have noticed about blue jays, having watched them closely for a year and a half now, is that they almost never raise their crests unless they are agitated, angry or (as in this bird) simply fluffing all their feathers. It's rare enough that I was thrilled to get this photo.

So it amuses me to see artists' depictions of blue jays with their crests invariably, perkily, straight up. They have a crest, the thinking seems to go. So they must keep it up, right? Wrong. Blue jay crests are raised only very rarely, and for specific reasons.

 I bought this decorative plate at a consignment store in Hendersonville, NC this April. I'm sort of building a collection of blue jay stuff (in a very desultory way; my collecting gene is weak). Not on purpose, just picking things up as I find them, or as people give them to me. Knowing blue jays as I do, though, I look at it and wonder what those cute babies did to make their mama so mad. I worry that Baby 2 is about to peck the eyes out of drowsy Baby 1. Maybe that's why Baby 1's eyes are shut. Also if I saw a blue jay with underparts that white I'd flip out and name it Glacier and take a million photos of it. Sorry. I've been living among blue jays too long. I've gotten a bit testy.

Now, cardinal crest rules are completely different from jay crest rules. Cardinals raise their crests all the time, and it doesn't necessarily indicate anger or agitation. It can, but they also raise them when they're singing and eating and just looking around being chubbeh, like here. A very roundish cardinal.

I was thinking about how long it had been since I had been able to catch a jay with its crest up when something changed in our yard.  Suddenly everyone was going around with tall crests.

They were flighty and agitated.

Even the hairy woodpecker, usually a mellow bird, had some big hair going on.

This is how birds tell each other that something evil  this way goes.

And this is the cause. On Nov. 17, this adult male sharp-shinned hawk spent most of the day hanging out in the woods just beyond and to the north of the feeders.  If you click on this heavily obstructed photo, you can see the glint in his garnet-red eye.

He normally strafes the feeders several times a day, then disappears into the orchard. I always thrill to see him, even as I worry about my jays. But on this sunny warmish day, he was oddly relaxed, sitting with one foot pulled up into the floof of his belly feathers. Perhaps he had a full crop.

All the birds know that as long as he's puffed up and standing on one leg, he's not going to launch an immediate attack. But oh, that eye. You don't want that eye to fix on you, don't want the pupil to draw down to a pinpoint, because you might suddenly become lunch.

So after a period of utter panic and sitting frozen still, they gingerly resume their activity, but they all keep one eye on the hawk the entire time. Hairy Woodpecker is looking directly at him. She keeps her crest fluffed to tell all the other birds to beware.

The jays were almost nonchalant about the hawk. After all, they weigh nearly as much as he does (3 oz to the male sharpie's 3-4 oz). Hard to believe that hawk weighs only that much. A female sharpie can weigh up to 7.7 oz. I can't say I've seen jays virtually ignoring a big female sharpie!

They did, however, pay him the homage of keeping their crests up as long as he was around.

He returned for another camp-out on November  22, one of those dull gray days when not much seems to be happening. And up went the crests again.

It's the birds' nonverbal way of saying danger perches, preening and dozing, in a nearby tree.

When he mounted to the top of an elm, all the jays' alarm bells went off at once.

And when he finally took off to the northwest, a salvo of jeers followed him.

He'd be back, and next time, I'd witness his work.

Yes it is a cliffhanger, but a very small one. I'll be back, too. :)

Painting so hard on the LAST TWO illustrations for Saving Jemima. I made it through the Ecuador trip and Thanksgiving and Liam's coming home, and now I'm back at the drawing table, working with joy and verve again. Unstructured time for composition, thought and's a beautiful thing.

I have a list of stuff I have to get back to when those paintings are done. So if you have sent me an email asking about a possible speaking gig, and I haven't replied, please know that there's a stack of email not being ignored, but simply waiting to be answered. First things first. Gotta finish this book!


If you need to use a quote or illustration from my book I shared with you, “Why the Blue Jay is Blue”, please feel

Oh, that first jay in flight! Our jays (scrub and Steller's) aren't that BLUE . . . and we don't have cardinals here. Pity us!

2 things:

1) just a sidenote: there is/was? a nature painter (I think in N. Carolina) who, as their trademark, used to always include one lone Blue Jay feather somewhere in each of their paintings.

2) side story: Cockatoos raise their crests for all sorts of emotive reasons, and I petsit for one a friend has. He loves me and is anxious to climb onto me, but if I come in wearing a white ballcap I have he backs off, and sends his crest up in aggressive, defensive posture, as if I had a crest going up in an aggressive manner. When I take the hat off he’s fine again, and looks at me as if to say ‘Geeez, what were you all worked up about!?”

Thanks to you and your blog, I will never look at Jays the same way. I am learning to love them.

Fascinating stuff!

@Cyberthrush, cockatoos are so visual, so rigid, so mental! I've heard about them freaking all the way out when their owners come out of the shower with hair in a towel. It's all about looks, all about the crest for them. But why such an intelligent creature seems unable to make the leap about the changes wrought by clothing and fabric I will always wonder. Charlie (chestnut-fronted macaw) was completely unfazed by hats,clothing, even costumes. She'd unhesitatingly climb onto my shoulder if I was wearing a monster mask, and tug at the mask to find me inside.
Thanks everyone for the kind words. It's easy to love jays. Just watch them.

Such atmospheric portraits of the sharpie, looking forward to the next installment.

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