For the Birds Radio Program: Baby Blue Jay Study

Original Air Date: Jan. 20, 1995

Today Laura Erickson talks about a recent study of baby Blue Jays, and its implications for adolescent humans. 3:52 (Date verified)

Audio missing


Blue Jays are, without a doubt, nature’s perfect bird, combining as they do intelligence, wit, beautiful plumage, and a perky little crest, all in a three-ounce body. And jays have social structures much like humans: They’re gossipy with and protective of friends and family, and suspicious of strangers. Local jays squawk and make a fuss when visitors come into their neighborhood during migration, though apparently they get over their aversion of sharing resources with strangers a lot quicker than humans do, and have so far never even considered voting for any “Avian Proposition 187.”

Blue Jays are common and conspicuous, so you’d think by now people would know everything they wanted to know about them, but ornithologists still manage to come up with new questions and studies about jays. In the current issue of the journal of the American Ornithologists’ Union, there’s an interesting study about my favorite Blue Jays of all—baby Blue Jays.

Some researchers from Massachusetts wanted to know how much instinct and how much learning go into a baby Blue Jay’s recognition of its nest mates, so they kidnapped some baby jays and robins and raised them in pairs—sometimes two jays or two robins, and sometimes a jay and a robin together. After keeping the pairs of babies together a while, they conducted preference tests using some fancy lab equipment called an electronic choice apparatus.

It turns out that when given a choice between looking at their nest mate or another baby bird, Blue Jays virtually always choose their good old familiar nest mate. Yes, even though baby Blue Jays are by any standard more attractive than baby robins, a jay will loyally stick with a robin if it happens to be the baby it was raised with.

Blue Jays easily recognize individual birds by looking at or hearing them. Knowing your brothers and sisters is a useful skill when you’re supposed to hang around with them for months, and when you’re smart enough to learn things by watching others. Blue Jays learn how to fly, which insects taste awful, and how to crack open an acorn by watching their parents and brothers and sisters. Robins, on the other hand, are more solitary, and don’t hang around with their parents or siblings any longer than they have to, so they don’t waste limited brain space memorizing the features of their brothers and sisters, and tended to choose the baby robin even if they’d been raised with a jay.

Blue Jays somehow do have an intrinsic understanding of the fact that they are Blue Jays and not robins. Given the choice between a recording of its nest mate robin or a Blue Jay, jays tended to pick the robin, but if the recording was of a strange robin, it preferred a Blue Jay recording.

This study is especially interesting in light of preferences of nestling humans. I conducted an informal study right here in my house and learned that my daughter Katie prefers hearing a recording of just about any other kid in the universe to hearing the voice of her big brother Joey. She also prefers looking at a picture of just about any other kid in the universe to a picture of Joey. And Joey prefers anyone else to Katie.

This pretty much proves that children are not Blue Jays, and even gives an indication that Blue Jays have the edge over humans when it comes to adolescent loyalty to siblings. I wonder if the Massachusetts ornithologists were inspired to do their study because they have adolescent children?