For the Birds Radio Program: Blue Jay vs Sharp-shinned Hawk

Original Air Date: March 24, 1999 (estimated date)

Laura saw a fascinating encounter between a flock of Blue Jays and a Sharp-shinned Hawk in 1995, which she recounts this National Blue Jay Awareness Month. (Redone from September 27, 1995–this date isn’t certain but it was this month)

Audio missing


Hawks are starting to return to Wisconsin and Minnesota, and this being National Blue Jay Awareness Month, seeing Sharp-shinned Hawks again reminded me of the beautiful autumn day I stayed in Meadowlands with my friends Chuck and Gail Prudhomme.

Meadowlands isn’t on a migration pathway like Lake Superior, but since it’s right in one of the finest bird spots in all of Minnesota–the Sax-Zim Bog–there was plenty enough to see. Chuck and Gail have lots of oak trees on their property, and in mid-September the most abundant bird by far was the Blue Jay. Bazillions of them gathered in the oak stands, pigging out on acorns to fuel their migration. The weather was wonderful, the trees were rich in acorns, and everything would have been perfect except for one thing. Right near my cabin there was a young female Sharp-shinned Hawk hankering for a mouthful of Blue Jay meat. She seemed to believe it was her right, and since it was her right, one of the Blue Jays might as well turn itself in.

But Blue Jays are not known for their cooperative spirits, at least not as far as Sharp-shinned Hawks are concerned, and these jays had no intention of being eaten. They might have just flown on in search of a stand of oaks somewhere else that wasn’t inhabited by a sharpie, but they were sensible enough to realize that good oak trees are hard to find in northern Minnesota, and if they did find a stand as good as this was, chances are it would have had a sharpie, too.

Now female sharp-shins are big and powerful, and Blue Jays can’t muster up much speed or power in their flight, so the odds might seem to favor the sharpie. But you have to reckon in Blue Jay intelligence, and these jays seemed to have the whole situation under control. While most of the flock dined on acorns, four or five took sharpie watch, swarming just above her, not letting her out of their sight, yet staying safely but barely out of reach. If she flew to another branch or another tree, they moved along with her. Once in a while she’d try to get above them, where she could easily drop down and sink her talons in, but they’d scream out a Blue Jay obscenity and rip out.

Jays are slow fliers, but their small size allows them to dart and weave in and out of a stand of trees more easily than the larger sharpie can, and in a pinch, they could out- maneuver her. Meanwhile, other jays would attack the sharpie from above, where she couldn’t fight back. The moment she looked up to face her attackers, the ones she’d been chasing got away.

I was amazed by the Blue Jays’ display of cooperation, and I already knew how smart and social they are. They frequently changed guard so no one had to do all the guarding and they all could all eat their fill. Sometimes an immature Jay inadvertently got below the hawk, but if the hawk even thought about taking advantage of the baby’s inexperience, the wrath of the whole flock descended, with squawking and yelling and even nips and stabbings. Occasionally the sharp-shin uttered a soft little whine, seemingly out of self-pity or hunger, but the jays weren’t sympathetic. Parent Blue Jays aren’t above taking meat themselves during the breeding season, when they have hungry babies to feed, but I think they figure the rest of the year birds are supposed to be more civilized.

As the afternoon waned and the sun finally set, the sharp-shin was no closer to lunch than she’d been in the morning, and the Blue Jays went to their roosts happy, their stomachs full and their community spirit satisfied with a job well done.