Video – The mimicking marvel of Robin Hood’s forest

By Rob James

J is for January, and also for, well, jay.

As very much a novice when it comes to birding, I can often be found, even at my mature age, wide-eyed in childlike wonder when I learn something new about the birds with whom I share my workplace – Sherwood Forest and Budby South Forest.

As I was taking photographs of some of the forest’s fabulous ancient oak trees along the bridleway between the Giants and Major Oak trails just last week, I was lucky to encounter a visitor with a camera that rather dwarfed my office ‘point and shoot’.

But that’s not what impressed me most once I struck up a conversation with Peter Calvert, whose Peak District National Park hat had also caught the attention of a simple Derbyshire lad like me.

What Peter had on his camera was remarkable footage of a jay and the unmistakable sound of a buzzard. Only, the sound of the buzzard, the piercing cat-like call, was being uttered by the jay.

Even a newbie like me knows that certain birds are incredible mimics, but I had no idea that this was something that jays did. I’d already struggled to reconcile this elegant bird and its stunning shock of blue feathers with its 100-cigarettes-a-day rasp.

Now, here was, to my eyes and ears, another reve-jay-tion (sorry) and one filmed in Sherwood Forest.

The sound of the buzzard was uncanny.

As Peter wrote in his email in which he kindly shared the video embedded in this blog a few days after our meeting:

“When you compare other bird alarm calls, they are all seem very general and ambiguous (Blackbird “Pink pink pink”). Is there anything as accurate as Jay alarm call for Buzzard?

“It is as accurate an evolutionary alarm call as any human spoken statement, just without grammar or words.

“Simply mimic Buzzard call “Peeuww peeuww peeuww”; ‘Warning!! Buzzard predator here, come help get rid of it to protect our Jay community.”

The videos also show a jay bravely moving as close as it can to a buzzard in Sherwood.

Perhaps this a two-pronged form of defence by the jay: get in the buzzard’s face and show it that the jay isn’t a scaredy-cat.

Then, copy the buzzard’s call with unerring accuracy to alert other jays of the threat, making sure they can hear the predator clearly and so take evasive action, even though they are actually being deceived into safety by one of their own

Jay mimicking a buzzard in Sherwood Forest. Filmed by Peter Calvert. January 2023.

Mimicking another bird so impeccably is impressive enough, but that’s not all.

Peter has witnessed this behaviour among jays before, but this time they were imitating… squirrels.

“I am not sure what Jay mean by mimicking squirrels,” he wrote.

“Are they informing their partner that there is a Squirrel stashing acorns which Jay can steal?”

However, he adds:

“The last time I heard Jay practicing Squirrel mimicry, there was no stealing Squirrel food, it just looked like a Jay practicing mimicking a Squirrel.”

So, mimicking for the sake of mimicking?

Jays are, of course, corvids – and therefore a member of the crow family. We’ve known for thousands of years how clever crows can be. Jays, it seems though, are the cleverest of the bunch.

In fact, academic research (and again thanks to Peter for sharing this article and video from the University of Cambridge) puts their problem solving skills on a par with that of chimpanzees.

I’d never heard of the term “feathered apes” before – and once heard, it cannot now be unheard.

“It does seem like evolutionary pressures have left Jay with a few more intelligence tools, compared to a lot of other birds – tools that should help them survive into the Anthropocene,” muses Peter.

“Their close feathery relatives were certainly around millions of years before our hominid relatives. Bird lungs and digestion tract are an evolutionary masterpiece compared to humans.

“Could they outlive us?”

The Cambridge research remarks upon the jay’s almost unique ability among birds to not only memorise things like where food is stashed long after it was hidden, but to plan ahead too, which may account for its observation of the squirrel and understanding of why its partner may want to eat the acorns.

The article also alludes to the growing body of evidence which shows that this particular bird family can imitate familiar sounds, including those made by humans.

So next time, you hear the call of a buzzard, the squawk of a squirrel or even possibly you own voice seemingly echoing back to you, are you sure you can really believe your own ears?