Stellerís jay does spot-on hawk imitation

By Jeff Petersen, The Observer March 29, 2013 10:50 am

Every few weeks, between blowing semi truck and trailer rigs over on Interstate 84 and making the blacksmith’s anvils we use for wind chimes here ring with a volume of an Oregon Duck football crowd, the wind dies down long enough to let us know it is spring.

Tuesday was one of those days.

A smarty-pants Steller’s jay made the most of the sunshine. Sitting on top of a pine tree at the high end of O Avenue in La Grande, where the city abruptly stops and the Blue Mountains start, the Steller’s jay was doing a most amazing red-tailed hawk imitation.

I looked up expecting to see a raptor only to see a  Steller’s jay with what looked like a gleam of humor in his eye.

According to Bob Marcotte’s “Word on Birds,” in the Rochester, N.Y., Democrat and Chronicle, blue jays also imitate other hawks and have an immense vocabulary, kind of like the Shakespeare of the avian world.

“Jeers, pumphandle calls, rattle calls, clicks, chortles, mews, buzzes — all are part of the fascinating blue jay vocal array,” write Keith A. Tarvin and Glen E. Woolfenden in their profile of blue jays for The Birds of North America series.

Bird experts speculate why blue jays imitate hawks. One idea is that blue jays do hawk calls to alert other birds that a hawk is near. Another idea, which may be more accurate, is that blue jays want to make other species think a hawk is near — for example, when squirrels are getting the peanuts the blue jay wants to eat.

As youth moves away in the rearview mirror and I drive closer to retirement, like 80 million other Baby Boomers, I’m thinking about inexpensive hobbies to fill my time. Birding is one of those hobbies. I’ll probably never get to be encyclopedic like my neighbor Sandy. Still, Mill Hill in Cove, where I live, is a great transition zone between urban and rural, valley and mountain, with lots of bird life to watch.

Mill Hill blocks much of the wind that sweeps across the Grande Ronde Valley each spring. Yet we still get breezes, updrafts, gusts, even the mistrals that the band Heart made famous. 

Yes, some days the blacksmith’s anvil I use as a windchime gets a workout from beastly, cruel winds.

Yet many days are more calm. Sitting on the edge of a vast wilderness, as the wind herds cumulus clouds across the sky, I am serenaded by the mourning dove’s call and great-horned owls, and get to watch red-tailed hawks riding thermal wind currents.

When I hear a hawk’s cry, however, from now on I’ll be looking for the Rich Little of birds, the mischievous Steller’s jay.