Monday, March 4, 2013

Jays and the Mysteries of Language

My friend Ms. Gimpy still has some instability on her right leg.

When I first noticed, two years ago, that one of the Jays in my garden was in distress with a broken leg, I gave her the name Ms. Gimpy. I tried to give her special protection when she would come to me for bird seed and peanuts: she would get exhausted standing on one leg and would collapse onto her stomach when she ate. This made her vulnerable to predators, so I took care to keep them away.

Her friend (and now her mate) a more aggressive bird I dubbed Mr. Peanut (because he would always take two nuts if he could manage them in his beak) would sometimes try to shoo her away so he could eat in her place--bossy male!--and I would shoo him away instead.

I wasn't sure she was going to make it. But she did.

I noticed during this period of her injury that from time to time she and Mr. Peanut would converse quietly in a soft, warbling language that was very different from the loud calls we always associate with Jays. I wondered if this was the vernacular they set aside for private discussions.

Jays are corvids, members of the crow family, and corvids are not only considered to be the most intelligent of birds, they are among the most intelligent of all animals--next only to primates. I just saw a program on PBS about crows (called "A Murder of Crows" on Nature) in which they confirm that crows have at least two dialects they use in pubic and another language they use only in the "family." So the soft warble I heard between the two Jays was indeed their private language. I was probably only allowed to hear it because she didn't feel well enough to fly away and speak with Mr. Peanut more privately. 

(BTW a "murder" of crows is an old English term for a "flock" and has uncertain origins. It may be used because crows have been known to hold "trials" in which they seem to decide to "murder" one among them. But as I say, the origins of the term are murky.)

Crows also remember individual humans, according to this program I watched, and pass on information about them. Which explains so much. Ms. Gimpy learned not to fear me and she does seem to remember that I helped her when she was injured. Mr. Peanut, also remembers me: in his case he remembers I have shooed him away from time to time in favor of Ms. Gimpy so, though he always comes around, he is not quite so trusting of me as she is.

Once, last summer, when I was outside reading on the patio in the evening, I didn't even notice Ms. Gimpy had appeared until I heard that quiet warble she uses sometimes with Mr. Peanut. I looked up and there she was, in the nearby tree. But he wasn't there--so I had to assume she was speaking to me! I went to get some food for her, thinking perhaps that was what she wanted. But she didn't come down to eat. She just fluffed her feathers out as birds do when it is time to go to sleep. I guess she was just saying "Goodnight Ms. Robin, I will see you tomorrow."

Ms. Gimpy getting ready for bed in my backyard tree. Her right leg is tucked up underneath her.

You probably think I'm daffy. But today I was in the backyard of the house next door to mine, loading up some wood my neighbor wanted me to take for my fireplace. As I worked, I saw one of the Jays fly over, to check out what I was up to. 

It was Ms. Gimpy and she sat on the fence for just a few minutes watching me work. Then, she began to warble quietly to me in her secret language. At that moment, I wished I were a bird so I could know what she was saying. But I spoke back to her quietly in my own words, telling her how nice I think she is. The moment didn't last long. Mr. Peanut flew over and they disappeared together. 

I went back to loading my wood and pondering the mysteries of the languages of the universe.

Ms. Gimpy doesn't even seem to notice if she is eating from a dish or from my hand. She is happy either way.

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Florida Beach Basics said...

I'm a firm believer that critters not only know who watches out for them, but appreciate it. I think like whoever wrote the ads where the driver avoids hitting the beaver and then the beaver cuts down a tree to prevent the driver from going into a flooded river. If my house ever catches fire, at least 100 squirrels will come pee on it to put it out!

Robin Chapman said...

Now I need a "like" button, so I can like this comment!