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Student Researches Patterns in Blue Jay Vocalizations

What do blue jays say when they wake up in the morning?

Sarah Faegre

In Hampshire College’s inquiry-based educational model, student projects often begin with a question. For Sarah Faegre, that question was: what do blue jays say when they wake up in the morning?

From September through November, Faegre awoke before dawn and headed out into the fields and woods surrounding the college to record the range of sounds the birds make when they first rouse. She chose blue jays because they are ubiquitous in New England, and because scant research has been done on how they communicate.

“Most of the information about their vocalizations is contained in only three unpublished master’s theses,” Faegre said. “I compared what I had recorded to what they observed. I tried to make some correlations with behavior, as in, this call was observed during foraging and this call during mating.”

Faegre used a mini-disc recorder to capture the bird sounds and a light meter to record the amount of sunlight as the morning progressed. She also took notes on weather conditions and natural surroundings.

Faegre completed this work as part of a Division III in animal behavior. Every student at Hampshire completes a final, yearlong independent project and paper -- called the Division III -- in order to graduate. Each works with a mentoring faculty committee, and animal communications experts Mark Feinstein, a linguistics professor, and Ray Coppinger, a biologist, served on Faegre’s committee, along with retired University of Massachusetts professor Don Kroodsma, an ornithologist well known for his research on birdsong.

Faegre wanted to explore patterns in blue jay vocalizations, and she discovered they have a wide range. In the early fall, just before sunrise, they make what is termed a “jeer” call, the typical “jay, jay, jay” call. This call is heard throughout the day, but is most pronounced in the early morning. She learned that within the category of jeer calls themselves, there are wide variations. She recorded various other blue jay calls, including “bell” calls, which sound like a bell ringing, or aptly named “squeaky gate” calls, which are also known as “pump” calls. She also observed that blue jays often make various guttural sounds when congregating in groups.

Much of what she saw and heard supported existing research. For instance, she observed that jays send out a sort of alarm call to other birds when threatened by a predator. The birds group together and release slurred jeer calls as they mob the invader.

She found the family interactions among blue jays particularly interesting. For example, she noted that fledglings continue to beg for food long after they are able to feed themselves. She said there is great research potential in the area of bird cognition, how birds communicate, and whether, and to what extent, their calls are a form of “language.”

The project whetted Faegre’s appetite for further study, and she plans in the future to attend graduate school, possibly in ornithology or some other area of wildlife biology. She will spend this summer on a bird banding internship in her home state of Oregon, then head to Argentina to work on a horse ranch for six months.

 

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