When is an Owl not an Owl?

by ollie on April 9, 2012

Tawny Owl (Strix aluco)

Tawny Owl (Strix aluco)

It is not that common to hear a Tawny Owl in the daytime here at the woods, but over the last month or so we have been noticing more frequent calls in the daylight hours. This makes some sense as they are nesting around this time, and therefore need to hunt more often to feed their young. Also, as the sun returns and the days get longer they have less hours of darkness to hunt in.

So, a couple of weeks ago I was not too surprised to hear the sound of a Tawny ‘kewick’ near my dwelling, at 9:20am in the morning. I was however a little taken back by the fact that it was so close to the community settlement area. Normally I hear daytime calls from a particular place further down the hill. I think this may be where there nest is. So I looked in the direction the sound came from, excited by the fact that I may get to see an Owl so close, in broad daylight. It was when I heard a Buzzard mewing from the same spot that I started to realise something was up. I kept watching, and as this Buzzard call continued, I saw the silhouette of something in the tree that was neither an Owl or a Buzzard.
It was then that I was sure these calls were from a bird imitating birds of prey. I know that Starlings sometimes imitate, but they are not a woodland bird and I only see them when I am in town, so who was making these impersonations?

Eventually the bird showed itself and to my surprise it turned out to be a Eurasian Jay. Just before it flew off I heard the usual harsh screech of another Jay nearby and I began to wonder: What happened here? What explanation could there be for this behaviour? I remembered that while the Jay was making the Buzzard calls, a Carrion Crow flew in from behind me to check out what was occurring, and once it had investigated the source of the call did a U-turn and flew back to where it came from. This reminded me of a story about someone in the US noticing Jays imitating bird alarms as a way of locating nests to rob.

I cannot say for sure that the same thing was happening here, but soon after this happened three Jays flew over my garden making a right racket and not long after this they were high up in a conifer tree making a lot of noise and movement, so they seemed to be up to something. Since that morning I have heard the calls elsewhere in the woods and am always surprised at how good an impression they can do. I recently watched a lone Jay making Buzzard calls high up in an oak tree and it seemed to cause a disturbance to the song birds in the thicket nearby, so maybe this is a nest robbing tactic. All I do know is that it needs more observation, and through this process find patterns that may give me some clues to a possible answer.

So, as I spend time at my sit-spot and pay attention to the messages that the birds broadcast, I come to what feels the most important lesson from this story. Just because something looks or sounds familiar, always be wary of immediately giving it a name or label, as you may be mistaken and in turn miss out on some new information being given to you. At best we may slow or stop completely our learning; at worst we could mistake a deadly poisonous  plant or mushroom for an edible species. I give thanks to the Jays for reminding me of this.


Eurasion Jay (Garrulus glandarius)

Eurasion Jay (Garrulus glandarius)

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