The late winter sun provides a touch of warmth while I'm working in the yard, and the first tentative songs are beginning to break the winter silence. A dark-eyed junco rises to the top of a small tree for a few sweet, trilled songs. Some mornings, a few robin songs are heard in the neighbor's yard but nothing proud or sustained. Then there are the collared doves. Do they ever stop singing?
On this day, a thin warbling, almost gurgling song, filters down from the small hawthorn over my head. It wasn't a rich melodic song of a thrush or wren, but it was definitely a song, almost sweet. Peering up through the branches, I make out a gray breast and a long blue tail, a western scrub-jay.
Jays have no song, at least that's what most would say. They screech. They squawk. They scold. Every vocalization is harsh. The idea of a jay with a song seems impossible. Yet they are songbirds, and they do have a song.
The term "songbird" is more than a description to an ornithologist. It is a taxonomic classification. "Songbirds" or — more formally — "oscines," include a great many backyard birds from sparrows to thrushes, warblers to waxwings, and chickadees to blackbirds. But it doesn't include birds such as doves, hummingbirds or even flycatchers.
However, there is a black sheep in every family. Among songbirds, that would be the corvids, the group that includes the jays, crows, ravens and magpies. None was ever singled out by Shakespeare for its sweet voice.
Still, I shouldn't be surprised that scrub-jays can sing. Actually, given the brash behavior of jays, it is more surprising they are modest about their efforts.
And they are not alone. Years ago near Portland, I awoke to a soft, sweet song, almost whispered, under my bedroom window. Deep within the shrub, the song continued on and on. It lacked any clear pattern but was reminiscent of a subdued song of a mockingbird. The virtuoso was a Steller's jay.
As for the other members of the group, common ravens have a wide range of vocalizations, including chuckles, chortles, kronks and guffaws to go along with their harsh croak. I suppose it's possible they have a quiet song after a fashion, but I doubt it. And crows? No way in my opinion ... but I have been wrong before. How many ways can you say "caw?" Just to be sure, I checked. So far, nothing appears in the literature suggesting that either has anything resembling a song.
Songbirds, unlike flycatchers and doves, learn their songs from others in a brief window of time shortly after fledging. A white-crowned sparrow reared in isolation and never having heard another white-crowned sparrow during that critical time is unable to sing a normal song ... ever. They sing, but it is gibberish, without the slightest resemblance to the typical song of a white-crowned sparrow.
So do jays learn their songs, or is it spontaneous gibberish? I suspect the latter. However, we will have to wait until some very patient researcher records enough songs to provide a better answer.
In the meantime, as you work in the garden or take a morning walk, keep an ear out for the song of the crow. Please let me know if you hear one.
Stewart Janes is a biology professor at Southern Oregon University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.