A Friend Indeed
A flicker of motion lifted my eye from the computer screen, out the window to the cluster of willows that grew next to our second-story deck. A young red squirrel was chasing a newly fledged Steller’s jay — up one branch, down to another, then another, then up again, over and over. All the bird had to do to escape was take wing and glide to a neighboring tree; instead, with nonchalance typical of the breed, the jay fluttered and hopped inches ahead, as if tantalizing its pursuer. To anyone familiar with the two species, the behavior made total sense. A feeder hung just a few feet away, full of sunflower seeds. Red squirrels, unlike their far more laid-back gray cousins to the south, guard food sources with a ferocity that would make a wolverine proud; and Steller’s jays — bold, chunky birds with striking deep blue plumage and dark-crested heads--are both clever and persistent.
But as the jay, squirrel and I all knew, this particular chase wasn’t about food at all. As I watched, another young squirrel joined in, as did two more jays, in what was now clearly a game — one that they played often. These wild creatures, all born that spring in nests maybe 50 yards from each other, were playmates that had known each other for most of their whole brief lives. This dense, 30-foot clump of willows served as a nursery where they rested fed and honed the skills that would determine their survival. One day soon they might fight over that feeder; but not today. They were having too much fun together.
Fast forward six weeks to early autumn, the willows tinged with the first hints of gold. Again, my eye caught motion, this time on the roof, to the left of the tree. At its peak, a red squirrel sat, tail curled over its back--the little female we called Stash. While her littermates had moved on, she’d stayed and established a territory where she’d been born. Up in the willow, I spied two of her playmate jays, now young adults themselves. And farther up the tree, a sharp-shinned hawk, a fierce little predator species that hunts mainly small songbirds. Itself probably a bird of the year, the hawk had already made several inept passes at the jays, who had avoided it with familiar, insolent ease. The young sharpie was a threat too minor to even bother mobbing, as jays and other members of the crow family often do with predatory birds. As Stash the squirrel bounded down the roof, though, a gray blur swooped down and struck. The hawk had caught her unaware, and had slammed into the little squirrel talons first, an almost certain death sentence. But before I could react, a blue-black shape dove in and pummeled the hawk with its wings, startling it into loosening its grip. Right behind it came the second jay, screaming its gravelly alarm call. The flustered hawk gathered itself and rocketed off, and Stash, too scared to even scold, made good her escape. She went on to survive the winter, and raise a litter of her own the following spring.
So, what to make of that incident? Sure, as I mentioned, jays do often mob hawks and owls on general principles, but in this case, they’d left the sharpie entirely alone until it attacked Stash. Assaulting the hawk bore no survival benefit to the birds; in fact, you could argue the contrary. I’m sure many a Steller’s jay has ended up as sharp-shin fricassee. The squirrel, too, was a direct competitor for the same food we placed out; in fact, at the time of her narrow escape, Stash had already been squabbling daily with the jays over the feeder, and actively pilfering the goodies the birds cached about the yard. Leaving the squirrel to her fate, then, would have actually improved the jays’ own odds in the survival sweepstakes. What’s clear is that their deliberate actions, contradictory to their own self interests, saved that squirrel. The hanging question is why.
The tempting conclusion is to anthropomorphize--pin human attributes on those birds. By that reading, the jays came to the rescue of their friend in need. Naturally, such talk is more than enough to bring on snorts of derision in some circles. Naysayers would argue that the jays instead acted out of genetically conditioned reflex, in response to the stimulus of an aggressive bird of prey; or just on inexplicable impulse. That should be explanation enough, and reading anything more into the situation is a journey into the land of silly-minded sentiment. Consider, though, that Steller’s jays hang in close-knit family groups and clearly know each other as individuals, and like all corvids (members of the crow tribe) they’re highly intelligent — as a group, near the top of the avian IQ class, just behind parrots. And with that bulging cerebral cortex comes emotional complexity.
As for the ability of non-human creatures to form close bonds beyond their kind, there’s a rising wave in animal behavioral science that confirms a surprising incidence of affectionate cross-species relationships between animals, domestic and wild, of all shapes and sizes — sometimes including protective, complex and selfless behavior, including a dog serving as guide for a blind canine pal, and a cat doing the same. If you want to bypass the hard-core research, surf YouTube for videos of animal friends. Several dozen such cases are also documented by National Geographic senior writer Jennifer S. Holland in her brief but profound book, Unlikely Friendships. If a tortoise and a hippo, or a dog and a wild polar bear can be friends — that is, engaged in mutual, affectionate, long-lasting associations for their own sake--why not a band of Steller’s jays and a red squirrel? Of course, we can never know for sure what goes on inside those feathered or furry heads. But it’s enough to make us wonder what might pass, unseen.