Magic Bells

photo of a Blue Jay calling (by Marie Read)Blue Jays are capable of an extraordinary variety of sounds. The most familiar call is the loud and raucous jay-jay, given in a variety of situations. But Blue Jays also produce piping, musical notes and other odd sounds that may surprise and delight the ear.

It’s always been a challenge to get a good soundscape portrait of Blue Jays, but I finally got lucky on the second of April in 2006. I was in Shindagin Hollow, a state forest tract near my home of Ithaca, New York. At the break of dawn, I was walking along a narrow foot trail in thick evergreens (Balsam Firs) when I heard several subtle jay notes. I quickly set up my mike, crossed my fingers, and started recording. Over the next few minutes, a number of jays chimed-in, first giving commonplace jay-calls, but then switching to piping garbles, soft clicking churrs, and bell-like notes. The entire display lasted only a few minutes (I am tempted to lengthen it by gently cross-fading it into another jay recording that I gathered minutes later at a nearby location—it is included below).

A group of Blue Jays waking up in the morning in a thick patch of evergreens. Around 7 am, 2 April 2006, Shindagin Hollow, near Ithaca, New York. Recorded by Lang Elliott.

photo of Lang ElliottWhile this recording certainly qualifies as a single species portrait (except for a few robin calls), it involves five or more individuals and there is a wonderful spatial spread of sound, the mark of a true dimensional soundscape. It is engaging yet relaxing, with interesting tonal variation. None of the calls yank too hard at the ear. It’s the ending that I like the best, where several individuals repeatedly call back-and-forth with rich musical notes . . . magic bells in my mind’s eye.

Whatya think? My only regret is that it didn’t last longer.


I captured another Blue Jay performance during the same morning in Shindagin Hollow. It features the same group of jays. The location was perhaps fifty feet distance from the first recording, on the edge of the evergreen patch. This one is a little busier than the first one. About a third of the way through, it features the jay’s “squeaky pumphandle call”—screek-squeak—which sounds like a metal joint in need of some oil:

A group of Blue Jays giving a variety of calls at the edge of a thick patch of evergreens. Around 7:10 am, 2 April 2006, Shindagin Hollow, near Ithaca, New York. Recorded by Lang Elliott.

Note: A robin sings in the background during parts of the recording.


  1. I was out in the woods last Friday for an hour observation. A group of about 12 blue jays landed in a tree above me and put on a very similar performance to that in your recordings. I had never heard this full spectrum of blue jay songs and calls before and none of the major bird books describe all of these vocalizations. I was delighted to find your recording which I have played several times to recreate and reenjoy what I heard. It really sounds like a piece of music, new age or medieval chant or something else.

    I wonder what function these songs and calls serve. Is it a kind of team building exercise for the flock?

    John H.

    • John: I like that … “team building” … or how about “family chat” or maybe “bonding talk”? Many times, it sounds like they’re just having a good time.

      I don’t think anyone knows the actual meanings of most of their calls. You can’t easily tell males from females, and the diversity of sounds is quite astonishing indeed. Figuring out their communication system would be a hard nut to crack, for sure.

  2. I can’t count how many times I’ve heard Blue Jays give strange piping calls, and some of them I hear have an eerie echoing quality. I have heard and actually seen a Blue Jay imitate a Red-Tailed Hawk.

    In the first recording I also hear Crows, Robins, Black-Capped Chickadees and Dark-Eyed Juncos. I think I also hear a Pied-Billed Grebe in it, as well as Yellow-Billed Cuckoo.

    In the second recording, I also hear robins, Dark-Eyed Juncos, a Pileated Woodpecker drumming, grackles, and a Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker drumming.

  3. Two extremely interesting recordings with an amazing variety of Bluejay vocalizations. The levels work fine for me. I wholeheartedly agree with linking the two recordings. I’d suggest placing the second recording first and fade into the first one. Somehow that sequence feels best.


  4. I love blue jays. They never cease to amaze me with all the vocalizations that they are capable of. These recordings are a real treat.

  5. Blue jays are my yard and garden alarm system, always alerting me to the need to scramble the neighbor’s marauding cats from the birding areas, and I wonder if their voices rang in Edgar Allen Poe’s head when he wrote The Bells …

    • Who knows what rang in Poe’s head when he wrote The Bells, especially those that throb and sob and moan and groan—peculiar notes on which he ends his poem. Maybe a sick and dying Blue Jay, all alone up in the steeple?

  6. I enjoyed these recordings. Blue Jays make some of the most interesting calls and they persistently remind me of home (Central Florida). I have heard them make fascinating imitations of other birds, especially Red Shouldered Hawks, which would almost fool you!

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