It Takes a Thief

Western scrub jays try to avoid the thieving ways of their own kind

04-01-2002 // Mark Cheater

WHAT SEPARATES a western scrub jay from a stool pigeon? The former knows how to keep its secrets--especially if it's a jay with a criminal history.

Western scrub jays are blue, foot-long birds found in woodlands and chaparrals from Texas to Washington. They eat insects and acorns, both of which they bury in small caches around their habitats. Given the chance, the crafty jays will readily steal from their neighbors' larders.

Researchers from Cambridge University wondered just how crafty the jays are. So they put the birds in cages where they could bury food--sometimes in the presence of other jays, sometimes alone. The scientists found that if jays with a history of pilfering were observed burying food, they would hide their caches again when other jays weren't watching. This shows that the birds can speculate about the future actions of other jays based on their own experiences--the first scientific evidence of such mental abilities outside of humans, according to the scientists.

Who says crime doesn't pay?

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