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The Siberian Jay is a small jay with a widespread distribution within the coniferous forests in North Eurasia. It has grey-brown plumage with a darker brown crown and a paler throat. It is rusty-red in a panel near the wing-bend, on the undertail-covers and on the sides of the tail. There is also rufous streaking on the outer feathers, and the bill and legs are black. Their overall colouration is fairly inconspicuous to visually conceal them from predators within their forest habitat. The plumage is also very soft and downy for insulation against extreme cold in winter. There is one moult per year, which lasts from mid-June to mid-September. The longest recorded lifetime is 13 years 4 months for a bird ringed in Finland, although the average lifespan has been reported as 7.1 years.


The Siberian Jay is resident in the northern boreal forests of spruce, pine, cedar and larch stretching from Scandinavia to northern Russia and Siberia. The species has an extensive range estimated at 19,300,000 square kilometres (7,500,000 square miles) and is native to Norway, Sweden, Finland, Russia, Mongolia, Kazakhstan and China. It is vagrant in Belarus, Estonia, Latvia, Poland, Slovakia and Ukraine. Despite being largely sedentary, some southward movement may occur in winter by individuals in the east part of the range. This jay prefers dense, mature forest habitat with closed canopy within lowlands and foothills.


The Siberian Jay is omnivorous, feeding mainly on berries, seeds, insects and spiders. Flocks will also feed on large carcasses killed by mammalian predators such as wolves and wolverines. Other occasional food items include eggs of small birds, tit nestlings, snails, slugs, small mammals and lizards. In autumn and winter, berries (especially bilberries and cowberries) are typically collected and stored behind loose bark or in hanging beard lichen and between forked twigs. To securely store food, Siberian Jays have developed special saliva glands which they use to form sticky food clumps which they can adhere to beard moss or holes in tree bark where they are readily accessible throughout the winter.


Habits and Lifestyle

The species has a complex and unusual social structure. Siberian Jays live in small flocks of 2–7 individuals, with the dominant breeding pair at the centre of the group; alongside retained multigenerational offspring and unrelated immigrants. Within a group, there is a dominance hierarchy; whereby males are dominant over females and breeders are dominant over non-breeders; with some male non-breeders being dominant over female breeders. Flock composition varies, with some comprising only family members, families associated with unrelated immigrants, and others containing only unrelated individuals. Immigrated unrelated individuals can be tolerated within the territory outside nesting areas.

Mating Habits

Siberian Jays are strictly monogamous, with an established pair staying together and holding the same territory for life. Mate guarding in both sexes has been observed, whereby males and females become increasingly aggressive toward same-sex conspecifics. This may prevent extra-pair mating opportunities for the partner and thereby preserve inclusive fitness for both pair members. The size of the territory is 1 to 4 km (0.39 to 1.54 sq mi), which is slightly enlarged in autumn and winter. Although territories are firmly established, the jays can move to a neighbouring site if this is a better quality habitat where breeding success will be higher. Widowed individuals have been observed to establish new pair bonds.

Deception and Lies: Wild Siberian Jays Use Social Knowledge to Avoid Being Tricked

Siberian jays are group-living birds within the corvid family that employ a wide repertoire of calls to warn each other of predators. Sporadically, however, birds use one of these calls to trick their neighboring conspecifics and gain access to their food. Researchers from the universities of Konstanz (Germany), Wageningen (Netherlands), and Zurich (Switzerland) have now examined how Siberian jays avoid being deceived by their neighbors. The study, published in the journal Science Advances, shows that these birds have great trust in the warning calls from members of their own group, but mainly ignore such calls from conspecifics of neighboring territories. Thus, the birds use social information to differentiate between trustworthy and presumably false warning calls. Similar mechanisms could have played a role in the formation of human language diversity and especially in the formation of dialects.

Deception and lies

Deception and lies are surprising aspects of human communication and the use of language in which false information is intentionally communicated to others, allowing an individual to gain an advantage over the recipient of such false information. However, language is actually highly pro-social and cooperative and is mainly used to share reliable information. Thus, language can only function properly and be maintained if deception is kept to a minimum or other mechanisms are in place to recognize and avoid deception.

People do judge the reliability of communication partners based on personal experience. “If someone repeatedly lies to you, you will most likely stop trusting this person very quickly,” says Dr. Michael Griesser, a biologist at the University of Konstanz. Griesser authored the study together with Dr. Filipe Cunha, whose doctoral thesis he supervised. But do we observe deception in animals as well, and, if so, which mechanisms do animals use to avoid being deceived?

Warning calls of the Siberian jay

Indeed, a number of species are able to deceive their conspecifics, including some species of primates and birds like the Siberian jay (Perisoreus infaustus). Siberian jays live in territorial groups and have an elaborate communication system: A wide range of calls allow them to warn each other of the presence of different predators as well as the behavior of their fiercest enemy, the hawk.

Occasionally, however, neighbors intruding into a group’s territory use the same calls that would otherwise indicate the presence of a perched hawk for a different purpose. Their aim is to deceive the members of the group about the presence of the predator, thus scaring them away to get access to their food. “It is a commonly observed phenomenon in the animal kingdom that warning calls are used to deceive others. Clearly, the recipients of the false information potentially pay a high price if they ignore the warning,” says Cunha.

Only trust those you know?

To find out how Siberian jays identify and respond to this type of deception, the researchers examined a population of wild Siberian jays in northern Sweden. They attracted experienced individuals to a feeding site and recorded video footage of what happened. As soon as such an experienced individual visited the feeder, a loudspeaker played recordings of Siberian jays’ warning calls designating a perched hawk. These calls were recordings from former members of the visitor’s own group, birds from neighboring territories, or birds that the visitor had never encountered before. Using the video recordings, the researchers measured how long it took the visitor to leave and return to the feeder.

These “playback experiments” demonstrated that experienced Siberian jays responded quicker and took longer to return to the feeder when hearing warning calls of a former member of their own group than when exposed to warning calls of neighboring groups or previously unknown individuals. “Siberian jays thus have a simple rule to avoid being tricked: They only trust the warning calls from members of their own group, meaning cooperation partners. Familiarity alone is not enough, otherwise the birds would also have trusted the calls of their neighbors,” Griesser explains.

Deception as a possible factor in language and dialect formation

Michael Griesser draws a comparison to humans and their languages and dialects. Just like Siberian jays, humans preferentially trust others who belong to the same group as themselves and therefore more likely are cooperation partners. “It could thus very well be the case that vulnerability to deception has been a driver of the rapid diversification of human languages and facilitating the formation of dialects as they allow the identification of local cooperation partners,” Griesser considers.

Key facts:

Siberian jays use social information to avoid being deceived by neighbors. The birds reacted exclusively to the warning calls of cooperation partners from their own group and ignored the warning calls of others.

Similar mechanisms could have played a role in the diversification of human languages and especially in the formation of dialects.

Dr. Michael Griesser is an affiliate member of the “Centre for the Advanced Study of Collective Behaviour” and a researcher in the Department of Biology at the University of Konstanz. The study was completed when Griesser worked as a researcher at the University of Zurich.

Funding was provided by the Swiss National Science Foundation, via the EU Framework Programme for Research and Innovation, Horizon 2020, the University of Zurich and the Science Without Borders Programme in Brazil.

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