Special features

Species profile: Blue Jay – Nature’s clown

A sense of humor tops the list of reasons to take a new look at the old Blue Jay
By Laura Erickson | Published: 7/1/2004

Autumn_Blue_JayOne of the jolliest, spunkiest, handsomest, and yet most controversial of all regular feeder birds is the Blue Jay. When a jay flies into a feeding station, other birds scatter. How can we not jump to the conclusion that jays are aggressive bullies?

Pay close attention and you’ll notice that minutes after a Blue Jay alights on a feeder, the other birds return and pretty much ignore it. After carefully observing the birds at my feeders, I’ve concluded that the majority of jays get along just fine with other birds. But I’ve also noticed that silhouettes of jays in flight are similar to those of accipiters — bird-eating hawks. Both jays and accipiters have rounded wings and long, narrow tails. When a Sharp-shinned Hawk flies in, any birds that take a split second to check out its field marks might not escape. But as soon as they realize it’s just a jay, they return.

Observant and spunky
On the other hand, Blue Jays do indeed cause problems for eggs and nestlings of other birds. How prevalent is this? When 530 Blue Jay stomach contents were analyzed in a 1922 study, traces of bird eggs or nestlings were found in only 6 stomachs — barely 1 percent, even though the researchers specifically looked for egg and chick matter. Seven stomachs contained snail shells and one the leg of a deer mouse. The researchers found that about 22 percent of the contents were insect matter, the rest mostly vegetal, especially acorns and other hard mast. Thanks to this strong preference for acorns, jays may be significantly responsible for the composition of many forests; they’re credited with planting acorns as glaciers retreated, allowing oaks to win the germination race against wind-borne seeds. The Blue Jay diet is also augmented with seeds and fruits.

Of course, no matter what statistics imply, Blue Jays do rob nests. Audubon’s famous painting, depicting three jays devouring eggs, was almost certainly based on scenes he had witnessed personally. I’ve watched several jays taking young robins from nests. But in every case I observed, the adult jay did not eat the nestling itself. Rather, the jay carried it back to its own nest to feed nestlings. Each pair of Blue Jays typically raises five young each year. Each grows from about 5 grams (less than a fifth of an ounce) at hatching to over 60 grams (more than two ounces) at fledging, little more than two weeks later. It takes a great deal of protein for so many chicks to grow so fast. It would take hundreds of insects to provide the same nourishment as a single nestful of robins.

Jays also capitalize on misfortunes that befall other birds. In September 2003, when masses of Palm and Yellow-rumped Warblers descended on the north shore of Lake Superior during a major migration event, thousands were killed by cars on streets and highways in and around Duluth. Crows and Blue Jays quickly learned to snatch crippled and dead birds off the pavement. What’s more, in some places, jays recognize the sound of small birds striking windows. One morning I was sitting near a window in my house when a Palm Warbler hit it. Before I could even react, a jay swooped in and picked up the hapless warbler.

Despite such habits, on balance Blue Jays are a welcome part of most avian neighborhoods because they are observant and squawky and alert all nearby songbirds about hawks, cats, and other dangers. Even robins don’t seem to mind jays in the area unless a jay is actually approaching a nest. Of course, many humans count their calls against the jays, too, especially when it’s six in the morning and the windows are open. You need a sense of humor to appreciate Blue Jay vocalizations. Fortunately, jays tend to sleep in longer than most other birds, so a flicker or Downy Woodpecker hammering on your drain spout will normally wake you up long before jays start squawking.

And jays more than make up for their less-than-pleasing sounds with their beautiful plumage. The Blue Jay was one of the first American birds known to early colonists. “They are abundantly more beautiful and finer feathered than those in Europe,” opined the adventurer John Lawson in 1709. The explorer Jonathan Carver agreed. In his Travels, published in London in 1778, he wrote that the jay “cannot be exceeded in beauty by any of the winged inhabitants of this or any other climates.” Thomas Sadler Roberts waxed even more enthusiastic in his Birds of Minnesota, published in 1932: “This big, crested bird, arrayed in beautiful blue with trimmings of black and white, vies in beauty with the most radiant of our feathered tribe. Its intelligence and accomplishments also place it in the first rank.”

 

Out of the blue

Blue Jay vocalizations defy easy categorization. Individuals give the same calls in many different contexts and produce multiple renditions of calls. Moreover, Blue Jays are well known for making calls that are dead ringers for those of Red-shouldered and Red-tailed Hawks, and for giving calls similar to those of Broad-winged Hawk, Cooper’s Hawk, Osprey, American Kestrel, Fish Crow, and Eastern Screech-Owl. Ornithologists hypothesize that the birds issue the calls to alert other jays to the presence of a hawk, to indicate where a hawk was previously, or to trick other species into believing a hawk is nearby. (A researcher in 1991 reported that a hawk call made by a Blue Jay appeared to frighten a Boat-tailed Grackle into dropping food that the jay then took.) But it’s just as likely that Blue Jays simply incorporate environmental sounds into their repertoire or that hawk calls are native to their repertoire.

Intelligence and humor
Yes, Blue Jay beauty is not just feather-deep. Under that jaunty crest is a mind worth reckoning with, as Mark Twain wrote. “It ain’t no use to tell me a blue-jay hasn’t got a sense of humor,” he quipped in “Baker’s Blue-Jay Yarn” (in the book A Tramp Abroad, 1880), “because I know better.”

Many studies conducted using both wild and captive jays provide abundant evidence of the species’ intelligence and complex social structure and interactions. I had the great fortune to be licensed to rehabilitate injured and orphaned birds, and had an additional special license to keep one unreleasable Blue Jay, “Sneakers,” as an education bird. One day when I was out of my office, Sneakers managed to escape her cage. When I returned, she was busy grabbing mealworms from a bucket, stuffing her throat pouch with them, and delivering them to an injured jay in another cage. I presume Sneakers had eaten her fill before embarking on her altruistic mission.

(Except during the breeding season, when mated females develop a bald area on their bellies called a brood patch, it’s virtually impossible to determine the sex of a Blue Jay without resorting to a blood test. I got into the habit of referring to particular jays as “he” or “she,” but without any evidence.)

One young jay I cared for, “Ludwig,” learned to ring a bell by tapping the button with his bill while hovering in flight so his breast didn’t dampen the sound. When Ludwig started flying outdoors, he played fetch with a little plastic toy helicopter from a box of cereal. The moment I spun the helicopter aloft, Ludwig would zoom up, snatch it in midair, and bring it back to me to shoot off again and again.

Neighborhood jays had just fledged their own nestlings at the time Ludwig was first flying, and my yard happened to be in their territory. At first when they noticed him they would dart at him in territorial defense. When he observed that they avoided me, he started seeking them out in adjoining yards, inducing them to chase him. Then he’d fly straight onto my head and wheel around to face them, as if taunting them that his mom was bigger than their mom.

Ludwig stuck around my yard for many weeks as he learned little by little to find his own natural foods and to become integrated with the local jay society. He disappeared that October. But the following spring he returned, recognizable by his habit of tapping on our kitchen window. He remained in the neighborhood for a couple of days, then moved on, independent and grown up.

I was privileged to be legally licensed to care for these winsome birds. Unfortunately, just-fledged jays are so irresistible with their intelligent eyes, bright feathers, tiny tail, and interesting ways that they are often picked up by well-meaning people who think they’re rescuing them when they’re essentially kidnapping them. Keeping wild native American birds is against federal and state laws, and legitimately so. As adorable as jays are, their intelligence, behavioral and social adaptations, and irrepressible independence require a wild environment to thrive. Usually humans discover baby jays the very day the little birds fledge. At that point jays still have a nestling reflex of crouching when a shadow passes over or a human approaches. Sometimes parent jays aggressively attack humans near their fledglings, but often they don’t; the parents may be elsewhere searching for food, or they may be having trouble keeping track of five chicks, all of which are venturing forth at once. Within a day or two of fledging, Blue Jay siblings band together, lose their crouching instinct, and become much better at eluding us. The young will remain with their parents for months after fledging. The family groups make it easy for the young birds to learn basic survival as they become proficient in communication and social skills.

Blue Jays are easy to watch in many habitats, particularly where there are large shade trees or woodlands. At feeders they take suet, sunflower seeds, peanuts, acorns, and various nuts. When one of my neighbors started setting out peanuts near her kitchen window, a pair of jays became regular visitors. My neighbor was fascinated with how they picked up each peanut as if to weigh it before carrying off the largest. No oaks stand in our neighborhood, so my neighbor’s relatives brought her a few buckets of acorns and she conducted a Blue Jay taste test. When she set out both acorns and peanuts, the jays always chose the acorns first. It would be interesting to see which nut jays prefer in areas where acorns are naturally found.

Jays use their crests to express alertness and agitation, or calmness and docility. Once I gave a talk to an Elderhostel group with Sneakers while an official from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources prepared to speak with his own education bird, a Great Horned Owl. Sneakers had never seen an owl before. When she discovered the huge raptor, her crest shot straight up. I continued with my talk, and as she turned toward me, down went the crest. Moments later she looked back at the owl and up it popped. Up, down, up, down — as she looked back and forth between us, the muscles controlling her crest feathers got a workout.

Up and down
To see a reader’s photograph that shows a Blue Jay with its crest lowered, visit “Photo of the Week.”

Autumn flocks of blue
Normally we notice jays when their crests are up, because the birds are most easily detected while squawking. When a flock feeds together, we have our easiest opportunity to see jays with crests down. When a mated pair interacts or an adult feeds nestlings, the crest is pressed tightly to the head.

In August and September, Blue Jay family units and unattached jays join loose flocks, and large numbers may descend on a feeding station at once. The groups often use feeders as a sit-down restaurant, each bird’s crest lowered as it eats peaceably with the others. But if one notices a hawk or shrike, up goes the crest. Often local jays, not part of the migrating flocks, use the feeders as grocery stores, filling their throat pouches with seeds that they’ll hide elsewhere to eat in seclusion, safe from the prying eyes of migrating hawks. When local birds encounter an unfamiliar feeding flock, they often raise their crest as they stuff their throats.

In early fall, people occasionally notice a jay that is totally bald. When jays molt, some seem to lose all the feathers on their head simultaneously while others molt more gradually. During her seven-year life, Sneakers endured complete baldness for about a week each fall. Another jay I rehabilitated for several years, housed next to her, molted just a few head feathers at a time each fall. Bald jays may have inspired the expression “naked as a jaybird.”

Blue Jay migration is puzzling. Jays migrate in large numbers, yet their range remains the same in winter and summer. I’ve been lucky enough to observe and count jays during many migrations along the north shore of Lake Superior. Migrating flocks of dozens or hundreds fly so silently that many people don’t recognize them as jays. They’re fairly slow fliers, their rounded wings flapping steadily in straight flight, crests aerodynamically lowered. Jays tire easily. When we watch a flock fly a distance, we often observe them dropping into a stand of trees to rest or feed.

Jays migrate at the same time as Sharp-shinned Hawks, and their labored flight makes them easy targets. Should a Sharpie dart into a resting or flying flock of jays, one jay makes a sharp rit-rit! call, and suddenly all the jays start screeching. If the hawk was successful, the survivors seem to hold an Irish wake, squawking for many long minutes. They finally quiet down and take off, the white plumage beneath twinkling as they fly overhead.

When most birds fly south in autumn I feel a kind of sadness at bidding them farewell, but at least some Blue Jays remain behind for the winter, providing endless entertainment, brilliant color, and fascinating opportunities for studying one of nature’s finest.

Laura Erickson is the author of Sharing the Wonder of Birds with Kids, which won the 1997 National Outdoor Book Award. She writes a monthly column about birds for the Minneapolis Star Tribune and a bimonthly column called “For the Birds” for The Country Today, and she writes and produces the public radio program “For the Birds.”