All spring, my days have been brightened by my window view of a pair of blue jays that visit the amur maple. It makes me think about what I know of the blue jay, often unfairly maligned as a blue bully and a thief.
First, they are not really blue. They appear as a very striking, and intense kind of blue, but their pigment, like that of many birds, is brown or white. What the eye sees is the light refracted off their feathers in a way that creates the illusion of blue. Well, the sky isn’t blue either. And for the same reason.
Blue jays have been accused of robbing other nests, of murdering and eating baby birds and of hogging the feeder, but only one per cent of their diet consists of their fellow birds. They eat seeds and acorns, and a quarter of their diet consists of insects such as grasshoppers, caterpillars, and beetles.
They have the amazing ability to carry a lot of food at one time, stuffing two to three acorns in their esophagus pouch, one in their mouth and one more in their bill. They are very selective about their food, choosing only acorns that have no fungus or insects or other infections. They have been seen to stash away as many as 3,000 to 5,000 acorns in a single season.
Blue jays are canny birds. Like their cousins the crows and magpies, they have great curiosities.
Their courtship behavior is interesting. They talk while courting, making a dove-like Kloo-kloo-kloo sound as the hop from branch to branch. While she is incubating the eggs, he will sometimes feed her on the nest, but often they will fly to a nearby tree, where she will assume the begging position of a juvenile and he will feed her. It must be a bonding thing because they are monogamous and mate for life.
Male Blue Jays build the nest, taking not just found sticks, but living wood from small trees, often struggling to break off a particularly desirable twig. Frequently, he adds a final decorative and perhaps romantic touch of something white to the outside of the nest. He might as well make it homey: He and she live together for a long time.
Blue Jays in captivity have been known to live up to 26 years and even in the wild they often survive as long as 17 years, although the average life span is seven years.
The other morning, I was awakened at 4:00 a.m. by a very loud blue jay call, and they are known for their loud, rasping voice, but they are also capable of great nuance. They burble and murmur among themselves and with their young. They can mimic predators, such as hawks, and often they use these calls to scatter fellow freeloaders from domestic feeders, lending weight to their reputation for greed. The again, they may just be sending warnings of approaching predators. They can use their voices in a special call to stimulate “mobbing” the ganging up of a bunch of jays perhaps against an owl which might be taking up residence near a blue Jay nest. They can also imitate cats.
A fellow blogger observed the following interaction between a blue jay and a woodpecker. The woodpecker, probably a fledgling, was having a hard time approaching a busy feeder and a cat dish that attracted many birds. Then along came a blue jay, which made a crow-like call and flew onto the feeder. Here is the rest of the tale in her own words:
“Almost immediately, the woodpecker flew down from the branches of the tree and landed directly beside the blue jay. Both birds looked around for a moment more, then the blue jay flew to the railing of the deck, still looking about. The woodpecker flew to the cat dish for the first time; it ate a few pieces of cat food, while the blue jay kept watch. When the woodpecker was done eating, both birds flew away together.
Since that first time, I have witnessed the same thing happen over and over. Always the blue jay comes first, looks for danger, calls to the woodpecker, who appears immediately, and then keeps a look-out while the woodpecker gets something to eat. Then they fly away together!” –Amy D.
Blue Jays have been seen to sit on top of an anthill and dust their wings with ants. Blue Jays are said do this to remove the formic acid from the ant’s acid sac before eating the ant and using it to rid themselves of insects, mites, fungus and bacteria.
Blue jays are slow flyers averaging only 32 to 40 km/h, leaving them very vulnerable to their own predators. At that rate of travel, it is no wonder only about 20 per cent of them fly south for the winter – not all, and not every year.
Now that we have so much time on our hands, we have the luxury of watching nature. It is a bit like being reborn, seeing the world with new and more patient eyes.