My daughter Nora and her husband recently returned from a trip to Colorado. Within a day, she emailed me a photo of a blue bird she wanted to identify.
“It reminds me of a blue jay, but it doesn’t have a crest. Can you tell me what it is?” she asked.
Before I saw the photo, I expected it to be a Steller’s jay, which is a bold, loud, common jay of the mountain west, but it has a crest like our blue jay. The top half of its body is dark, almost black, and the lower half is dark blue. Steller’s jays are western ecological equivalents of blue jays. When you pull into a camp ground out west, Steller’s jays often greet you at the picnic table.
Nora’s bird was blue, but its back was distinctly gray. It was a western scrub-jay.
Without the photo, (which was adequate but not great), I could not have identified the bird with certainty. The gray back, however, was diagnostic, but it might have easily been missed in a verbal description.
Along with magpies, crows, and ravens, jays are classified in the family Corvidae. The U.S. is home to 19 species of corvids. All are bold and highly intelligent birds, but only the jays are colorful.
Since this column’s readers live east of the Mississippi River, I’ll shine the spotlight on the blue jay. Eleven inches long, from the tip of the bill to the tip of the tail, blue jays are one of the largest birds that visit bird feeders. Males and females are identical – bright blue body, crested head and a black necklace separates the white throat and belly. The blue wings and tail are marked with white spots and black bars.
Blue jays need not be seen to be recognized. “Jay!” is their most recognizable call, but their repertoire of sounds is impressive. They can expertly mimic the screams of hawks and the calls of many other songbirds. My favorite blue jay sound is a horn-like “Queedle! Queedle!”
In just a few weeks, blue jays will begin roaming in small flocks (maybe “gangs” would be a better term). Unwilling to compete with large brash jays, smaller birds disappear into the woods, and the jays feed in peace.
On the rare occasion that another bird lingers near the feeder, one jay in the flock may mimic the cry of a red-shouldered hawk. Standing up to a blue jay is one thing; tempting a bird-eating hawk is quite another. The jay’s ruse usually succeeds, and the flock dines in peace.
If you love blue jays (and it seems most people either love them or hate them), offer whole, in-shell peanuts. As long as peanuts are available, jays keep coming. They cram them into expandable throat pouches, much like a chipmunk fills its cheek pouches. And like chipmunks, blue jays cache their prizes for later use. Only when the peanut feeder is empty does the jay parade end.
In May and June, blue jay aggression takes a darker turn. When most other backyard and woodland birds are incubating eggs or brooding chicks, blue jays rob nests. Like crows, blue jays eat both eggs and nestlings of smaller birds.
On the other hand, blue jays also provide a valuable service to their smaller feathered neighbors. Owls eat birds, so smaller birds like to keep track of the whereabouts of local owls. Jays mob owls they find roosting peacefully in the woods. Their alarm calls alert other birds such as titmice, chickadees and nuthatches, which then join in mobbing the owl.
The message mobbing behavior sends to an owl is, “We see you. You can’t surprise us, so go away, and leave us alone.” Even an owl can take only so much abuse, and eventually it departs in search of a more secluded perch.
It seems strange that some animals can be friend and foe, protector and bully, depending on the circumstances. But in our own backyards, blue jays are one such bird.
Dr. Shalaway can be heard on Birds & Nature from 3 to 4 p.m. Sunday afternoons on 620 KHB Radio (Pittsburgh) or live online at www.khbradio.com. Visit his website, www.drshalawaycom, or contact him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, WV 26033.