Saturday, May 02, 2009

Why You Should Love Blue Jays at Your Feeders

Blue Jays could do with a good press agent. They are criticized unfairly. They called bullies of the small birds, when in fact they save countless lives of smaller birds especially during the harsh winter months.

Recently we had some family visit. In between garden tours, there was plenty of time to sip coffee and watch the activity at the feeders through the kitchen window. Our suburban family needed most birds identified for them, until the Blue Jays flew in and all of the smaller birds scattered. They knew the Blue Jays. “Blue Jays are such bullies.”

“Not so,” I countered, and tried to launch into my pedantic defense of our backyard jays. My spouse cut me short by proposing another tour of the garden to see what had grown up in the last half hour.

Having been warned off of dry pedantry by my spouse, I shall instead go the opinionated route. If you don’t like Blue Jays coming to your feeders because you think they are bullies - well, you are just flat out wrong! And if you only welcome the “cute” little birds, like the chickadees or titmice, well - you’re just dabbling with feeding and don’t really like birds.

For the few readers remaining after that offensive tirade, let me offer some explanation of my opinion.

This is what I often see at my backyard feeders: Blue Jays swoop down on feeders, noisy, fast, big, and seldom still for a moment. They shovel seed from the bulk feeder. They fill their crop on the platform feeder or with seeds shoveled to the ground. Small birds often scatter as the jays fly in, but they return to the smaller feeders while the jays are on the big ones. The jays are hyperactive, hoping in circles, harshly calling back and forth, rarely still for a moment - as though they were on a permanent adrenaline rush or high on speed. Then they are off to the shrubs, maples, and pines, still talking it over.

I have often written that when Blue Jays are the noisiest, pay attention! A hawk is nearby. I remember the drama of watching a Sharp-shinned Hawk chase a screaming jay through the branches of a white pine, until the screams suddenly fell silent. Mournful calls of other jays faded away as they disappeared into the forest.

And another occasion when the noisy jays around the feeders suddenly scattered. It takes longer to describe what happened than it took to happen: a passing Sharp-shinned flew between our home and the neighbor’s, thirty feet above ground. Passing the corner of the house, she spied the busy feeders and the many jays. A quick tail adjustment and wing beat put her into a rapid, diving attack. She swooped on the feeders. Her dive was too slow by a millisecond, and the birds escaped.

It does not always end happily for the birds around a feeder. I often find a clump of feathers here or there in the yard, a silent reminder that life and death are ever present in the cultured backyard. Once in a while the feathers are identifiable as pigeon feathers. A Cooper’s Hawk is quite capable of taking the similarly sized pigeon. More often, the feathers I find look like they have come from a Mourning Dove. It is not unusual for a flock of fifteen or twenty doves to be roosting in nearby trees in early December. By early March, the number has been halved. Dove feathers seem most common through the summer months, when young birds are newly left on their own while adult birds go on to raise a second, third, or fourth pair.

But the most common feathers that I find are the easily identifiable feathers of the Blue Jay. Typically I find a few wing or tail feathers tossed aside casually. I accept those scattered jay feathers as evidence of nature’s ebb and flow, one creature’s life depending upon another creature’s death.

This Spring, nature’s cycle became a little grimmer. As the snow melted beneath the pine trees along our river bank, blue feathers began to appear. When the snow was finally gone, several distinguishable piles were revealed. It seems as though the protective pine boughs served as a winter, restaurant booth for predators - probably hawk, perhaps owl - and Blue Jay was the featured menu item.

In a book about feeder birds, the first two species described are Sharp-shinned Hawk and Cooper’s Hawk. So let’s be clear - if you put out a bird feeder and birds come, among those birds, sooner or later, will be a hawk. If you are helping birds by feeding birds, hawks will be among those you are feeding. The chickadee, which I often hear described as cute, dear, darling, and “I love,” is food to a hawk, and you have no business trying to scare off, or in any way harass, a hawk trying to make its living around your bird feeders.

The unbelievable irony is that there are some people who feed birds, hate hawks, and let their cat roam free outdoors. Is there a disconnect there, or not?

So you have bird feeders, and the birds are coming. Now imagine that you are a Sharp-shinned Hawk. You weigh between 4 ounces (male) and 8 ounces (female). You sneak into a tree and watch the bird feeders. You are going to have to expend energy (calories) when you attack. Not every attack is going to be successful. What are you going to go for? A half ounce chickadee, or a three ounce Blue Jay?

Even for a Sharp-shinned Hawk, that is a no brainer. For the same energy expense, the calorie payoff is many times greater with a Blue Jay than a chickadee.

And that’s why you should get over your prejudice and love the Blue Jays that come to your bird feeders. If you only have chickadees, the hawk is going to take a chickadee. If you have Blue Jays, the hawk is going to go for the bigger payoff.

When those piles of Blue Jay feathers emerged from the melting snow beneath my pine trees, I realized that Blue Jay behavior is not about other birds, it is about their own survival. It is one dangerous world out there for them, and they have to stay alert. Safety, such as it is, comes in numbers. The individual is more likely to survive in a flock. Collective eyes and constant communication carries life and death importance.

If you call a Blue Jay a bully, and greedy, you just don’t get it. They provide protection for your beloved little birds than far more than they harass those same birds. (Besides, I’ve never seen a chickadee kept from a feeder for very long.) I’ve even heard of Blue Jays attacking the home owner’s cat when it was crouched beneath the same home owner’s bird feeder. How’s that for irony?

So if you have a prejudice about Blue Jays coming to your feeders, get over it. Love the Blue Jays. Welcome them! They are gorgeous birds. They are intelligent birds! They are sentinels for danger. Often they lose the dangerous contest, while the smaller birds go on blithely with their “chick-a-dee-dee-dee” life.

You should love the Blue Jays at your feeders.

13 comments:

dAwN said...

Very Well said!
I agree with you 100%...

was just watching a blue jay at my tray feeder.. I love when they all call and then land on the tray feeder,eat and scatter the seed about and go.Marauding noisy teenagers.. All part of the scene.

birdsonthebrain said...

Yet again I've learned quite a bit from reading your blog.

I actually don't get many Jays at my feeders--occasionally one will stop by. But, those visits are so spaced apart from one another that the Jays never annoyed me in the first place. Still, a great topic to have written about, since I'm sure many people are annoyed by Jays at their feeders.

Great pics, too!

Kallen305 said...

I love Blue Jays and spend a fortune on them on peanuts during the winter months. Once spring hits they are on their own though because my neighbor lets its cat out when its warm.

I also get hawks who visit my yard and I usually let nature take its course. Once the Red Bellied Woodpecker was at my feeder and I banged on the window to scare it off when I saw a hawk appear. Sorry, but it's the only red bellied in my neighborhood and I have grown somewhat attached to it. ;o)

Kelly said...

...I also love Blue Jays. I love their warning calls...and all of their chatter...and they are fun to watch nabbing the peanuts I put out. They are gorgeous on top of it all!

Susan W. said...

I love Blue Jays, and always have. Actually I love all Corvids: Crows, Ravens, Jays, and probably Magpies, too (I've yet to actually meet a Magpie!)

According to Wikipedia (a source chosen for brevity,but quite correct in this case and easily verifiable), They are considered the most intelligent of the birds,having demonstrated self-awareness in mirror tests (European Magpies) and tool making ability (Crows)—skills until recently regarded as solely the province of humans and a few other higher mammals.Whats not to love?

The Zen Birdfeeder said...

Chris - nice post on an oft-disdained bird. Featured your post in my Zen Nature Lessons.
http://bit.ly/2opwG

Human Ape Along for the Ride said...

I love Blue Jays, and they tend to have a set time frame where they come to my feeder every morning; I love to watch them peck open the sunflower seeds.

They are noisy and a large bird, but they are not the only bird that does alarm calls with regards to predators. Tufted Titmice and Carolina (or Black-Capped, depending on your locale) Chickadees have the biggest mouths out there and along with Nuthatches tend to form mixed-species flocks in the winter, and they provide the bulk of the alarm/mobbing calls.

A note on the Cooper's and Sharp-Shinned hawks though: they do come to feeders, but studies have shown that they do not hit the same feeders repetitively. If you are interested in more info on their behavior, Google Sharp-Shinned Hawk and/or Coopers Hawk and SL Lima; you'll get more info than you probably ever wanted! Here's a recent one: http://wolfweb.unr.edu/homepage/tcroth/Roth%20and%20Lima%202007%20Oecologia.pdf

Thank you for the pictures on your blog; birds are such amazing critters!

Anonymous said...

What a funny blog! I too LOVE the Stellars Jays we have here in California but I DO NOT like them at my feeders. I feed them twice a day off of the deck banister but they are not allowed at the feeders. They chased away all my Nuthatches, Grosbeaks and Woodpeckers last year. So far this year, Blue Jays 1, me 2. I'm determined to win this one! hahahah Have a great day. Thanks for the amusing tirade.

animal friend said...

Heard an epic commotion outside and saw the Blue Jays flying madly about.

Later found a dead Blue Jay on the ground. Probably from a hawk who was close to nest.

Just so sad to see a beautiful animal who mates for life killed in this way. I really hate predators and can't help my prejudice toward them. I feed birds year round so they are ever present too.

(Before anyone says it, I know that they are just doing what they must to survive. I know Jays kill smaller birds sometimes, etc. Still so sad.

Anonymous said...

I very specifically feed blue jays. They are beautiful and incredibly intelligent birds. I have also learned throughout my years of feeding blue jays that they save many birds lives by screaming and scattering other birds when a hawk is near.

iLoveMyPygmyGoats said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
iLoveMyPygmyGoats said...

I'm not a fan of Blue Jays and here's why...In my 60+ years of life, I have seen countless Blue Jays eat other birds eggs, kill and eat nestlings and fledglings, kill baby squirrels and other small rodents. Blue Jays are members of the Crow family which are in large part carnivores....and therefore, so are Blue Jays, though not to the same degree as Crows. I had a pair of Blue Jays relentlessly attacking the parents of some baby robins to make a meal of the babies. Nothing I did would discourage the Jays from returning to the Robins nest. I live in the country and we get Owls, Hawks and Eagles by the score. There's never been a problem with them at the feeders because the smaller birds do a phenomenal job at alerting everyone else of danger. The Blue Jays, on the other hand, cause nothing but havoc and destruction.

tricia liss said...

I have always loved Blue Jays. When I was young we had a nest of Blue Jays in our backyard. A neighbor hood cat caught and killed the mother bird and one of the two babies that were just learning to fly. My father chased the cat away but was left with one baby wondering if he should leave it to its fate or raise it. Being soft hearted He raised it. It lived with us for 12 years and was very spoiled. They are extremely smart, they have a large vocabulary of sounds and can mimic some sounds we make. Like most birds the usually take to one person but are friendly to others who are often around. The bird died 3 months after my father passed away.

LinkWithin

Related Posts with Thumbnails