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.