Saturday, July 21, 2007

The Blue Jay - One of the Smart Birds

During the last week, I’ve had a couple of people tell me that they do not like Blue Jays. I responded that the reason so many people don’t like Blue Jays is because they are smarter than we are.

That Blue Jays are smarter than humans may not be strictly true - although I am not always very impressed by the intelligence exhibited among our species. What is true is that Blue Jays, as members of the Corvidae family, have the highest degree of intelligence among the birds. The Corvids, which include crows, ravens, jays, and magpies, have astonishing memories and exhibit the ability to solve problem. Naturalists have recognized for years that members of this family have languages of their own. When we listen to Blue Jays, we hear a wide variety of calls, clucks, gurgles and bubbles. The variety and complexity of these sounds - noises we sometimes call them - is more correctly described as their “language” by which they communicate issues of concern among the Blue Jay population.

The Blue Jay has a reputation as a noisy bird, a characteristic shared with its closest relative, the Steller’s Jay of the western mountains. Both belong to the Genus, Cyanocitta, which comes from the Greek meaning “chattering blue bird.” The Blue Jay is Cyanocitta cristata; the species name means “crested” in Latin.

The “jay” of the Blue Jay’s name probably derives ultimately from the attempt to imitate the sound that the “jay” birds make. As with many word derivations, there are alternatives. One alternative is that “jay” derives from the French, geai, so named for the gay (bright) plumage. Another suggests that it is a nickname, or short form, of Gaius - a common first name among the Romans, as in Gaius Julius Caesar.

In addition to its reputation for noise (a well-deserved reputation), the Blue Jay has been labeled a nest robber, a bird which consumes the eggs and nestlings of smaller song birds. John James Audubon established this reputation with his painting, showing three Blue Jays consuming eggs, and with his anecdotal observations and reports of the Blue Jay’s predations. This reputation has been sustained by many writers ever since.

But the evidence does not sustain the reputation. Arthur Bent in his life history of the Blue Jay, sites a study of the diet of the Blue Jay done in 1897. A researcher collected 292 stomachs in every month of the year from 22 states. He found that the Blue Jay’s diet “is composed of 24.3 percent animal matter and 75.7 percent vegetable matter .... The animal food is chiefly made up of insects, with a few spiders, myriapods, snails, and small vertebrates, such as fish, salamanders, tree frogs, mice and birds. Everything was carefully examined which might by any possibility indicate that birds or eggs had been eaten, but remains of birds were found in only 2, and the shells of small birds’ eggs in 3 of the 292 stomachs.”

The researcher concluded: “The most striking point in the study of the food of the blue jay is the discrepancy between the testimony of field observers concerning the bird’s nest robbing proclivities and the results of stomach examinations. The accusations of eating eggs and young birds are certainly not sustained ....”

The Blue Jays in my neighborhood are bringing their annual breeding season to a close. Few juveniles are being fed any longer by the adults, though they occasionally give some wing flutters and begging calls which are ignored. But the families stay together. When Blue Jays fly in, there are four to eight birds - two adults and the young that have survived from the original clutch of 2 to 6 eggs.

The whole process began sometime in mid-May when the adults began building their nest, a cup made of twigs, bark, rootlets, grass and perhaps paper, rags, and feathers. It looks something like a robin’s nest, and there is at least one report of Blue Jays expropriating a robin’s nest, to the chagrin of the robins. The two and a half week incubation is done almost entirely by the female; the male feeds her, and on occasion may spell her on the eggs. When the naked and helpless hatch, feeding is done by both parents. Eyes open after five days; feathers begin to form after a week.

By the time they are three weeks old, the young leave the nest, and the period of Blue Jay quiet is at an end. Young noisily call for their parents and then chase their parents. This continues for about three weeks. When the young have learned to feed themselves, Forbush writes, “the family roams through the woods, reveling in plenty that nature has provided for them; they are joined by others and it is a noisy rollicking crew.”

Blue Jays can be relatively long lived. Banding records have yielded ages up to 15 years, and there are many records of banded Blue Jays living 6-9 years.

Blue Jays migrate. I have been on Putney Mountain in the Fall and have watched as hundreds of Blue Jays flew across the opening on the crest of the ridge during early morning hours. But there is very little known about their migration. Banding records indicate the movement of Blue Jays from (for example) Massachusetts to North Carolina and New York to Virginia. But Blue Jays are also found year-round throughout their breeding range. Are the birds which we see in the winter birds which bred in our area, or birds which have migrated from some other breeding area, presumably further to the north? We don’t know.

A few years ago a friend in Marlboro tried banding winter birds with color bands so that he could identify them by sight during Spring and Summer. He saw some of the winter birds as breeding season began. Unfortunately, he was not able to continue the study, and few Blue Jays were among his banded birds. So the answer is still unknown, although the means of doing the study is there for a future researcher.

Blue Jays, like their Corvid cousins, cache food for later use. They have wonderful memories, but not perfect memories. (Alas, who does?) They often store one of their favorite foods, acorns, in soft soil. Unretrieved, the acorns sprout. Nancy Henry of the Highlands Nature Sanctuary in Ohio discovered that this caching of acorns by Blue Jays made them welcome partners in her reforestation efforts: “When it comes to industry and ingenuity in our own backyard, there is no better forester among the animals than our boisterous friend of the deciduous forest, the bluer-than-blue blue jay of Eastern North America.”

I have attempted this week to keep most “human elements” out of this column - those things which lead to such descriptions as rogue, thief, lawless, haughty, and boisterous, and which make the Blue Jay such a welcome and entertaining habitue of my feeders. Just the facts, you might say.

But I can’t resist finishing with a quote from another Blue Jay fan: “There’s more to a jay than any other creature. You may call a jay a bird. Well, so he is, in a measure, ’cause he’s got feathers on him and he don’t belong to no church perhaps, but otherwise he’s just as much a human as you and me.” So wrote Mark Twain. Good birding!


Anonymous said...

Just discovered your blog looking for positive info on Blue Jays- i have added you t my blog and am thrilled to read about them!

keadomdev said...

we have a bluejay we call rocky who has literally become a pet. when he sees my wife or i on the patio he flies right over and lands on a pole 5 feet from us. we toss him peanuts and cherrios which he either eats right there or sometimes he hides the cherrios he cant eat in our spruce tree or rain gutter. if you dont see him he will make his raucous sound

Anonymous said...

We have had BlueJay's for a while feeding Peanuts.. When the nuts would run out they would make this weird bird sound, and we would throw more out.. This has become a habit to just throw more nuts out when hearing the strange sound... The Very Smart BlueJay's caught on this made the sound all the time. We would not throw out any nuts so the BlueJay's started Knocking at the screen door with it's Beak 2 times and it really sounded like someone knocking. The reason I know it is because I look out the window and seen the BlueJay on the Porch and My mother was answering the Door because she thought someone was there.. BlueJay's are very smart and the only Birds I love maybe because my name is Jay. I have taped BlueJays sound and put on a tape recorder tonight. I'm going to see what this will do when the BlueJay's Hear it.. Take Care Remember BlueJay's are very Good Birds.

Anonymous said...

We have a Blue Jay, we call JAY. he/she fell of a pine tree from nest. We took care of JAY for 2 1/2 months. JAY would follow us all around the place. JAY would go on our hair and shoulders whenever it needed to feel loved. Jay also slept in our house for the night. I would leave the door open so he/she could fly in and out of the house, that JAY done well. JAY is like a human, very intelligent when it comes to communicating with humans or i should say me, because we took very good care of JAY. JAY stayed with us for 2 1/2 months until a storm hit the area, we have not seen JAY since, What a sad ending, i'm feeling devastated..

Please if anyone can help me put a ending to this mystical chapter with the intelligent Blue Jay we had, I need it

The smartest bird in the world.

My e-mail

Anonymous said...

Enlightning but innacurate. We have both types of Jay's on our farm near San Jose, California. I was forced to set up a tv camera in the hen house in order to discover which 'chicken' was breaking eggs. I played the tape on fast forward till I saw some action and was treated to a first hand presentation of a Jay
consuming an egg.
My wife took her pellet rifle and shot a couple of Jays and that stopped the egg eating for a while.
Every time they started breaking eggs (and eating the contents) she'd shoot a couple and they'd stop for a few weeks.
One sufferred for a few minutes before expiring, several other Jays gathered around and watched they encouraged their fellow to recover and tried to get it to move even after it was gone. After several minutes of obvious mourning they flew away. After that they left the hen's eggs' alone for the rest of the season for which we were grateful.

Anonymous said...

I, too, am a Blue Jay "fan!" After observing them for over 8 years, I've never seen the treacherous things they are often accused of. Yes, noisy they are! But when I investigate, I usually find a hawk, snake, stray cat or some other predator causing the alarm!

Anonymous said...

We have Western Scub Jay we call Blue. He's wild but you wouldn't know it. Shows up on demand, sleeps inside at times and has no fear of humans. This is one smart bird. He'll hide his food and is on the lookout while doing it. He's very curious and a bit naughty as he will steal anything he can pick up with his beak. Love the little critter.

Anonymous said...

We found a baby bluejay 11 yrs ago after a storm. He had apparently fell out of a nest. Due to the fact that there are several feral cats around our property, we took him in and raised him. We couldn't turn him loose, as he wouldn't know how to survive in the wild. He lives in a big cage in our kitchen, and he is healthy and happy. I realize that it is against the law to keep a wild bird as a pet, but he would have died if we hadn't kept him. Some laws are meant to be broken, I guess. We love our bluejay, and wouldn't give him up for the world.

Anonymous said...

I have 5 bluejays and love them all. One was born this past summer and he is so spoiled' he is so much fun. He comes to bathroom window and peeks over the gutter to see if anyone is in the bathroom so he can come down and get a peanut. If someone is on the bathroom he yells until they leave then will jump down and pick up 5 or 6 peanuts trying to see which was the heaviest. They all are beautiful and great personality. Cherry j.

Unknown said...

I cannot vouch for "...the bird’s nest robbing proclivities...". But I can vouch for the fact that it does happen. I currently have five bird boxes within sight of my kitchen window and have watched all season a Jay go from box to box robbing nests. The activity first came to my attention when I noticed the smaller birds trying to run the Jay from the area.

Anonymous said...

I love blue jays. I was really here nor there til I started caring for a little fledgling. It has been a month tomorrow and he is ready to hit the air. he flys and identify s food now and I believe as honory and crazy as this one is he will be around for a long time.

Signsofautumn said...

It's funny how our outlook changes once we get to know a species. I've come to respect and love wildlife from all my encounters with the injured over my life time.

Anonymous said...

I can sadly vouch for the nest robbing :( I found this post because I have sweet little house finches that have taken up residence raising their young in my hanging baskets on my balcony. The first clutch grew up and flew away without a hitch, but a few days before the second set were ready to leave the Jays found them and started coming by and stealing the babies. On the third day of them coming by to rob the nest, the Jays ruined it and 2 of the 3 remaining fledgling (there were 6 before the robbing began) managed to find hiding places on the floor between my plants till they flew away. The finches picked a different plant in my garden and made another nest with 6 eggs and I've spent the better part of the last 3 days chasing the Jays from the eggs. Trying to use Google to find a solution. I know it's natural and the Jays aren't at fault for surviving but it is still difficult to watch 2 feet from my living room and I'd rather find a way to protect the finches if I can, since they only nested here because I set up the plants to begin with.

zonkeroo said...

What I find interesting is that the more intelligent and able to adapt to humans an animal is, the more we despise it. (Consider pigeons, squirrels, etc).

When raptors prey on other birds, or their young, we do not characterize them as bad. Yet we do with blue jays. It's irrational.

I have a pair on my property that I enjoy. One summer I witnessed them frantically screaming and fighting a hawk that had carried one of their babies out of a nest. They were not able to save it.

They're just birds trying to survive in a harsh world. Doing what they evolved to do. Just like hawks. Not good, not bad.


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