Saturday, April 16, 2011

In Defense of Blue Jays

Early this week, a neighbor complained to me about Blue Jays at her feeders. “They’re bullies. They’re noisy. They chase all smaller birds away. I don’t like them.” I hear this about Blue Jays often. Some birds are universally loved (chickadees); some are hated (cowbirds). And some birds are loved and hated. Many people do not like the Blue Jays.

Me? I love the rogues. This morning I was sitting at the kitchen table with my first cup of coffee, absorbing my caffeinated stimulant in preparation to starting the day. I had just put out the feeders (I take them in at night to remove temptation from the nocturnal mammals). It took only moments for the jays to arrive. Six flew in, followed by another three, then four more. They were on the platform feeder, the bulk feeder, the sunflower feeder, and the ground. Seed was being scattered everywhere. It was noisy. It was chaotic ... and pure fun. They went back and forth between the feeders and the protective apple tree branches. Then suddenly, moved, or spooked, they all flew toward the pines beyond the river.

I can think of no other bird which is anthropomorphized the way the Blue Jay is. When human attributes are given to the Blue Jay, the list is always long. Bent’s life history has a brief opening paragraph which includes these adjectives: strong, healthy-looking, noisy, boisterous, independent, lawless, haughty, impudent, disregard for neighbors’ rights and wishes. John James Audubon begins his opening paragraph by calling them rogues, thieves, knaves, resplendently attired and harboring mischief - “that selfishness, duplicity, and malice should form the moral accompaniments of so much physical perfection!”

The Blue Jay is an “engaging rascal” (Forbush). But, are any of these descriptions or reputations really appropriate? Audubon’s painting of the Blue Jay has three individuals, “each enjoying the fruits of knavery, sucking the egg which he has pilfered from the nest of some innocent Dove or harmless Patridge!”

Audubon’s painting and description settled the Blue Jay’s reputation as a predator of the weak and helpless. And it is true that the Blue Jay does occasionally take eggs and nestlings. So do crows, ravens, several hawks, raccoons, and snakes. Researchers have found a direct correlation between the size of the red squirrel population and the nesting success of songbirds. The natural world is a complex network of prey and predator, and the lines are never clearly drawn.

Through most of the year, the Blue Jay is more likely to be prey than predator. A Cooper’s Hawk is much more likely to fix its sight on a Blue Jay than on any of the smaller songbirds, for the simple reason that the hawk’s energy expense in taking a small bird (like a chickadee) versus a Blue Jay is the same, but the food earned is much greater with the jay.

The Blue Jay is noisy. On that I offer no debate. I hear them long before first light in the morning. I also hear the robin, the finches, the grackle, the phoebe, and a dozen others before dawn. The wing whirr of the Mourning Dove can be heard throughout the year. Chickadees are always talking to one another. Likewise the titmice. I’m not sure that the jays are any more loquacious than other species. Admittedly, they are louder, or seem so.

When the jays get especially loud and raucous, it is time to pay attention. They are often the first to spot danger in the form of a Sharp-shinned or Cooper’s Hawk which has come to perch, and sooner or later, to hunt. Their screaming alerts other birds to the danger and musters reenforcements. The jays turn all their energy to mobbing the hawk. I am not often successful in finding the object of their displeasure while perched, but eventually I glimpse the hawk when it is finally harassed into flight. Other smaller birds may join in the mobbing. It may even be that one of them, a chickadee perhaps, has first set up the alarm, but the jays gather quickly and take the angry lead.

There is a time when the Blue Jay is silent. I expect to hear, and eventually to see, Blue Jays whenever I am out-of-doors. One year during the early June I was walking on Oregon Mountain in Newfane and realized that something was missing. I did not hear Blue Jays. They were absent - or at least silent. Then a week later (it was June 12), I saw jays as they silently foraged in a beaver pond and then disappeared into the encircling spruce. As I worked my way through the trees to the pond edge, I chanced to look up. On a branch, two fledgling Blue Jays huddled together. They had just left their nest. Parents were no where to be seen. I “phished,” hoping to call in the adults. Any other time of the year, they would have appeared quickly and very noisily. But this time they came quietly and with uncharacteristic stealth. They did nothing to call attention to themselves ... or their young. When there are eggs or young in the nest, Blue Jays are silent. During this time, they are as vulnerable to the dangers of predators as are all other birds.

When a Blue Jay comes to a feeder, smaller birds take flight. This earns him the reputation of bully. But watch carefully and you will see that nearly every bird, regardless of size, will chase other birds off the feeder if it can. Blackbirds chase Blue Jays. Gentle doves mix it up with the Blue Jays. A chickadee will chase off a titmouse or another chickadee. Last evening I watched a male Evening Grosbeak dominate one of the feeders, chasing off every other bird which tried to land, including several jays. But only the Blue Jay is called a bully. That is not fair.

When I watch the Blue Jay on my feeder, I see him providing a service to dozens of other birds. He scatters feed from the feeder, pauses to eat one, scatters more seed, eats one. On the ground below, the ground feeders can’t keep up with the food deliveries. Only the squirrels and chipmunks, stuffing their cheek pouches with seed, keep the seed from accumulating in piles. I have heard this behavior by the jay described as greedy. Symbiotic is more accurate. The jay provides a service to dozens of other birds which prefer to stay on the ground.

The Blue Jay has adapted well to human presence, often nesting in our gardens and close to our buildings. It is very common and very familiar. Even the person with no interest in the natural world knows the Blue Jay. This very familiarity may cause us to forget how handsome a bird this is. I had visitors from England sitting at my kitchen table and watching the “bird table.” They were speechless when the Blue Jay flew in.

They had never seen such a strikingly beautiful bird - blue, black and white, pale gray underneath, a blue-black necklace, a trailing white trim on the wings and tail, and a crest which raises when alert or agitated. Even if we try not to apply human adjectives, it is difficult not to use “handsome” and “rakish” when speaking of the Blue Jay.

For those who just cannot overcome their dislike of the noisy and “bully” practices of the Blue Jay, I gently offer this observation from Audubon in The Birds of America. After listing what he considered the many moral shortcomings of the Blue Jay (quoted above), he concluded: “Yet so it is, and how like beings of a much higher order, are these gay deceivers! Aye, I could write you a whole chapter on this subject, were not my task of a different nature.”

Good birding!


eileeninmd said...

Great post, Chris! I love the BlueJays. They do scare the smaller birds away but eventually they come back. I enjoye dthe photos, especially the shot of the Grosbeaks.

Unknown said...

Very well written post! I loved it. Great photos too.

Jason Kessler said...

I couldn't agree with you more.

It's well-known that Blue Jays can imitate Red-tailed Hawks, and sometimes do this to scare smaller birds away from the feeders. Just this week, I heard the local Jays imitating Red-shouldered Hawks for the same reason.

Looking at your great pix, I'm reminded of a snatch of poetry I read somewhere long ago:

"Mr. Blue Jay, full o' sass,
With them baseball clothes o' his."

Debbie Miller @HooootOwl said...

Bluejays definitely have a reputation don't they? They know how to get the attention of birds and birders alike. I always take notice when they are on the scene. Such interesting behaviors and beauty.

Dave said...

A rascal and a rogue! What a great bird to have in ones garden!

Jen Sanford said...

Awesome post! I miss having Blue Jays around, though our scrub-jays can be pretty entertaining also.

Folkways Note Book said...

Chris -- Prey or predator -- the blue jay is both. About a week ago I witnessed a struggle in my woods about twenty feet from where I was standing. A red tail hawk suddenly swooped out of a low branching area and grabbed a surprised jay with his talons. The jay let out a horrible cry and stuggled violently. The hawk got hit a few times with the jays beak and suddenly dropped the jay as the hawk tried to lift off with the large bird. The jay flew off directly east and the hawk directly west. I was breatless as I watched this drama so close. -- I was glad to see the jay fly off but yet I knew the hawk needed a meal. barbara

Anonymous said...

I have a huge assortment of birds at my house. I have blue jays and ring neck doves that nest in my trees. When the hawk comes around, the blue jay and the squirrels start the noisy ruckus to fend off the hawk. Everyone eats together at my house - doves, squirrels, crows, cardinals, blue jays, ducks, and many more. Every morning I watch as the birds line up on the phone lines. The assortment of doves eat first while the crows patiently wait for them to finish. They all have there own schedule and rarely vary from it unless there is a hawk invasion. Thankfully, I have never met a naughty blue jay. I see them as gorgeous creatures that are just looking out for their families and contributing to the awe of nature.

Kathy Miele said...

Just discovered your blog! Love it!

Unknown said...

I love Blue Jays, today they started yelling I took my daughter outside to see what it was about. I thought perhaps another red shoulder hawk, but to my surprise it was a rat snake high up in the oak tree. He had rallied 5 other jays, a woodpecker, and an western kingbird. Very cool!

Unknown said...

I observed this the first time I played with a bird call app. Playing a single cardinal call over and over again at a high volume confused and eventually agitated the male cardinals. Believe it or not they left for a short time and came back with a Bluejay. Soon after anothe Bluejay showed up. That is what prompted me to google the term Cardinal Bluejay Symbiosis which led me to this article. Fascinating display. And yes it did teach me a lesson about bird call apps. My bad!!

Airda6 said...

I saw a chickadee chase a blue jay from the feeder. Hehehe! I think blue jays are beautiful cheeps,,and the chickadees are cute

Unknown said...

When I was a child, some families of wrens built nests inside the top of our back porch, which no longer had screens and was no longer used by us. I loved to watch these cute, round little guys. Then, one day the bluejays came for them. They killed most of the tiny wrens and destroyed their nests. The wrens were wiped out and never came back. Since then, I don't like bluejays. Now, when I throw out shelled peanuts to the squirrels, the blue thugs steal their peanuts. The squirrels don't have a chance. The jays are just too fast and their eyesight is phenomenal.


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