Saturday, April 16, 2011
In Defense of 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.
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 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.
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.”