This is a story about the power of suet and sunflower seeds and beautiful Blue Jays. Mike left early for work and I wanted to be lazy and just read for a while, but it was near zero outside and when I looked at the bird feeders, I saw they were empty. As much as I wanted to crawl back under the covers and open a book, I knew I would feel the nagging guilt of hungry birds shivering, their little knees knocking together, waiting of the human to provide them with their fast food breakfast. So I threw on some clothes and hauled the bag of black sunflower seeds up from the basement and outdoors.
I had to carry up a stepladder too, because in order to fill the huge feeder, I have to open the flip up hatch on the roof. After emptying the bag, I went back inside and grabbed the pot of homemade peanut butter suet and went back out to smear it into the holes of a homemade wooden branch feeder and on the sides of a pinecone. As I did this, the chickadees began to fly in and land just above my head and beyond my hand, “chickadee-dee-deeing” cheerily.
When I got back inside I went to the kitchen window to watch what would happen next. I might just have well have rung a giant dinner bell. Blue jays were streaming in from every direction; Literally coming out of the woods(work). The jays and chickadees were so on joined by nuthatches, woodpeckers, pine siskins, a cardinal, and redpolls. It was a dizzying display of frenetic flight. But I was mesmerized and almost giddy to see so much excitement over such simple food as sunflower seeds and a lard and peanut butter blend (an easier and less messy option are suet cakes).
As for the blue jays, I know they are not highly thought of by most backyard bird enthusiasts. I can’t deny their bullying behavior. They are larger than almost all the other birds that come to the feeders and they don’t hesitate to throw their weight around. But they really are beautiful. Just ask a visitor from another state or country who has never seen one. More than once, I’ve heard someone exclaim, “What is that beautiful blue bird??” I expect to see an eastern bluebird, but when they point to the blue jay, I have to catch myself from sounding bored and saying “Oh, just a blue jay.”
There have been so many blue jays this winter; it is like a blue blur when they come in to feed. There is a constant exchange of birds from branch to ground to feeder. Occasionally, one will sound the alarm call and in a flash the flock is gone, usually headed towards the thick plum bushes down in our front field. I always watch to see what initiated the exodus. Rarely do I see a predator, so I’ve begun to wonder if there isn’t a practical joker amongst them who just likes to call “wolf” to see the reaction.
The flock of jays ranges from 10-15 most days and it’s likely they are a few groups of relatives that come at the same time to this buffet bonanza. In late winter, as an early rite of courtship it is believed the flocks consist of one female and the rest males. They travel together from early morning till midday and then disband. The males follow the females lead, doing whatever she’s doing. For the flock in our yard right now, the only real behavior I’ve witnessed is a feeding frenzy for most of the day.
I do know that after the eggs hatch later this spring, young birds from the previous year will sometimes help their parents feed their siblings. In this way, they may be learning some parenting skills and if they haven’t been successful finding a mate and their own territory, they just “move back in with the folks”, an experience familiar to many human parents.
Blue jays were once wilderness birds, but they quickly caught on to the advantages of living near humans – mainly a ready source of food – 75% of their diet is vegetable matter (seeds, fruit, etc.) and 25% is animal. So those who say jays rob nests are correct. Sometimes they will take the eggs or chicks of other birds, but more often they are eating or planting acorns for future oak forests.
Yes, they are irascible and irrepressibly bold around our feeders, but I still admire their gregarious nature and their bright and flashy plumage. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I must go out and refill some feeders.
By Kate Crowley