For some of us birders – the 1st day of the New Year holds a bit of suspense as we wait to see what will be the first bird we see.. I was lying in bed and looking out the 2nd story window on January 1, when a Blue Jay landed on a snow laden branch of a red pine in our front yard. Our local bird expert and author Laura Erickson makes the day even more fun for people who report their ‘first bird of the year’ to her. She tells them what the bird symbolizes and offers prophesies for the coming year. Even though it’s not scientific it’s kind of like going to the fortune teller. For those of us who saw Blue Jays we can expect a year with “loyal family ties, intelligence and spunky fun” – all qualities of these member of the Corvid Family. Other members that can be seen in U.S. include; Ravens, Crows, Canada Jays, Green Jays, Magpies, and Clark’s Nutcrackers. They are my favorite Family of birds.
This Blue Jay is perched on a snowy cedar tree.
In the past couple of weeks we have been watching a large group (probably extended family) come to both our platform feeders and our suet feeders. Blue Jays have gotten a bad reputation because they seem to chase other, smaller birds away from the feeders. They are one of the larger birds, so it stands to reason that they would dominate the feeders. They really aren’t bullies in the human sense of intentionally abusing other birds. There is always a hierarchy around bird feeders and eventually everyone gets fed.
This morning when I went out to ski, I heard in the distance what is described as the “pump handle” call, associated with Blue Jay’s courtship. Yes, as early as the first week of January there is enough of a change in daily photoperiod that birds react to it. It will be months before they actually nest and raise young, but this is the time when the process gets started. And who wouldn’t feel their heart lift on a sunny January morning when the temperature is rising and the snow is starting to melt?
Occasionally, a Jay will sound the sharp alarm call and in a flash the flock is gone, usually headed towards the thick plum bushes down in our front field. It may be that our young dog has just rushed out the front door or it could be an unseen predator like a Sharp-shinned Hawk. Jays are well known as the ‘look outs’ in the forest, warning not only their kind but all the other birds too of danger or intruders.
This fat looking Blue Jay has just puffed out its feathers to help keep it warm (like a down jacket) on a cold winter day.The general range for Blue Jays is the eastern two thirds of the country.
For those of us living in those states where they are considered ‘common’ species it is easy to become blasé about their striking blue plumage. We have always been reminded of this when we have visitors from other countries who have never seen one and they always exclaim about “that beautiful blue bird”. However, if you ever find a feather from one of these birds, pick it up and turn it over. You will see it is really a brown color. The blue we see is created by light scattering through the special cells on the surface of the barbs (which hold the feather’s shape
The flock of jays ranges from 7-15 most days and it’s likely they are a group 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, so it is important to put out the bird seed early in the morning.
All members of the Corvid Family are omnivores – meaning they eat a mix of vegetable and animal matter (just like us). However, 75% of their diet is in the ‘vegetable’ category (seeds, nuts, 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.
You can put out almost any type of bird seed out to attract Blue Jays, although they will be more drawn to the Whole or Shelled Sunflower bird
seeds and the Whole or Shelled Peanuts. Yes, they will appear to scare some of the other birds away temporarily, but their gregarious personalities and deep blue plumage are still good reasons to enjoy their appearance at your bird feeders.
By Kate Crowley