Slings and Arrows
They’re smart, spectacular, and vocally versatile. So why are blue jays the species so many backyard birders hate to love?
A classic cinema moment: Gregory Peck, in his Academy Award–winning role as lawyer Atticus Finch in a Depression-worn Alabama town, kills a rabid dog stumbling down a dusty street. At supper that night, his children ask how old he was when he got his first gun.
“Thirteen or fourteen,” he answers. “I remember when my daddy gave me that gun. He told me that I should never point it at anything in the house; and that he’d rather I’d shoot at tin cans in the backyard. But he said that sooner or later he supposed the temptation to go after birds would be too much, and that I could shoot all the blue jays I wanted—if I could hit ’em; but to remember it was a sin to kill a mockingbird.”
Mockingbirds, Peck-Finch explains, “don’t eat people’s gardens. Don’t nest in the corncrib, they don’t do one thing but just sing their hearts out for us.”
“I’ve been there,” said Curtis Adkisson, a retired Virginia Tech biology professor, when I read him this discourse from Hollywood’s adaptation of Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize–winning novel. Adkisson became a huge admirer of blue jays when, in 1980, he and his colleagues investigated the species’ role—an essential one, they discovered—in dispersing acorns and beechnuts from North American forests. “But when I was 10 or 11,” he told me, “I had a Benjamin pump-up pellet rifle, and my grandmother in Arkansas paid me a nickel for every blue jay I shot on her farm. I was on a mission, even shooting into nests in trees.”
These days you could get in a lot of trouble for plinking a blue jay, which, like all songbirds, is protected by the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Yet our most splendidly attired songbird is still widely loathed, even by some ardent bird lovers. Years ago, when as Audubon’s editor I commissioned an Arthur Singer painting showing a Cooper’s hawk plucking the feathers from a freshly killed jay, letter-writing readers cheered the raptor. And “bully,” “thief,” and “murderer” are among the nicer names for blue jays you might hear in boutiques that cater to backyarders, selling feeders that supposedly fend off jays and other large birds like grackles (as well as squirrels). The idea, of course, is to save expensive seed offerings for favored chickadees, titmice, cardinals, and finches.
Blue jays, however, are fast learners. One Michigan winter, when I was a neophyte bird bander for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, I caught 44 different jays in our front yard in just a couple of weeks. None of them tripped my traps, baited with sunflower seeds, a second time. As for jay- and squirrel-proof bird feeders, it usually doesn’t take long for either bird or arboreal rodent to conquer these gadgets, albeit with considerable contortion. (One feeder that really does work is the Yankee Whipper—designed by the Droll folks up in Connecticut)—with its collapsing, weight-sensitive perches. Boing goes the jay or fluffy-tail.)
But I love blue jays. In fall and winter, I wear a baseball cap with a Toronto Blue Jays logo to celebrate the azure-garbed visitors at my feeding station, which I liberally sprinkle with cracked corn for their special delight. Of course, seldom a week goes by without someone asking why a New Yorker roots for a Canadian team instead of the Yankees or Mets. My alternate cap has a Baltimore Orioles logo. That’s my favorite spring and summer bird. Same question. “Are you an Orioles fan?” “No, I just like orioles.” Heads are shaken in puzzlement. (Truth is, I’ve been following the Chicago Cubs since they last made it into the World Series, in 1945. Needless to say, they lost.)
Looking far back, I blame the patron saint of birdwatchers, John James Audubon, for the blue jay’s image problem. “Who could imagine,” the great artist effused in his Ornithological Biography, “that selfishness, duplicity, and malice should form the moral accompaniments of so much physical perfection!” His stunning plate of three glorious specimens sucking eggs “pilfered from the nest of some innocent dove or harmless partridge” was widely reproduced on calendars handed out by insurance companies in the mid-20th century, helping to foment blue jay hatred. (I had that page framed.) The blue jay has even been compared to the character Hotspur from Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 1. “He gives us the impression of being independent, lawless, haughty, even impudent,” the prominent ornithologist Winsor Marrett Tyler wrote in a 1940s essay about the species.
Yes, small birds may scatter to the four winds when a flamboyant blue jay with its erect crest, broad wings, and fanned tail swoops in, shouting Jay! Jay! Jay! They quickly get over it. With a big snowstorm looming early last spring, a host of anxious jays, cardinals, juncos, downy woodpeckers, tree sparrows, white-throated sparrows, and newly arrived song sparrows foraged in total harmony on seeds tossed or spilled beneath my hanging feeders.
And yes, blue jays on occasion do plunder other birds’ nests. A memorable photograph I featured in Audubon captured a jay yanking nestlings from a Baltimore oriole’s hanging nursery. But an oft-cited study in the early 1900s found traces of eggs and young in only six of 530 blue jay stomachs, even though, as the researcher noted, “special search was made for every possible trace of such material.” Mainly, the omnivorous blue jays feast on insects, nuts, berries, seeds, and now and then small animals like deer mice, bats, lizards, and tree frogs.
In short, there is no valid reason to hold them in contempt. Instead, we should be celebrating the beauty of a bird that Henry David Thoreau, master of understatement, called “delicately ornamented.” (That blue plumage, it must be noted, is an optical illusion. Scientists remind us that blue pigment doesn’t occur in birds. The royal hue results from the scattering of light waves by tiny, prism-like melanin particles on the feather barbs.)
Indeed, as the story is told, a distinguished English bird man once visiting America was eager to see a living blue jay instead of a museum skin. He considered it to be the finest bird in the world and was surprised to find that it was quite ordinary.
While the blue jay is a year-round resident from southern Canada to the Gulf Coast and west to the far edge of the Great Plains, some of them migrate, though their numbers vary from year to year. For instance, as many as 154,000 southbound blue jays have been seen in one day from Hawk Tower at Holiday Beach Conservation Area on the north shore of Lake Erie. But as blue jay students Keith Tarvin and Glen Woolfenden note in their life history account for The Birds of North America project, “All aspects of blue jay migration [are] poorly understood.”
Thoreau also portrayed the blue jay’s characteristic cry as an “unrelenting steel-cold scream.” Experts call it the “jeer call,” and it’s used for assembly and for mobbing predators (like my outdoor cats) and even human intruders. Or simply when a lonely jay wants contact with others of its kind. But blue jays have a remarkable vocal array, including what I consider one of the prettiest songs in the bird world. This is the “bell call,” a series of clear, fluid whistles: kloo-loo-loo. Then we have the “whisper song,” described by Tarvin and Woolfenden as a “soft, quiet conglomeration of clicks, chucks, whirrs, whines, liquid notes, and elements of other calls.” Fledglings, they note, develop a full vocal repertoire by the time they are six months old.
The blue jay is also a near-perfect mimic of the calls of red-tailed, red-shouldered, and Cooper’s hawks. The “hawk call” is typically heard when a jay is in an excited state, perhaps approaching a feeding station. One unproven theory is that jays are trying to trick other birds into believing a raptor is present. (Another black mark: deceit.)
While blue jays are common in woody towns and suburbs, they are truly forest birds. All kinds of forests—deciduous, coniferous, mixed. In fact, their distant ancestors are credited for the rapid northward expansion of oak, beech, and chestnut trees once the glaciers retreated 10,000 years ago. Trees, of course, are rooted in place. But as Louis Pitelka of the University of Maryland’s Appalachian Laboratory wrote in American Scientist, “Populations of plants do move, infiltrating new territory by creep of root and shower of seed.” And paleoecologists mapping ancient pollen data tell us that nut-bearing trees advanced as much as 380 yards a year, much faster than trees with windblown seeds, like maples and birches.
Simply put, blue jays airlifted the oaks, beeches, and chestnuts to new territories when the ice melted. Nut-squirreling mammals, experts point out, were of little help, since they usually hoard food close to the parent tree.
Curt Adkisson became hooked on blue jays when Carter Johnson, a plant ecologist formerly at Virginia Tech, mentioned seeing jays streaming along a woody fencerow in Wisconsin, carrying beechnuts from a patch of forest to a bog. This led to a three-year study in which the scientists calculated that resident jays made 13,000 round trips from their woodlot habitat to the swamp’s vicinity over a 27-day period in September, dispersing 100,000 nuts to sites as far away as two and a half miles. The birds, they reported in American Midland Naturalist, carried anywhere from 3 to 14 beechnuts a trip. In our conversation, Adkisson, a private pilot, compared the sight of a heavily laden jay to a small plane laboring nose-high because of a weight and balance problem.
The fencerow route, the researchers noted, offered the slow-flying blue jays a place to hide from migrating hawks during the beechnut shuttle. And the birds were highly selective when collecting green nuts from burs in the tree canopy. They chose only sound, weevil-free seeds—seeds that were likely to germinate into beech seedlings if a particular bird died, forgot the location of its nut stash, or failed to empty the cache during a mild winter.
Meanwhile, back at Virginia Tech’s Blacksburg campus, biologist Susan Darley-Hill was monitoring blue jay acorn dispersal from a stand of 11 pin oaks surrounded by a mosaic of residential neighborhoods, vacant lots, mature woodlands, and old fields. Jays, she related in the journal Oecologia, carried off 133,000 acorns, or 54 percent of the mast crop, while eating another 20 percent on the scene. Most of the nuts left beneath the trees were parasitized by insect larvae and worthless.
The foraging blue jays, she explained, held an acorn with their feet and hammered the nut’s cap with a closed bill until it came loose. The birds then used their lower mandibles to pry the cap off and either hammered the acorn open and ate it or swallowed the nut whole for caching. The expandable throat and esophagus of a blue jay can hold up to five pin oak acorns or three larger ones from white oaks, and the bird typically collects one more nut in its bill before departing.
Arriving at its cache site, the blue jays usually regurgitated their acorn haul in a pile, then dropped the nuts one at a time within a few yards of each other, covering them with leaf litter. Darley-Hill reported that 91 percent of the caching sites in the Blacksburg study were on suburban tracts or bare soil where colonies of pin oak seedlings were already thriving. One cached acorn, she added, would never germinate. The jay stuffed it in ivy covering a brick wall.
In a nutshell, blue jays are the keystone species in restoring stands of oaks and other mast trees in today’s fragmented landscape, where forest patches are isolated by farms, suburban sprawl, and highway construction. If you consider that burnished-brown acorns are a major food item for 150 species of birds and mammals and make up at least a quarter of the diets of black bears, white-tailed deer, raccoons, gray and fox squirrels, wild turkeys, and white-footed mice, to name a few, how can one begrudge jays some bird seed?
Moreover, blue jays may be called upon for a greater task in the not-too-distant future. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency predicts that climate change will cause a northward shift of native forests that are adapted to cooler environments. In this scenario, New England’s maple syrup industry will become a memory as oaks and hickories replace today’s mix of maple, birch, and beech trees. (Native chestnuts, of course, are only a memory.) The latter species will displace northern coniferous forests as they, in turn, push out onto the tundra.
No one, of course, can be certain what the American landscape will look like in another century if global warming continues unabated, as seems likely. But I’m sure of one thing: Should it become necessary, the magnificent, misunderstood blue jay will be up to the task of moving North America’s nut trees north once again.
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