Birds

Spotted on Ocracoke: Peanuts! and the Blue Jay

 

Blue Jay Peanuts PS Ocracoke 096

photo by P. Vankevich

August 2013
Text and Photo by Peter Vankevich

This month’s feature bird is a familiar but somewhat notori­ous Ocracoke resident. The Blue Jay (Cyanocitta crista­ta) is perhaps not on a top five favorite list of either birdfeeder observers or its peers, i.e. other birds. Do they deserve such a bad rap? Let’s take a look.

A member of the corvidae family that includes crows, Blue Jays are unmistak­able and easily identified. Large, up to 12 inches from bill to tail, they have a dis­tinctive crest along with various shades of blue on the upperparts that are mixed with black and white streaks. The belly area is whitish as is the face which is surrounded by a distinc­tive black collar.

Even if you do not see a Blue Jay, you may still know that one is in the area as they have a very distinctive loud high-pitched pierc­ing call described as a long drawn out jeer and a short­er “jay” sound. They also have a melodious two-note call that is difficult to de­scribe in print but a reason­able description as tull-ull or twirl-erl. They are also pretty good mimics and can reproduce the calls of Red-tailed and Red-shouldered hawks in a convincing man­ner. My neighbor in Wid­geon Woods has observed that they are quiet during nesting season and I tend to agree with him.

Blue Jays are present in all of the states east of the Great Plains, preferring forest edges, parks with oak trees and urban/suburban areas, especially those that host birdfeeders. Begin­ning in the 1940s they have been expanding their range into the northwest and are now breeding all of the 10 Canadian provinces. In the western states they are re­placed by the related Stel­lar’s Jay. Blue Jays are nei­ther your typical migratory nor your year-round resi­dent bird. Some birds, par­ticularly young ones and those in the most northern range, will migrate vary­ing distances south or west in the fall and winter and the numbers of individuals will vary greatly from year to year. Other individuals will remain in their breed­ing area. This past winter, I did not notice any Blue Jays on Ocracoke in January and February then many ap­peared in March and are here in good numbers this summer. This irregular mi­gration may be more due to whether there are adequate food supplies rather than frigid temperatures.

Last summer after a couple of surgeries, I found myself settled in on my screened porch for a good part of my convalescence. For diver­tissement, I placed some peanuts on my porch rail and it didn’t take long be­fore a Blue Jay showed up to snatch one and fly off. I continued placing pea­nuts out which attracted not only several jays but other species including Northern Cardinals, Com­mon Grackles and even an occasional Fish Crow and Laughing Gull. I’ve dis­covered that my porch is a pretty good place to work using my laptop for much of the year, especially the early morning so I contin­ued to feed them. Some time ago, I started making a long slurring whistle as I placed the peanuts on the rail and within moments, the Blue Jays if present in the neighborhood would show up. Whereas the oth­er bird species will take one peanut and fly-off, the jays will take several. The most I counted was seven pea­nuts.

So why is the Blue Jay not so well liked? Observ­ers of birds at feeders will quickly tell you that when they show up, other birds leave. Larger than most of the others, they are consid­ered by some to be bullies who quickly move in and take over. They also have a reputation for eating young hatchlings and eggs from other birds’ nests. Research has shown however that this activity is far less com­mon than formerly thought.

One of the great Ameri­can ornithologists, Arthur Cleveland Bent, has been known to wax a bit anthro­pomorphic on occasion in his extensive writings con­tained in the twenty-one volume series entitled Life Histories of North Ameri­can Birds. Perhaps siding with this bird’s detractors, he described the Blue Jay as follows: “He gives us the impression of being inde­pendent, lawless, haughty, even impudent, with a dis­regard for his neighbors’ rights and wishes–like Hotspur, as we meet him in Henry IV, part 1.” Wow! In my Bohemian college days had I read that I might have remarked: Time for a visit to the Boar’s Head Tavern.