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.