Text and photos by Peter Vankevich
It can be surprising that some bird species, which are common and easily seen on the mainland of North Carolina, can be few in number or nonexistent on Ocracoke Island. On the other hand, we have some common birds that are the envy of many. We get to see Brown Pelicans, White Ibis and Royal Terns flying overhead much of the year and Great-crested Flycatchers nesting in our village.
The Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata) is present year round in the village, but not regularly seen or heard. Seasonally, they are higher in numbers in summer. The Christmas Bird Count that takes place at the end of each year is a good measure to observing trends established over the past 30 years on Ocracoke. This bird has been seen most years, but none in 2020 and four this past Dec. 31. Most years there have been fewer than 10 individuals. In 1990 and the following year, 22 and 26 individuals were counted and in 1993, just one bird was reported.
Why such high numbers for two years followed by much lower numbers afterwards is worthy of speculation.
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.
The female lays four-to-five eggs and both parents help with feeding and the hatchlings fledge in about 21 days.
Blue Jays are present in all 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 the 10 Canadian provinces. In the western states the related Steller’s Jay replace them.
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 others will remain in their general breeding area.
This irregular migration, which can vary considerably from year-to-year, may be due to whether there are adequate food supplies rather than frigid temperatures.
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 is “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.
Best Time to see: Possible in small numbers year-round; summer most likely. See Christmas Bird Count discussion above.
Where: Throughout the village, less so for the rest of the island
Listen: The Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology has a variety of Blue Jay recordings. Click here to listen.
One summer several years ago after a major surgery, I found myself settled in on my screened porch using my laptop 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 jays but other species including Northern Cardinals, Common Grackles and even an occasional Fish Crow and Laughing Gulls.
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 woud take one peanut and fly off, the jays would 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 the others, they are considered by many (including other birds) 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 20th-century American ornithologists, Arthur Cleveland Bent, is noted for his encyclopedic 21-volume work, Life Histories of North American Birds, published over a period of 50 years (1919-1968) by the Smithsonian Institution.
Bent has been known to wax a bit anthropomorphic on occasion with his observations.
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.