Blue Jays- “Nature’s Noisemakers”.

January 5, 2011 at 3:00 PM 1 comment

Secretive Blue Jays

These boldly colored blue jays are nature’s noisemakers.

George Harrison

Joyce Fleming

They certainly aren’t a secretive species. If you have blue jays in your yard, they’re almost impossible to miss. When I’m outside watering the garden, taking out the trash or walking along the road, I can often hear one or more blue jays screaming at me, jay, jay, jay.

One of the most noticeable characteristics of this bright member of the crow family is the noise it makes. And blue jays have quite a repertoire of calls.

In addition to the alarm call (the jay, jay, jay that many of us recognize), there is its charming bell-like tull-ull call that it uses to communicate with its mate and other members of its family. There also is the so-called “whisper call” that parent birds use around their nests during a period when they are otherwise very quiet.

Blue-Feathered Bandits

Blue jays also imitate the sounds of winged predators to chase other birds and squirrels from feeders.

Typically, a flock of blue jays will arrive at feeders screaming like hawks to scare away the other birds. Then four or five of these cocky impersonators, showing off their flashy blue and white feathers, sail into the empty feeders and begin to eat whatever and wherever they want.

Sometimes, they are like wolves in blue suits that will raid the nests of other birds, eating eggs and nestlings. This flashy and arrogant behavior is why some people consider blue jays “bully birds” that are unwelcome at their feeders.

Yet, other birds sometimes benefit from the blue jay’s boisterous personality. Their calls may warn of danger, like the scene Pattie Glaze witnessed in her Claremore, Oklahoma backyard.

“Early one fall day, my husband, Richard, and I were sitting on our back patio enjoying the small birds at our feeders,” Pattie writes. “I looked up and saw a rather large brown bird sitting at the top of our neighbor’s tree.

“As I wondered what species it was, a blue jay perched in another tree began making a loud steady noise. The smaller birds quickly disappeared.

“Just then, the larger bird swooped toward us. As it flew over our heads, we realized it was a Cooper’s hawk! The blue jay’s screams apparently had warned the smaller birds that danger was near.”

In addition to warning of nearby predators, blue jays will often attack hawks and owls by “mobbing” these larger and more dangerous birds of prey. This usually causes such a ruckus that other songbirds heed the warning about the raptors’ presence.

Hide and Seek

When I was a boy helping my dad photograph birds, we often had blue jays living in our home. Keeping native wild birds as pets was legal then, and I’m glad I had the experience of having jays inside. I recall that it was not safe to leave anything shiny lying around the house when the birds were loose. Invariably, they would pick up those objects and carry them around or hide them.

I also learned a great deal about their eating habits. I watched a blue jay swallow one whole sunflower seed after another, not eating them, but stashing the seeds in its throat pouch to transport to a more secluded site. The jay later coughed up the seeds and either cracked them open and ate or hid them.

Researchers have found that blue jays do, in fact, remember where they cache some of their food, but much of it is either pirated by other wildlife or forgotten.

Creating a Family

Courtship for blue jays begins in early May, when a troop of seven or eight jays gathers in the top of a large tree to play follow the leader, stopping now and then to bob their heads up and down. Presumably, the leader is a female, and the followers are hopeful suitors. When the leader flies away, the others are always right behind.

After the female selects a mate, the new couple gathers twigs and carries them around until they locate a suitable nesting site.

Those sticks eventually wind up in a well-hidden bulky nest, usually in the crotch or outer branches of a tree, 10 to 25 feet above the ground. Four or five greenish eggs hatch 17 to 18 days after being incubated by both blue jay parents.

Three weeks later, the blind and naked chicks have transformed into fully feathered miniatures of their parents, and are ready to leave the nest. It’s common for pairs in the North to raise one brood a year, while southern parents usually raise two broods.

Watching these young birds interact with the world around them is a thrilling experience, as Lynda Saye discovered while witnessing a fledgling blue jay as it learned to fly in Panama City, Florida.

“I noticed that the bird was not hopping very fast and realized that it was a baby blue jay,” Lynda writes. “The parent birds soared back and forth over its head, while the baby flapped its wings as fast as it could, but only seemed to clear a couple of inches above the ground before crash landing.

“I was reminded of my grandchildren learning to walk. It was an amazing sight.”

By late August or early September, both youngsters and adults join other blue jays in groups of several families. These flocks stay together through the winter, cruising woodland areas in search of food, and pestering owls and hawks at every opportunity.

Some jays migrate farther south, while others remain near their nesting range. Wherever they end up, however, you’re sure to hear them.

"The Garden Nerd"

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Entry filed under: Nature Notes.

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Carl Skipworth  |  May 15, 2015 at 9:44 PM

    I really liked the article. Seen blue jays most of my life, but I can’t tell that there is a difference between male and female. I’ve had the blue jays come right up to me on the picnic table in the park looking for the raw peanuts in the shell.

    Reply

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