Filling bird feeders, serving up suet, skewering oranges, washing and refilling bird baths, hanging bird houses, and cooking up simple syrups to offer hummingbirds, are seasonal and year-round activities that do manage to attract a fair number of birds to our yard. Over the years, the evergreens have gotten larger providing both cover and nesting sites. Some native trees, like birches and cherries, provide food sources, as do hollies, viburnums and (unfortunately for me) my blueberries! All in all, many a species of bird seems satisfied enough with our offerings to set up housekeeping or at least engage in regular visits.
I enjoy just about every bird that visits, except for English sparrows, and I might even tolerate them if they would leave my nesting bluebirds alone. One of my absolute favorites is the blue jay. Yes, they are large, raucous souls and, they eat a lot of bird seed. My first close encounter with a blue jay was at my mom’s hairdresser’s house. Back then, a lot of ladies set up hair styling salons in their homes. Her house was located along my walk to the elementary school (my siblings and I walked 1 7/8 miles to school each way – you had to be at least 2 miles away to be bused!) and occasionally I would stop by for a hair cut on my way home. Not only did our hairdresser have two very beautiful and very vocal Siamese cats (with their own, fully-enclosed, outdoor cat run!), and an attic filled with plant lights and African violets, but she also had Bobby, the blue jay.
She had rescued Bobby from either a fall or an animal attack, I don’t quite rightly remember, when he (or perhaps she) was a fledgling. His wing was broken and she had splinted and bandaged it. He thrived under her care and became quite the favorite with her customers. His name was bestowed upon him because after his wing healed, he would half fly – half hop around the beauty salon and collect shiny things like bobby pins and hair clips and stow them away for safe keeping, I suppose. He had a large cage in the shop area and could come out when there were folks around to keep an eye on him.
He loved to eat. Bobby would gobble down canned dog food, hamburger-rice mixtures, cooked vegetables, peanuts, apples, and all sorts of bird seed. As he got older, the hairdresser had set his cage first on the porch, then in a tree, and eventually he could come and go as he pleased. He hung around her house for the longest time all the while making friends with some of the other neighborhood blue jays. Bobby would often return to her window feeder for treats and would take food from her hand. I don’t know whatever became of him as we moved the summer after 5th grade but I am hoping he lived a good long life.
Since our yard is pretty much surrounded by oak forests, blue jays visit our feeders and bird baths a lot. Acorns are one of their favorite foods and blue jays will collect and store caches of acorns for later feedings. One study found 6 blue jays had each collected and stored between 3,000 and 5,000 acorns during the course of one fall! Reportedly they are quite good at selecting acorns that are insect free and so many a forgotten acorn is healthy, fully intact, and will sprout come springtime. In fact, this tendency for blue jays to unwittingly ‘plant’ oak trees is thought to be one reason oaks became so widespread in northern regions following the last glacial period.
Like Bobby, our resident blue jays savor a wide assortment of food items. They are omnivores and as such consume fruits, seeds, nuts, insects, and dead or injured small vertebrates. This is where they derived their unfounded reputation for attacking and consuming the eggs and young of other avian species. Truth be known, after analyzing the stomach contents of a number of blue jays something like 1% or less were found to contain the traces of bird eggs or nestlings. These could just as well be consumed when already killed, disturbed or destroyed by other animals. My cockatoo, for instance, devours omelets and the marrow of chicken bones, being the opportunist that he is. So, sometimes conclusions should not be drawn until all the facts are in.
Blue jays are social birds. You rarely see one by itself but rather, they appear in small flocks either with its mate (with whom there is usually a life-long bond), extended family, or other groups of jays. The blue jays’ migration patterns are still a mystery. Some blue jays migrate to warmer climes, some stay but no factor that predicts their migratory behavior has been found.
These birds have a variety of calls with some even mimicking hawks. Apparently since blue jays are relatively slow flyers, they are often targeted by hawks. I have seen this several times in my yard and although I know hawks need to eat too, I must say it is a somewhat disturbing site to see a beautiful blue jay killed right in front of you. The hawk calls are thought to either serve as a warning to others that hawks are near, or to fake out potential bird food competitors so they will leave the feeding area. I have looked for hawks when I hear them but to tell you the truth, I can’t tell why they make this noise either.
While many lament the aggressiveness of blue jays when it comes to taking their turn at the bird feeder, I think that their feelings are ill-founded. I have a window feeder and I must say that those quietly cooing mourning doves as well as those sunny yellow goldfinches, male cardinals, and even the punch-drunk grey squirrels are all much meaner and more aggressive when seeking a meal at the feeder than the loud but intelligent blue jay is. I sort of consider him the Rodney Dangerfield of the bird feeder – despite his size and loud vocalizations; he ‘can’t get no respect’.
One more tidbit of information about blue jays. When we moved into our old, white house in 1989, I did notice that blue jays were pecking at the paint. I thought that this indicated an insect problem but found an article at the Cornell University website that indicted paint manufacturer’s use of calcium carbonate (limestone) in paint as a pigment extender (2001). After we had the house redone with vinyl siding, of course the problem stopped. Apparently the birds were seeking a source of calcium and even now, after hard-boiling eggs, I will separate the shells and, occasionally leave them in an area where birds can get to them (as opposed to the compost pile).
If you enjoy attracting and watching birds, I strongly suggest considering participation in the Great Backyard Bird Count, February 17 – 20, 2012. This event is sponsored by Cornell University, the National Audubon Society, Bird Studies Canada and Wild Birds Unlimited. You can count birds for as little or as long as you like over this 4 day period and your observations will be valued by researchers as they seek to study bird populations on a yearly basis. Go to: www.birdsource.org/gbbc for more information.
Happy Horticultural New Year!