THE BLUE JAY

  • The bird on the right is clearly watching an argument, but which of the birds to the left is winning? Can you pick out the alpha? For the Recorder/Bill Danielson

Published: 12/16/2019 2:46:27 PM

Winter came early this year with a large storm and the animals living in the fields, forests and back yards around us had to make a sudden adjustment to the realities of a world covered in a thick blanket of snow. For some in the low lying areas, that covering of snow has diminished or disappeared altogether by now. But for those living at higher elevations, the snow is still present. This presents a real challenge, especially since what was once fluffy snow has been transformed into a formidable crust of ice.

There are many birds that will come close to humans if food is available and there are many personalities that tag along with the species looking for something to eat. Some birds are curious, some are shy and mistrustful, while others are rather dull and somewhat boring. Of all the winter birds that come to visit our feeders I think it is fair to say that the most dynamic and entertaining of all is also among the most beautiful.

The bird I am speaking of is the blue jay.

Either large for a small bird or small for a large one, the blue jay has a remarkable energy that is difficult to describe. Years and years ago, in another lifetime, really, I worked as a wildlife rehabilitator and cared for many different species of birds. I remember one particular nest full of little blue jay chicks that spent the summer teaching me a great deal about them before they flew off into the forest to live their lives. The lessons I learned made quite an impression.

There is nothing quite as wonderful as a handful of baby jays that trust you completely because they are utterly dependent on you. They are loud, they are insistent and as soon as they are full they will settle down and watch every move you make. Just how much they understood of what they saw is impossible to tell, but they were clearly intelligent. They were also so vivacious in their personalities that I still laugh as I remember them.

Blue jays live in flocks during the winter and it is at this time that you can start to see the differences among them. Some are aggressive alphas, while others are more submissive betas and omegas.  Without the ability to mark individuals, it may be difficult to discern the pecking order of every bird, but the alphas are usually fairly easy to recognize.

They assert themselves with great force and the squabbles don’t last long when they are around.

At my feeder, there is a flock of at least 12 blue jays that arrive every morning around sunrise.  The sparrows are wise enough to arrive ahead of time in order to grab something quickly because once the jays show up they really take over, at least for that portion of the morning when they stay together. After a while, the horde seems to fan out and though there are always a couple members of the flock present, their advantage of numbers does not seem to last that long.

All of the jays spend virtually every waking moment concerned with the collection and storage of every scrap of food they can find.  In the autumn, this means they are constantly flying hither and thither with acorns that they hide for later. The sheer number of acorns they can collect is impressive. According to the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, a group of six blue jays that had been fitted with radio collars were able to stash more than 3,000 acorns in one season.

But deep snow wipes out all of that advantage and a well-stocked feeder becomes a very popular place indeed. The members of a flock, many of which are mated pairs that will remain together for their entire lives, will work together as a group to provide for the family. In this regard, they exhibit certain qualities that we find to be noble “human” qualities.  

Many people dislike blue jays; however, because they think they are loud or mean, bullies or tyrants. But in my experience, blue jays are also among the most tender, gentle and sweet creatures that you may ever cross paths with.  They are bright, vibrant living things that can work out problems and form lifelong relationships.

They remind us that we are not the only creatures that cooperate and look out for one another and for that they should be admired.

Perhaps this may seem somewhat sentimental, but I can’t forget that troublesome little handful of young jays that looked to me for everything, just as many of our feathered friends may look to all of us for more and more protection and consideration in the coming years.

Think of them with an open heart and do whatever you can for them. They deserve your caring and understanding as much as anyone.

Bill Danielson has been a professional writer and nature photographer for 22 years.  He has worked for the National Park Service, the US Forest Service and the Massachusetts State Parks and currently teaches high school biology and physics.  Visit www.speakingofnature.com for more information, or go to Speaking of Nature on Facebook.




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