The Nature Writers of Texas

The best nature writing from the newspaper, magazine, blog and book authors of the Lone Star State . . .

Monday, September 15, 2003

Blue Jays are Especially Abundant in Fall
Ro Wauer, September 15, 2003, The Victoria Advocate, © 2003

One of our most common avian residents, blue jays becomes even more numerous in late summer and fall. There are two or three very good reasons for this increase in populations. First and foremost is the fact that young of the year are out and about, foraging with their parents and adding to the overall jay noises. Second, some of our neighborhoods are recipients of visiting birds from nesting sites that do not support an adequate food base in fall. And thirdly, oak and pecan trees are producing new crops of acorns and pecans that attract blue jays and lot of other birds from considerable distances.

Young birds are difficult to separate from the adults by fall, because they are the same size (almost before they leave the nest) and are fully developed. Even their tail, that often is stubby for several weeks after fledging, is fully-grown. The only hint of their age that can still be detected is the bill, somewhat yellowish and soft at the lower edge. And as for the familiar jay calls, there is so little difference that it is next to impossible to separate the adults from the young that way. They all have the very distinct "jay" call, as well as numerous other calls that can range from loud screeches to grunts and whistles. One common call is an emphatic "eeef eeef" or "thief thief." Jays also have the ability to mimic lots of other birds.

A blue jay is best described as omnivorous, able to eat almost anything from fruits and nuts to carrion, small vertebrates such as lizards and snakes, as well as other birds and their eggs. Their multivaried diet is one reason for their abundance and their widespread distribution. But they, like other members of the Corvidae Family (includes crows, ravens and magpies), are able store food for periods of the year when the supply is are not so abundant. Blue jay caches are hidden in tree crevices and in shrubbery. Watch a jay scarf down numerous seeds or other foods, completely filling their esophagus, and then fly off to cache it for later. In more northern climates, these food caches allow jays to nest very early in the season, before most of their natural foods become available.

The blue jay is the only jay that occurs in our area along the Central Gulf Coast. Its range extends throughout the eastern half of North America, west into central Canada, but south only to about the San Antonio River, a biogeographic boundary for many of our Eastern forest species. However, the more tropical green jays do occur north to southern Goliad County, and there is some hint that this lovely bird may be moving northward. And the western scrub-jay is common in the Hill Country. Of the three species, the blue jay is the only one with a crest. It is marked with a blue back, crest, and tail, all white underparts, white wing spots, and white cheeks. It also possesses a black necklace.

Blue jay behavior is fascinating. A blue jay watcher sooner or later will see some remarkable activities. Mobbing of other birds and predators is one of the most typical. When one individual discovers a predator, such as a house cat or owl, it will immediately begin to call its neighbors, and within a very few minutes other jays suddenly appear and join the mob. At such times, their raucous calls can be heard a considerable distance. More often than not, the recipient of their attention will eventually flee.

Jays also love to sun-bathe, sprawling out in a sunny and usually sandy place, wings out and back fluffed out to absorb the sun's warmth. They may use the exact same position in an ant bed to "ant," letting the ants walk over their plumage. This activity allows the ants to take tiny parasites, helping the jays stay clean and healthy. They may also take an ant in its bill, crush it, and rub the ant over its own plumage; apparently the ant's acid gives it protection from some parasites. And one of the strangest behaviors for birds is that blue jays have been known to guard and feed old or disabled jays, a trait almost human.


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