The Nature Writers of Texas

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

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Blue Jays Are More Active Than Usual
by Ro Wauer

Numerous blue jays, probably two or three family groups that have flocked together since nesting, are spending an inordinate amount of time in my yard, especially at the birdbaths. That behavior for the normally shy and elusive blue jays is unusual. Several of these jays still possess juvenile plumage, not the bright blue and white features so evident in the adults. Even their crest and black chest-band have not yet fully developed. The adults, however, show all the typical blue jay features: blue back and crest, blue wings with white wing bars, blue tail with black bands, whitish cheeks, and grayish underparts with a black chest-band.

The blue jay is one of our best known birds, common throughout the eastern half of North America. In Texas, blue jay distribution extends west through the Edwards Plateau and northeast to the eastern portion of the Panhandle. They also occur southward to and beyond Corpus Christi, but they are only vagrants in the Rio Grande Valley and in far West Texas.

Blue jays, perhaps more than most other bird species, engender mixed feelings in people. Although they are often admired for their color, togetherness, and tenacity, they often are disliked as thieves and loudmouths. Jays in general are well known as predators on other bird life, often preying upon smaller birds, their eggs, and nestlings. They also fed on a wide variety of other materials, whatever animal and plant foods they can come upon. They accept almost any handout offered from seeds to table scraps. In the wild, acorns are important in their diet, and they cache acorns in out-of-the-way places for later use. They hide these nuts in crevices above ground as well as in holes they dig in the ground. This caching behavior is common to all jays, crows, ravens, magpies, and nutcrackers, all members of the Corvidae family. The advantage of such behavior is that it allows these birds to survive even during hard times, even during periods of drought. Northern jays are able to nest in winter, long before the abundant seasonal foods are available.

All of the jays, of which that are nine resident species in North America (blue, gray, Steller’s, brown, Mexican, and pinyon jays, and western, Florida, and Island scrub-jays), are well known loudmouths. In fact, the harsh “jay jay jay” calls of the blue jay are where their name was originally derived. But our blue jay has numerous other calls. In “The Bird Life of Texas,” author Harry Oberholser states that the blue jay’s “song is a series of notes considerably keyed down to low, sweet whistles, lispings, and chipperings. Usually the bird performs this jumble while concealed in tangled vegetation or on interior branches of a tree. This song is heard infrequently from March into June.” He also claims that jays possess a slurred sound like “jeer” or “peer.” And “usually in spring the bird whispers a pleasing teekle, teekle that is often joined with a whee-oodle, the later commonly called its creaking wheelbarrow note. Members of foraging groups, particularly in autumn, converse with a chuckling kuk.”

Oberholser also points out that blue jays often sound like other birds. The “bird’s teerr cry sounds like that of the red-tailed hawk; the similarity of the screams is apparently more coincidental than imitative. Another call is a low throat rattle.” However, whether or not the jay’s abundant calls are intended to imitate other birds, they do succeed in attracting attention, and some of that attention is from some of the small birds, such as chickadees and titmice, species that are susceptible to larger predators. One can’t help but speculate!

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