Are blue jays getting a bad rap

Are blue jays (Cyanocitta cristata) getting a bad rap. It could be.

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According to Cornell Lab of Ornithology, blue jays are known to take and eat eggs and nestlings of other birds. Indeed, Birds of New Jersey makes a special note of this behavior in blue jays. But the Cornell Lab website goes on to say that this may not be common behavior. In a study of their eating habits, only 1% of jays had evidence of eggs or birds in their stomachs. Mostly insects and nuts were found. I’m happy to learn that blue jays may be less antisocial than reputed. They are fun to have around my garden.

The following blue jay tidbits are from the Cornell Lab website.

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The oldest known banded blue jay was at least 17 years and 6 months old. Jays are known to be highly intelligent with complex social systems. They often mate for life and stay with their mates year round.

Last summer, a blue jay was killed and eaten under my feeders. Blue jay feathers were everywhere. I suspect the neighbor’s cat. The dead jay’s mate stayed around for the rest of the summer. This spring the jays in the photo above have been coming around. I have no way to knowing if one of them is the widow/widower of last year. Or not.

The blue jays eat sunflower seeds under the feeders. I don’t have a tray feeder because I haven’t found one that the squirrels can’t access. So, ground-feeding birds–doves, jays, and others–are vulnerable to cat attack. Daisy, my yellow lab, and I have been vigilant about chasing the cat out of the garden. When we are indoors, Daisy often spends time looking out the upstairs windows. If she comes dashing down the stairs for no obvious reason, I figure that she has seen the cat in the garden and quickly let her out to chase it. There’s not much chance Daisy will ever catch that dratted cat, but the chase at least puts an end to the cat’s stalking of ground-feeding birds for the moment.

Blue jays have a body language. When their crest is down, their aggression level is low. The jays in these photos, taken on April 10 and 11, are pretty contented, if their crests are any indication.

The black bridle, or necklace, around their face, nape, and throat varies from jay to jay, and may help them to recognize one another. Individual birds as a rule are impossible to distinguish one from another. I wonder if I can differentiate jays, if I pay attention. Are the necklaces above really different, or is it just the way the jays are standing. I’m not sure.

Males and females look the same, except for those individualized necklaces, of course. The female incubates the eggs and broods the nestlings, while the male provides food for the female and the nestlings.

Blue jays help other birds, whether they mean to or not, by joining into an alarm call network that warns small birds and mammals about predators like hawks and owls. This is according to an article by Gustave Axelson in the winter 2016 issue of All About Birds magazine. The stars of eastern alarm call networks include chickadees, tufted titmice, blue jays, white-breasted nuthatches, chipmunks, and squirrels. What’s more, different alarm calls send different messages to the diverse audience. Loud, harsh, large-bandwidth sounds, which travel far and wide, are given for a stationary threat, a perched raptor. Blue jays and other birds will converge on a perched raptor with raucous, mobbing calls, letting the raptor know that its cover is blown and it may as well hunt elsewhere. A perched raptor is not so dangerous as one actively on wing and on the hunt, so the jays and other mobbing callers are safer to be in the vicinity and sounding alarms.

When a raptor is in flight, alarm network calls become higher frequency, high-pitched calls, described in the article as seet-seet calls. Chickadees are star seet callers, as are tufted titmice and white-breasted nuthatches. Seet calls are harder to tell the direction of, giving protection to the calling birds, while warning other small birds and mammals to duck for cover or freeze. The alarm squeaks of red squirrels can be considered seet calls, making squirrels active members of the alarm call network, not just passive recipients of protection afforded by it. The difference in mobbing calls and seet calls is not which species the caller is, but what the frequency of the call is–whether it’s a large-bandwidth sound or a high-frequency sound. The alarm call network uses a universal language. Wow.

One researcher in Axelson’s article sympathizes with the hawk. It’s hard to be a hungry hawk, out hunting for dinner, and having this alarm network spreading out in front of you, traveling faster than you do, and warning of your every move. That may be, but I think I’ll root for the little guys.

Blue jays are not only key participants in alarm call networks with their raucous mobbing calls, they have been known to mimic red-shouldered and red-tailed hawks, which may alert other birds that a hawk is around, or maybe fool other birds into thinking a hawk is around. Who knows. Bird behavior is complex. There are no easy answers.

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The Cornell Lab website reports that woodpeckers, mourning doves, grackles, and cardinals, as well as squirrels, often dominate blue jays at feeders, thereby suggesting that jays may not be so aggressive as some folks imagine. However, I recently saw a blue jay chase away a red squirrel who was making repeated suicide leaps from the old magnolia tree, attempting to land on the suet feeder. The jay, a peaceable ground feeder, seemed to just get tired of the squirrel’s obsessive leaps. Enough is enough. It took off after that squirrel and chased it out of the garden. I wonder if the jay’s crest was up. It must have been.

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If you are looking for an aggressive jay, watch for a raised crest. I plan to do just that. But the blue jays I’ve seen so far this spring under the feeders are peaceful, for the most part.

 

 

 

 

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