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Blane Klemek: A blue jewel of winter

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“Jay, Jay, Jay!”

“Indeed,” I thought while staring at my computer screen and listening to the blue jay outside my window screeching its common call, “it is you that I shall write about this week!”

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The blue jay, our only crested jay in Minnesota, is a skittish, beautiful bird that people often experience a love-hate relationship with. Known sometimes to be a “nest robber,” that is, stealing eggs and even nestlings of other birds, the blue jay is nonetheless a delightful bird replete of numerous and interesting vocalizations, intelligent antics, strong family bonds and attractive plumage.  

As well, during Minnesota’s long, cold winters when most of the landscape is blanketed in white surrounded by shades of grays and browns of leafless trees, the seeming winter drabness contrasts sharply with splashes of brilliant blue when blue jays show up at our wintertime birdfeeders or when you observe them perched on the boughs of evergreen trees.   

Though blue jays are frequently assigned the dubious distinction as thugs of the bird world, I actually think quite the opposite of them. One of the most handsome of native birds, the blue jay is a year-round resident that brightens up any winter day with not only their beautiful plumage, but by their antics, as well.

Related to crows, ravens, and magpies, the blue jay, as already eluded to, is one of only two crested jays in North America. The other crested jay is the Steller’s jay that resides throughout the Rocky Mountain West. Furthermore, of the five species of blue-colored jays found in North America, the blue jay is the only blue-winged jay with white coloration on its wings and tail.

Often described as boisterous and annoying, the blue jay has a large and diverse vocal repertoire that’s full of musical notes mixed with interesting bell-like calls, tones, whistles, murmurs and other call-notes.

Blue jays routinely behave boldly only when they interact with other creatures — most notably when a group of them happens to discover a lone owl trying to spend its day roosting peacefully in a tree. Anyone within earshot of screaming blue jays pestering an owl must also be thankful that they’re not the owl. Mobbing behavior is also common in other members of the family, such as crows.

However, when and where humans are involved, blue jays are generally quite wary and will depart quickly upon being discovered. That said, one can still enjoy observing the nervous acting blue jay going about its business unaware or unconcerned of our presence if we sit quietly in the woods or view them through our windows.

I’ve always enjoyed watching blue jays break apart the hard shells of acorns to get at the soft nut inside. By collecting one acorn at a time, a blue jay will usually fly with the acorn held tightly in its beak to a stout branch of a tree. Carefully positioning the acorn between each of its feet, the blue jay will begin its nut-breaking strategy.

Examining the acorn by cocking its head to one side and choosing a likely spot to break apart the acorn, the blue jay will then raise its head up high, followed by a powerful jab with its beak to break apart the shell. Several hacks are usually needed before the shell is broken.  

Mobbing behavior is a common blue jay activity. Moreover, while it’s true that raptors are many birds’ mortal enemy, as well as the blue jay’s, doomed is the owl discovered by a band of jays. Blue jays will descend upon a hapless owl and screech incessantly until either the owl manages to escape and the blue jays give up the pursuit, or they simply grow weary of the pastime and leave on their own accord. Such mob formation rings true with the old adage “safety in numbers,” as it does in serving the purpose of warning other blue jays of potential danger in the woods.

The diet of blue jays is wide and varied. Staples include nuts, seeds, berries and insects, but includes other items not necessarily considered by many people as typical “bird food.” Meat and eggs are a part of a blue jay’s menu-list from time to time. Other birds, especially nestlings, and small rodents, amphibians, and scraps and fat from animal carcasses help to supplement a blue jay’s diet with needed protein. Blue jays love suet.

And even though the blue jay is known for its intelligence, individual birds do fall victim to a number of different predators, too. Cooper’s hawks and sharp-shinned hawks are occasional avian predators, whereas many young blue jay nestlings and fledglings are nabbed from their nests by a host of mammalian as well.

I once observed, for instance, one particularly daring red squirrel rob a blue jay’s nest and carry off a fully feathered, nearly fledged blue jay chick. The squirrel carried the chick in its jaws and retreated to tree cavity while the chick’s parents frantically chased the squirrel through the treetops in a vain attempt to save their offspring.       

The gregarious blue jay, sometimes noisy and sometimes pestering, is always attractive and always interesting. Despite their shortcomings (if any at all), the blue jay is a brilliant blue jewel of the forest as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.  

BLANE KLEMEK is a Minnesota DNR wildlife manager. He can be reached at bklemek@yahoo.com

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