Blue jays brighten winter landscapes
During Minnesota's long, cold winters, when most of the landscape is blanketed in white, the paints of Mother Nature's palette are used sparingly. The color scheme of the great outdoors during this time of year is dominated by shades of grays and browns, and, of course, white. Yet despite the seeming drabness, splashes of color do show up at our wintertime birdfeeders. Blue jays, particularly striking, add brilliance to our color-starved eyes.
Though blue jays are frequently assigned the dubious distinction as mobsters and nest-robbers, I think quite the opposite of them. One of the most handsome of our native birds, blue jays are year-around residents that brighten up any winter day with not only beautiful plumage, but by their antics as well.
Related to crows, ravens and magpies, the blue jay is one of only two North American crested jays. 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.
For example, on many occasions I have heard blue jays imitate the screech of red-tailed hawks that, to the untrained ear, would most certainly pass as a hawk's. It is believed that such mimicry frightens would-be competitors, such as other species of birds and mammals, from preferred food sources, thus leaving the booty for the cunning jay.
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 skittish and will depart quickly upon being discovered. That said, one can still enjoy observing the nervous-acting blue jay going about its business unaware of you and me if we sit quietly in the woods or view them through our windows.
I once enjoyed watching a lone blue jay diligently cracking acorns. The bird collected one nut at a time from the forest floor and carried each nut inside its beak to a stout limb of a nearby oak tree. Then, carefully positioning the acorn between each of its feet, the blue jay began its work of opening the acorn's hard shell.
At first the bird examined the acorn by cocking its head to one side and, in a surprising motion, raised up as high as it could, following through with a powerful jab with its beak to break apart the shell of the acorn. Not once did the blue jay succeed in halving the nut on the first try. Several hacks were delivered for each nut.
What really impressed me was the precision of the blows. The bird approached the chore as a lumberjack would in chopping a log in half with an ax - that is, one chop at a time on opposite and angled sides from one another. After a minor workout, the blue jay was able to extract the soft meat of the acorn, consume it, and then fly off in search of another nut.
Mobbing behavior, as already mentioned, is a common blue jay activity. Moreover, while it's true that raptors are many a bird's mortal enemy, as well as the blue jay's, woe be to 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 so do other items not necessarily considered by many people as typical "bird food." Meat and eggs are indeed a part of the blue jay's menu-list from time to time. Other birds, especially nestlings, and small rodents, amphibians and scraps from animal carcasses help to supplement a blue jay's diet with needed protein.
Still, the blue jay, known for its intelligence, falls victim to a number of different predators too. Cooper's and sharp-shinned hawks are occasional diurnal avian predators, whereas many young blue jay nestlings and fledglings are nabbed from their nests or natal locale by mammalian and avian predators alike. I once observed, for instance, a red squirrel rob a blue jay's nest of a fully feathered, nearly fledged blue jay chick. The squirrel carried the chick in its jaws while the chick's parents futilely chased the animal through the treetops.
Nonetheless, the gregarious blue jay, sometimes noisy and sometimes pestering, is always attractive and always interesting. Though deemed by many as a marauding bully, the blue jay, in all reality, is a brilliant blue gem of the forest as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
Blane Klemek is the Bemidji area assistant wildlife manager, DNR Division of Fish & Wildlife. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.