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BLANE KLEMEK OUTDOORS: There's more to blue jays than meets the eye

Blue jays are a true year-round Minnesota avian resident. That alone is endearing. And even though the species is often maligned as a nest-robbing egg and nestling thief, the blue jay is among a group of birds considered one of the most intelligent avifauna on the planet.

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The feeding behavior of jays is interesting to watch. Like other members of its family, Corvidae, blue jays have a structure called a lingual pouch inside their throats.
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My feeder is full of blue jays this winter. If memory serves me, I don’t recall ever observing this many blue jays gorging themselves on black-oil sunflower seeds day in and day out. A few days ago, I counted 14.

Blue jays are a true year-round Minnesota avian resident. That alone is endearing. And even though the species is often maligned as a nest-robbing egg and nestling thief, the blue jay is among a group of birds considered one of the most intelligent avifauna on the planet. All they’re doing is trying to survive, and survive they do.

It could be that there’s a mini-irruption of sorts this winter because blue jays do in fact migrate relatively short distances to take advantage of better resources elsewhere from time to time, but my guess is that two or three family groups of jays have discovered that my feeders are filled every morning with delicious black-oil sunflower seeds.

And given the intelligence of blue jays, other nearby jays have probably been attracted by the activities of other birds, including the local blue jay population.

The feeding behavior of jays is interesting to watch. Like other members of its family, Corvidae, blue jays have a structure called a lingual pouch inside their throats. This throat pouch has a specific purpose: to store food, albeit very temporarily.

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So have you ever noticed how blue jays gorge or gulp down seed after seed? While it appears gluttonous, it is not. This is merely the “jay way."

As you observe a blue jay gobbling up seeds or other foodstuffs at your bird feeding station, watch its throat, too. You’ll soon notice its throat pouch bulging with the volume of the seeds that the bird is swallowing.

Once its pouch is full, the skittish blue jay can fly off to a secluded spot, cough up the seeds one-by-one, and eat. Or, as other corvids do, a blue jay may choose to cache or hide its pouch-full of seeds to eat later.

If you do catch sight of a blue jay feeding, you’ll also discover how they use their feet to secure some foods to consume, like an acorn for example. Positioning the food item on a limb between their feet and holding it tightly, the blue jay will then use its hard and pointed beak to break open the shell of a seed to then extract the prize inside.

A jay’s feeding behavior that’s aided by its lingual pouch plays into the species' nervous-acting temperament. Not known to be a docile or necessarily friendly wild bird, blue jays always seem to be a bundle of nerves, never sitting still for long, always on the go, ever-alert, and quick to fly off and screech wildly whenever frightened or annoyed. As such, a blue jay forages quickly by stuffing its throat pouch full of food and flies away.

One of the distinguishing features of blue jays is, of course, the bird’s beautiful appearance. The only crested jay occurring in the eastern half of North America (the other crested jay is the equally attractive Steller’s jay of the West), the blue jay’s blue plumage is of particular interest. Though difficult to understand, blue jays aren’t really blue. What, you say? Of course, they’re blue!

According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the pigment in blue jay feathers, melanin, is brown, not blue. Yet because of a phenomenon called “light scattering” our eyes perceive the color as blue. Weird, yes, but what we recognize as blue in a blue jay is simply an optical illusion made possible by the way light is absorbed and refracted through the birds’ feathers, much like how a prism works.

Check this out yourself someday. If ever you come across a blue jay’s feather (or any blue feather from other blue-colored birds) and look at it in normal light, it will appear blue. Now, back-light the feather. It’ll appear brown. Why? Because the blue light cannot be reflected backward in this manner, there’s no prism effect, and so what we see is the melanin or brown color.

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There’s so much more to wild birds than what meets the eye. While we can’t see a blue jays throat pouch or the brown bird that they really are, blue jays are among the many birds to appreciate 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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