I’m sure blue jays taste good. They are just the right size to be hawk food. They are slow flyers. They are generally conspicuous and bold. They announce their presence wherever they go. They make themselves obvious targets. Seemingly, they do everything wrong. I wonder how all of them have not been eaten.
Of course, some do end up as hawk food. Members of the accipiter family, primarily sharp-shinned and Cooper’s hawks, enjoy a good meal of jay once in a while. Nonetheless, blue jays are widespread from here to the Rockies. There must be a reason we don’t have a jay shortage.
As so often happens in nature, what they are doing right is the aggregate of everything they are doing wrong. Not many birds sit boldly at the tops of trees, especially slow flyers. But jays will, and from that vantage point, it’s presumably hard to sneak up on them. Jays stick together as families through summer, and unrelated birds will travel in groups throughout the year. With lots of eyes watching for trouble, it’s even harder to sneak up on them. They’re noisy. If there’s a threat, they are among the first birds in the forest to announce danger. Their name comes from their loud, incessant “jay” call.
Blue jays are audacious. They may be slow, but they can outfly an owl. They are apt to harass one when they find it. They can certainly outfly a cat, and one of my earliest memories about jays occurred when I was in third grade. I can still recall how they would scold and swoop on any cat that wandered into the yard during nesting season.
Blue jays are smart. I played chess with a neighborhood bird last summer, and he beat me three out of four. Admittedly, I’m not very good. Jays are members of the corvid family, closely related to crows and ravens. The entire family is noted for avian intelligence. Blue jays in captivity have been known to use tools to retrieve food that is just out of reach, though I don’t know if tool use has been verified in the wild. Youngsters will play with shiny objects.
One sign of intelligence is the complexity of their interactions. They have a wide variety of vocalizations, and adjust these as wandering jays come into the conversation. They use their crests to demonstrate their attitude to each other. Watch it for yourself. When feeding together or tending young, their crests are lowered. When alarmed or annoyed, their crests are up. Whenever you hear the loud “jay, jay,” expect the crest to be completely raised as a sign of aggression.
Jays are also smart enough to avoid an unnecessary fight. Despite their raucousness, they frequently defer to other birds at the feeder. The cardinal is similar in size and shape, but it dominates blue jays at the feeder. Woodpeckers, grackles, doves and mockingbirds all shoulder aside jays with ease. Even smaller finches can fussbudget their way to the head of the chow line.
So the clever jay resorts to trickery. They are very good at mimicking the cry of hawks, particularly red-shouldered hawks. If there’s a crowd at the feeder, they may linger in the bushes and imitate a hawk in an attempt to scare off the competition. They also do a pretty good broad-winged hawk imitation.
Two years ago this month, I heard a broad-winged hawk near a feeder. Since I knew that all the broad-winged hawks were still wintering in South America, I wasn’t fooled. But the other birds were.
Jays have a reputation as a nest raider, and they do occasionally eat eggs and nestlings. But evidence suggests that it’s less frequent than originally thought. When the stomach contents of expired birds is examined, nest predation shows up less than 1 percent of the time. And, since I don’t see other birds mobbing or scolding them very often, I venture to guess that these birds don’t object to the presence of blue jays very much. They may even benefit from the blue jay early warning system.
Nuts, seeds and grain form much of the jay’s diet. They are especially fond of acorns. They are able to carry two or three acorns in throat pouches, another inside the bill, and another held on the tip of the bill. They sometimes cache these as food supplies for the winter.
Blue jays often mate for life, but since life averages about seven years, they can withstand it.
Bob Duchesne serves as a Maine Audubon trustee and vice president of its Penobscot Valley Chapter. Bob developed the Maine Birding Trail, with information at www.mainebirdingtrail.com. Bob can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.