I’ll state right up front that I don’t know what I’m talking about here, but that’s never stopped me before. Something is going on with blue jays, and the topic is ripe for wild speculation.
Over the last two months, I’ve been receiving a lot of blue jay complaints from readers. They’re concerned about how much food the jays are siphoning from their feeders, and alarmed that the jays are bullying smaller birds. One person even asked if it was legal to shoot them. For the record, it’s not.
My own feeders are not immune. Blue jays are swarming my backyard, shoving each other off the perches and gobbling sunflower seeds like there’s no tomorrow. It’s actually been rather comical. My yard suffers from a biblical plague of squirrels, so I don’t use platform feeders. The jays don’t like my hanging feeders, because they can barely cling to the small perches. Then, they must crane their necks sideways to extract a seed, often while fluttering their wings haplessly to maintain balance.
Much of this food is being cached away for later. Often, when you see a blue jay sitting on the feeder, swallowing seed after seed, he’s not actually eating them. He’s storing them in a pouch at the top of his esophagus and carrying them off to a hiding place. Jays can store up to four acorns, or many smaller seeds, in that pouch.
This feeding frenzy isn’t just a backyard phenomenon. I’ve been in the deep woods a few times lately, and I’ve been astonished to watch the blue jays stashing a tremendous amount of food this year. Why?
I have no idea. But I can speculate. My first thought is that the jays’ behavior is possibly related to the same dearth of natural food across the entire northern forest that is driving many Canadian birds south. The finch invasion this year has been epic. Perhaps Maine’s forest is not so productive this year, either, judging by the other species that have been lining up at my feeders. I seem to have a ton of acorns, but virtually no beechnuts around the yard.
The supply of smaller seeds favored by American goldfinches, pine siskins and common redpolls must be doing OK. I hear these small finches flying around, but they’re not hitting my thistle feeders at all. Crossbills are finding enough cones. No, it must be something about the foods that jays most relish that is driving them to the feeders in amazing numbers, contributing to their boorish behavior.
Then I wondered: are Canadian blue jays coming down here, swelling our local numbers? Jays do migrate, sort of. Most stay home, but the recapture of banded birds indicates that about 10 percent of jays meander southward in winter. It’s hard to notice, but where migration routes are constricted along the edges of major water bodies, like the Great Lakes or the Maine coast, southbound flocks are sometimes perceptible.
So do we have an influx of Canadian jays? To test the hypothesis, I put out a dish of poutine. No takers. Besides, any winter-visiting jays would be at a major disadvantage. The Maine jays have been caching food for months, keeping their hiding places secret. It’s unlikely that wandering jays could stash enough food in time for Maine’s harsh winter. It’s also likely that local jays would dominate the visitors, since jays do establish a pecking order among themselves. So it’s probably not a jay invasion.
Can our local jays sense that it is going to be a tough winter, so they need to cache more food than usual? Maybe. But if that’s the case, why didn’t more of them head south?
Is this evidence of a longer-term trend? The home range of birds can change over time. Some change is due to natural competition among species. Some is influenced by external factors, like habitat and climate changes. Blue jays are expanding their range into Canada. They’re inching their way into Alaska. Maybe we’re just making more of them in Maine.
Ultimately, I can only guess at what’s going on, but I can confirm that something is going on. I’ve got more jays mobbing my feeders than ever before. They’re resorting to aggressive tactics more often, such as imitating hawk calls to dissuade competitors. Even the squirrels seem intimidated.
I have surrendered. I put out another feeder and bought more sunflower seeds. Just for fun, I suggest we watch how this trend unfolds over the winter – a little natural theater.
Bob Duchesne serves as vice president of Maine Audubon’s Penobscot Valley Chapter. He developed the Maine Birding Trail, with information at mainebirdingtrail.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.