I pulled into the driveway and was greeted by the raucous calls of several blue jays (Cyanocitta cristata) as they shied away from the car.
The interruption lasted for just a moment. As I emerged from the vehicle, I could see two of the jays return to our neighbor’s yard and its towering red oak. They were busily gathering acorns.
Like robins and eagles, blue jays are one of those birds that even non-birders can readily identify. They are bright blue, noisy, relatively large and common in suburban yards and urban parks. Some say the loud call of the bird even sounds like its name, “jay! jay! jay!”
Primarily blue on top and white and gray below, the jay has a powder blue crest. A black collar comes from the back of the crest down each side to form a “V” below the neck. Wings are bright blue with extensive white and black patterns. The long blue tail is barred with black, forming a ladder pattern with a white border. The tail is rounded. The bill is black and stout. The sexes look alike.
Blue jays belong to the same avian family as crows, but they are somewhat smaller. They are a foot long from beak to tail and have a wingspan of 15 inches. An adult bird weighs 3 ounces.
Blue jays are remarkably efficient at storing food. A jay will stash food in its “gular pouch,” which is located just below the beak in the bird’s throat and upper esophagus. A bird can carry up to three acorns in this specialized pouch, another in the beak, and a fifth in the tip of the bill. In studies, blue jays have been documented to cache 3,000–5,000 acorns during a single fall in preparation for winter.
With this remarkable efficiency, it is little surprise that blue jays are credited with dispersing oak trees across the continent after the last glacial period.
Although they favor acorns, jays are omnivores. They eat insects, nuts, seeds, fruits, grains, dead or injured small vertebrates, and, rarely, eggs, nestlings or injured birds.
Common at backyard bird feeders, jays prefer platform feeders and a diet of peanuts, sunflower seeds and suet.
Often mating for life, blue jays share nest-making responsibilities. Nests are built in the fork at the trunk or large branch of a tree. For the first week or so, the female broods nestlings while the male is responsible for bringing enough food for both its mate and the chicks.
The brood leaves the nest about three weeks after hatching. Young continue to return to the nest and are provided supplemental food by both parents for at least a month, sometimes two.
The blue jay’s crest is a good indication of its level of aggression. A lowered crest means not aggressive (e.g., at the nest) and fully raised crest indicates high level of aggression (e.g., territorial disputes). When those jays squawked at me, their crests were up.
Excellent mimics, blue jays can make a wide variety of vocalizations. In forests, they learn to imitate the call of red-shouldered and red-tailed hawks.
Blue jays live exclusively in North America. They range from the Gulf Coast states north through the Mississippi River Basin and on up into the Canadian provinces as far west as Alberta. They live in the entire Eastern United States and the Maritime Provinces. They are year-round residents of the Chesapeake region.
Although they are extensively studied, their migration patterns are poorly understood. They are the sole Western Hemisphere jay species to migrate, but only about 20 percent of them do so, and few venture farther north than central Ontario. Migrating flocks contain both adult and young birds, so age seems to play no role.
The vast majority of blue jays live in the United States with the remaining 15 percent or so living in Canada.
In this area, blue jays are so common that they are often overlooked. In most of the world, including large parts of the United States, the blue jay’s beauty goes unseen and its role in the ecosystem passes unknown.
Our neighbor’s jays continued to snatch up acorns from the tree and ground.
Like these super efficient birds, I spent most of my day handling a big workload, with a large portion out of easy view. But carrying a heavy load left too little emotional attention to life’s daily rhythms.
Like so many other modern workers, I allowed the everyday wonders of our world to get lost in my quotidian existence. I don’t want to make that mistake again.
Instead of heading into the house as I originally intended, I took a seat on the porch swing. It was time to watch, listen and learn from these handsome, vocal, fascinating birds.