Blue Jays: clever mimics of the bird world
The other morning I followed the sound of what I thought was a baby hawk, possibly in distress. Walking deeper into the forest as quietly as I could, I stopped often to concentrate on the insistent sounds. I was hoping to catch a glimpse of a juvenile falcon, or at least the nesting site.
I finally got to the place where the falcon sounds were loudest. To my surprise, however, it was not a red-shouldered hawk that flew out of the tree, but a blue jay that uttered the same shrill but nasal ‘keyeer, keeyeer’. It was then that I knew I had been duped by one of the best and most versatile mimics in the bird world.
By chirping like a hawk, blue jays easily scatter other birds at the feeder. This gives them the freedom to dine at their leisure with little to no competition. They also have their own form of insect control. Did you know that blue jays often comb their hair with ants? Presumably they are using the insects to trap and remove lice and other irritating parasites. Very smart birds!
For at least 15 years, every spring there is a very special blue jay that comes to my feeder. This jay has always imitated the sound of an old rotary phone when dialing. It’s a very unique sound. I must admit that I look forward to hearing it again every year. I know that jays are long-lived, and the dialer on my phone is proof!
In addition to being loud and sometimes aggressive, Blue Jays can be friendly and calm. I watched as two males competed for the attention of a beautiful soft blue-gray female. Each one flew from branch to branch cooing softly and trying to get closer to her. A male would then fly up engaging the female to do the same. The pair gently floated down in a spiral of outstretched wings, landing on the ground and then retreating to the separate branches.
This happened several times as each male took turns trying to impress the female with body movements and soft comforting sounds. The three of them flew together to another place in the forest to repeat the same dance. I can only imagine how long it took that female to finally decide which male blue jay would be her mate. It was fun and fascinating to watch.
Blue Jays are very secretive when it comes to building nests. They use alternate routes and lure locations so that no predator can easily follow them to the nesting site. They love shiny objects and often incorporate pieces of foil wrapper into their nests of loose twigs. They like a well-decorated house as much as we humans do! There will be as few as three or as many as seven olive green eggs covered with brown spots.
Burying food reserves to dig up later when food sources are scarce is another tactic employed by these large 11″ to 12″ birds. Her favorites are sunflower seeds, peanuts, cracked corn, stale bread or baked goods, suet, and berries. They also like the eggs of other birds, so providing them with protection in the form of birdhouses and nests is a good idea.
Sometimes here in the Northeast, if the winter is relatively mild, our blue jays stay. It is so nice to see its beautiful blue color against the white snow. Jays have a white face, black neck, blue wings, and back with a blue tail adorned with black and white feathers. Their distinctive blue crest will give a clue as to what they are feeling. For example, when they are calm, their crest flattens out. On the other hand, if they are in an aggressive mood, the crest will point forward.
When both colorful cardinals and blue jays appear on a gray, snowy day, it’s a sight that helps keep the winter months from seeming so long. No wonder they are so often depicted on Christmas greeting cards!
My resourceful Blue Jays never cease to amaze me with their beauty, aggressive raucousness, and mimicry. I look forward to seeing them grab a bite to eat at the feeders before easily soaring through our forest. They will return many times during the day with the now familiar ‘keeyeer’ to disperse the smaller birds, self-proclaimed kings and queens of the backyard bird feeder!