Butler resident Mary Leffler emailed me recently with a question about Blue Jays.
“My husband and I moved here from New York State about one-and-a-half years ago, and one thing I discovered that surprised everyone was that I love watching the birds,” she wrote. “I live in Butler and have enjoyed seeing so many birds I never dreamed of. I love reading your column and although I can’t see myself being as involved with birding as you are, I can enjoy your experiences.”
Although she has been seeing many birds, she has noticed one absence this winter. “My question is this, where are all the Blue Jays?” Mary wrote. “I used to have so many and since mid-summer they seemed to have disappeared. My family up north has noticed the same there.” She explained that she has been really bothered by the disappearance of the Blue Jays, even more than she is concerned about the cat from next door that keeps creeping near her feeders. I responded to Mary’s email with the theory that perhaps all her Blue Jays migrated to my place, because I have fed lots of Blue Jays this winter.
Actually, they started becoming quite common this fall and have continued into winter. I am not sure why birds that are common one year in a specific place may suddenly abandon it the next. I guess it has something to do with the “greener pastures” syndrome and they just want to experience some new locale. I also asked her whether the recent cold snap changed anything? Sometimes, when conditions turn bad, birds can remember where they found feeders and will return to them. Unfortunately, that hasn’t been the case.
“The cold has not brought any jays to my feeders,” Mary wrote back. “It’s the one bird I’ve always seen a lot of my whole life, so this is just weird.” She admitted that jays have a tendency to hog feeders. “As long as you have a plentiful supply there, I suppose you can keep them,” she said. Actually, I hope that the disappearance of Mary’s Blue Jays resolves itself soon. All things considered, they are fun birds. With their blue, black and white plumage, they are also quite striking.
On the Christmas Bird Counts conducted in Elizabethton and Roan Mountain in mid-December, the Blue Jays seemed present in ordinary numbers. At my own home, Blue Jays have an easy life. They’re so much bigger than other birds they can be a little bossy at the feeders. All are welcome, though. The Blue Jay is the smallest member of the Corvid family in Tennessee. It’s larger relatives are the American Crow and Common Raven. The Blue Jay, which is typically 10 to 12 inches long, is one of the largest songbirds to visit our feeders. They’re fond of sunflower seed, peanuts, suet and other feeder fare.
Blue Jays are quite noisy and produce a variety of vocalizations. They’re also capable of mimicry and can mimic in convincing fashion the calls of Red-tailed and Red-Shouldered Hawks. While they are primarily woodland birds, Blue Jays are very adaptable and capable of thriving in suburban parks and other less wild areas. In the fall, acorns are a favorite food. There are times in autumn when almost every Blue Jay I see has an acorn in its bill. They also tend to stash food for future days, and this habit has also helped re-forest oak woodlands.
Blue Jays are social birds and form flocks, which offers some protection from predators. It only takes one sharp-eyed bird in a flock to sound an alarm to protect the entire group. Other birds can also detect Blue Jay alarm calls and react accordingly. Accipiter hawks — Northern Goshawk, Cooper’s Hawk, Sharp-shinned Hawk — are the primary predators on Blue Jays. They share some of the same habitat and the agile hawks are usually able to outmaneuver the slower flying jays.
I was a little surprised to discover that the Blue Jay has never been chosen as an official state bird, although it does serve as the official bird for the province of Prince Edward Island in Canada. Blue Jays are undeniably striking birds. They are bright blue on top and white to gray on its throat, chest and belly. They have white wing bars and black and white banding on the tail. Its bill, legs and feet are black. The bird also has a black collar on its lower throat. At a glance, all Blue Jays — male and female — look alike. However, experts have determined that the black throat collars are subtly different from bird to bird and may help members of a flock recognize each other.
Larger birds typically have longer life spans than small ones. The medium-sized Blue Jay will probably live longer than a wren or sparrow. The oldest wild Blue Jay on record was a banded bird that lived for at least 17 years and six months. There are other species of jays in the United States, including the Steller’s Jay, which is the western counterpart of the Blue Jay, as well as Western Scrub-jay, Florida Scrub-jay and Pinyon Jay.
Worldwide, there are about 50 species of jays, which are closely related to crows, magpies and other species in the genus of Corvidae. Some of the descriptive names for other jays include White-throated Magpie-jay, Gray Jay, Green Jay, Purplish Jay, Azure Jay, Violaceous Jay, Turquoise Jay, Beautiful Jay, Silvery-throated Jay, Azure-hooded Jay and Black-headed Jay.
The smallest of the world’s jays is, appropriately enough, named the Dwarf Jay. It is eight to nine inches long and weighs about 1.4 ounces.
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