Slings and Arrows: Why Birders Love to Hate Blue Jays

Jason Holley

Slings and Arrows: Why Birders Love to Hate Blue Jays

They're smart, spectacular, and vocally versatile, so is the species really so bad?

By Les Line/Illustration by Jason Holley
Published: September-October 2008

A classic cinema moment: Gregory Peck, in his Academy Award-winning role as lawyer Atticus Finch in a Depression-worn Alabama town, kills a rabid dog stumbling down a dusty street. At supper that night, his children ask how old he was when he got his first gun.

"Thirteen or fourteen," he answers. "I remember when my daddy gave me that gun. He told me that I should never point it at anything in the house; and that he'd rather I'd shoot at tin cans in the backyard. But he said that sooner or later he supposed the temptation to go after birds would be too much, and that I could shoot all the blue jays I wanted--if I could hit 'em; but to remember it was a sin to kill a mockingbird."

Mockingbirds, Peck-Finch explains, "don't eat people's gardens. Don't nest in the corncrib, they don't do one thing but just sing their hearts out for us."

"I've been there," said Curtis Adkisson, a retired Virginia Tech biology professor, when I read him this discourse from Hollywood's adaptation of Harper Lee's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. Adkisson became a huge admirer of blue jays when, in 1980, he and his colleagues investigated the species' role--an essential one, they discovered--in dispersing acorns and beechnuts from North American forests. "But when I was 10 or 11," he told me, "I had a Benjamin pump-up pellet rifle, and my grandmother in Arkansas paid me a nickel for every blue jay I shot on her farm. I was on a mission, even shooting into nests in trees."

These days you could get in a lot of trouble for plinking a blue jay, which, like all songbirds, is protected by the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Yet our most splendidly attired songbird is still widely loathed, even by some ardent bird lovers. Years ago, when as Audubon's editor I commissioned an Arthur Singer painting showing a Cooper's hawk plucking the feathers from a freshly killed jay, letter-writing readers cheered the raptor. And "bully," "thief," and "murderer" are among the nicer names for blue jays you might hear in boutiques that cater to backyarders, selling feeders that supposedly fend off jays and other large birds like grackles (as well as squirrels). The idea, of course, is to save expensive seed offerings for favored chickadees, titmice, cardinals, and finches.

Blue jays, however, are fast learners. One Michigan winter, when I was a neophyte bird bander for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, I caught 44 different jays in our front yard in just a couple of weeks. None of them tripped my traps, baited with sunflower seeds, a second time. As for jay- and squirrel-proof bird feeders, it usually doesn't take long for either bird or arboreal rodent to conquer these gadgets, albeit with considerable contortion. (One feeder that really does work is the Yankee Whipper--designed by the Droll folks up in Connecticut)--with its collapsing, weight-sensitive perches. Boing goes the jay or fluffy-tail.)

But I love blue jays. In fall and winter, I wear a baseball cap with a Toronto Blue Jays logo to celebrate the azure-garbed visitors at my feeding station, which I liberally sprinkle with cracked corn for their special delight. Of course, seldom a week goes by without someone asking why a New Yorker roots for a Canadian team instead of the Yankees or Mets. My alternate cap has a Baltimore Orioles logo. That's my favorite spring and summer bird. Same question. "Are you an Orioles fan?" "No, I just like orioles." Heads are shaken in puzzlement. (Truth is, I've been following the Chicago Cubs since they last made it into the World Series, in 1945. Needless to say, they lost.) 

Looking far back, I blame the patron saint of birdwatchers, John James Audubon, for the blue jay's image problem. "Who could imagine," the great artist effused in his Ornithological Biography, "that selfishness, duplicity, and malice should form the moral accompaniments of so much physical perfection!" His stunning plate of three glorious specimens sucking eggs "pilfered from the nest of some innocent dove or harmless partridge" was widely reproduced on calendars handed out by insurance companies in the mid-20th century, helping to foment blue jay hatred. (I had that page framed.) The blue jay has even been compared to the character Hotspur from Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part 1. "He gives us the impression of being independent, lawless, haughty, even impudent," the prominent ornithologist Winsor Marrett Tyler wrote in a 1940s essay about the species.

Yes, small birds may scatter to the four winds when a flamboyant blue jay with its erect crest, broad wings, and fanned tail swoops in, shouting Jay! Jay! Jay! They quickly get over it. With a big snowstorm looming early last spring, a host of anxious jays, cardinals, juncos, downy woodpeckers, tree sparrows, white-throated sparrows, and newly arrived song sparrows foraged in total harmony on seeds tossed or spilled beneath my hanging feeders.

And yes, blue jays on occasion do plunder other birds' nests. A memorable photograph I featured in Audubon captured a jay yanking nestlings from a Baltimore oriole's hanging nursery. But an oft-cited study in the early 1900s found traces of eggs and young in only six of 530 blue jay stomachs, even though, as the researcher noted, "special search was made for every possible trace of such material." Mainly, the omnivorous blue jays feast on insects, nuts, berries, seeds, and now and then small animals like deer mice, bats, lizards, and tree frogs.

In short, there is no valid reason to hold them in contempt. Instead, we should be celebrating the beauty of a bird that Henry David Thoreau, master of understatement, called "delicately ornamented." (That blue plumage, it must be noted, is an optical illusion. Scientists remind us that blue pigment doesn't occur in birds. The royal hue results from the scattering of light waves by tiny, prism-like melanin particles on the feather barbs.)

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Les Line

Type: Author | From: Audubon Magazine

Comments

i think jays carry food out

i think jays carry food out into the woods for other birds and critters to eat. they place seeds of whole or cracked corn or black oil sunflowers in the trees in a woods right outside my kitchen window. i see other birds feed on those seeds. doves, juncos, turkeys,even grey and red squirrels. they are the hawlers and feeders here in Clare, new york

When I was a child I observed

When I was a child I observed a blue jay take a chick right out of the nest as it's mother cried. It made quite an impression on me. I thought it was both cool and wickedly cruel and have always looked at jay's in that manor. I came here from searching for 'Blue Jay Hate' as I have been seeing them at my feeder recently. I was curious to know why there is such animosity towards them. Nature is cruel, life in general is cruel, so it goes. I enjoyed this article and I think I will start to admire the jays more, perhaps even more since I am a Blacksburg resident as my wife gets her PHD.

JAAAAY-JAAAAY JAAAY-JAAAY JAAAY-JAAAY JAAAY-JAAAY JAAAY-JAAAY

Yes, the lovely jays that start their boresome, repetitive non-stop screeching every day at 5:00am outside my bedroom window. This goes on for hours,...yes, hours....as they taunt the cat in the neighbor's house they can see through the window. This is not an exaggeration, there are 4 jays that make their call one after the other in quick succession. It's an unreal commotion and you can hear it from a block away. The only sound they make is the shrillest, loudest piercing JAAAYYY JAYYYYY over and over, no other. They take a short break for lunch, and then resume throughout the day, and again just before sunset. The cat of course no longer even leaves its house for fear of being dive bombed.

Funny, that no other bird has ever acted that way. Not even the territorial mockingbird that no one seems to mind and sings from 2am-5am. Although it's call does wake me up a bit, its song is at least pretty and is much easier to fall back asleep during.

Say what you will, the question of why the blue jay have few friends is not really such a ponderous question.

Blue Jays are exciting!

I enjoy seeing Blue Jays in my yard. I have so much trouble with starlings that a blue jay is a much welcomed site.

Blue Jays mix with all Birds in my feeder

Over the years I have bought expensive bird feeders, and the cost of wasted food was very expensive. So this year I built my own feeder to bring all birds to gather for a 3 Tray Gourmet feast.
Pictures of my feeder were forward to ( Mr,Zach Slavin Monday). First tray has Nut's and fruit, second tray has mixed small seed for small birds, third tray has Black Oil sunflower seed. and three bird baths with water. Now I'm proud to say I have over 100 birds feeding and more waiting in the tree's
all variety of Missouri Birds. and for the first time I have six Blue Birds, Feeder and house's on my shed. all birds eat together and get along. including 17 too 24 doves.
Back to blue Jays My wife and I love them as we put peanuts in the shall in the fir'st tray and they come in like airplanes and take off exciting to watch. Their is one large jaw and he is the boss.also they all get along with other birds feeding.
the problem i have now is starlings taking over about 150 of them. in order to stop I put all black oil sunflower seed in all trays they will not eat them. I wished I could take pictures of all the bird feeding my camera will not let me get close. Hope you enjoyed my enlightenment about feeding birds
.

Bluejays are beautiful birds

Bluejays are beautiful birds and for many years I have feeding birds and never had a preamble with them with other birds or otherwise. However I have seen mocking birds be aggressive with the jays and with my family of bluebirds, but never the bluejays.

the blue jay

Loved the piece. The blue jay is indeed a beautiful, compelling bird.

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