Tuesday, February 12, 2013

A Pile of Feathers

I’ve been thinking about blue jays this winter. Small flocks of blue jays use to visit our bird feeders regularly in winter. They seem less common this year; just a handful of jays visited the feeder only once. On my regular outdoor wanderings, I’ve seen relatively few.

The blue jay belongs to the family Corvidae – along with crows, ravens, magpies, nutcrackers, and our friend the gray jay. Corvids in general tend to be noisy and gregarious, so the woods seem a little quiet with so few blue jays. Occasionally I find blue jay feathers scattered about or in a pile -- the leftovers from a woodland hawk’s meal. The feathers are strikingly beautiful, a reminder that blue jays are a handsome bird, often overlooked because of their sometimes brash behavior.
Jays are known to be noisy at times, especially when alarmed. They raise their blue crest when agitated. The blue jay is an excellent mimic; the red-shouldered hawk's "keeyuur, keeyuur, keeyuur," is a common part of its repertoire. Just as often though, blue jays are silent. They fly quietly across open areas, and move soundlessly near their nest. A pair of jays mates for life, with the male bringing food to the incubating female and then to the nestlings.

Blue jays favor acorns, stuffing up to five at a time in their throat and beak. They fly off, sometimes up to a mile away, to bury each acorn. This "planting" of acorns protects the nut from insects and other predators, allowing any forgotten acorns to sprout and grow into new oak trees. On occasion, blue jays eat bird eggs and nestlings, but mostly they eat nuts and insects.
I consider the blue jay a year-round resident bird, but actually many of them migrate. And no one really knows why they migrate. If it is too cold or there are too few acorns, some blue jays head farther south, but not all of them. Blue jay populations fluctuate a bit from year to year, and the west nile virus knocked them back several years ago. New Hampshire Audubon reports that blue jays are one of the species showing a long-term decline, unlike crows, ravens and gray jays, which are increasing or stable.

The blue jay is a favorite prey item for the Cooper's hawk and its numbers are increasing. I see them several times a year near our bird feeders. That may be why the blue jays stay away, less chance ending up as a pile of feathers. I do hope blue jays rebound, as I miss their beautiful blues and noisy chatter in the winter woods.

1 comment:

  1. I think blue jays are overlooked, in spite of their beauty, because they're so common. If they were a fairly rare bird, you'd hear people excitedly say, "I saw a blue jay today!"