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Picture walks: A party of blue jays

A blue jay in the snow. Photo by Jeanne Church.

By Jeanne Church

A group of blue jays can be referred to as a band, a cast, a scold, or a party. The most common usage is band, but I prefer to call it a party. A “party of blue jays” puts a much more positive spin on a bird that many people describe as loud, bossy and aggressive, while a “party” makes them sound like fun! I consider blue jays to be beautiful, intelligent birds who bring a welcome splash of color and excitement to an otherwise dreary winter day. Not everybody feels the same way.

Blue jays are, without a doubt, noisy birds, especially in the fall. To the casual observer, they seem to be screaming and squawking for no apparent reason. More likely than not, there is a predatory bird nearby, like a hawk or an owl. When the blue jays make all that racket, it is an alert call for the nearby birds that danger is at hand! Blue jays can accurately imitate the calls of both the red-tailed hawk and the red-shouldered hawk, and act as the local alarm system for their friends and family, as well as the many small rodents that are scurrying around in the underbrush! Blue jays have saved many a bird and many a rodent from becoming a gourmet snack for a hungry hawk.

Sometimes, though, blue jays will make hawk calls even when none are present. Their objective is to scare away any nearby birds so that they can have all the feeders to themselves! It’s quite a clever move on their part, but not one that is welcome among avid backyard birders! Most of the fleeing birds return quickly once they realize they’ve been duped and the offending blue jays are quietly eating.

Blue jays are members of the “big-brained” corvid family; a group that includes ravens and crows. These birds are considered to be some of the most intelligent and curious species of animals in the world. For example, blue jays in a lab figured out how to get food pellets that were out of reach by tearing off scraps of newspaper in their cages and using those scraps to sweep the pellets in an arc until they were within reach! They also learned to use other tools like paper clips, plastic bread ties, feathers, and straws to accomplish the same task!

These birds are not only extremely intelligent creatures, they also deserve credit for planting thousands upon thousands of trees! Nuts are a blue jay’s favorite food, especially acorns, and they will cache thousands of them for later use. One blue jay alone can store as many as 5,000 nuts per year! Many of those nuts will get eaten over the winter, but a significant portion will germinate and eventually become mature trees. Blue jays like to hide their seeds in open areas that have recently been disturbed by activities such as plowing or mowing. As a result, eleven species of oak trees have become dependent on blue jays to disperse their seeds!

While I am singing the praises of blue jays, let me also say they are very loyal and attentive mates and parents. Unlike many bird species, the male blue jay doesn’t just mate and run. He sticks around to help build the nest and, once the eggs are laid, he brings food to the female while the eggs are incubating. After the eggs hatch, both birds are actively involved in taking care of their nestlings. The male constantly provides food while the mother feeds it to the babies.

Blue jays are also extremely protective of their nesting sites, and will let out ear-splitting screams if an intruder approaches. When that warning isn’t sufficient, they will dive-bomb the offending individual, whether it’s a human or an animal. As a result, they are often labeled as obnoxious or aggressive.

It might be an understatement to say that blue jays are generally not well-liked. They are so unpopular, in fact, that not one single state in our country has chosen a blue jay for its state bird! Conversely, the northern cardinal is the state bird in seven states! Hmmm.

Perhaps blue jays are unpopular because we tend to assign human characteristics to them, like “aggressive” and “bossy” when all they’re really trying to do is survive and protect their families, just like the rest of us.

It’s all a matter of perspective, I guess, whether you see a group of blue jays as a “party” or a “scold”. I prefer a party!

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