Monday Blues are Fake News

I don’t keep my bird feeders out in the summer, but I do feed in the winter. With all the recent snowstorms, I’ve been putting extra nuts and seeds out in the yard to help the birds survive the extreme weather. And I’ve been rewarded with quite a treat: the blue jays have been here in rowdy gangs, giving me lots of opportunities to observe them.

Blue jays and starlings on feeders in snow Jan 2019

Blue jays grudgingly sharing the feeders with starlings and a red-bellied woodpecker

These jays are one of our most common resident species, and I think because of that, we don’t often take much notice of their comings and goings.  But I find it’s sometimes rewarding to make a concerted effort to pay more attention to a common species than the more “exotic” transient birds.

I’ve taken a few pictures of my recent visitors, but am also sharing some of my archival photos that I just rediscovered. This one made me stop and say, “Hey, look at that beautiful gray breast!”

Blue Jay on branch looking at me (1024x770) w sig

I realized that, if asked to describe a blue jay without a photo, I would probably not have noted any gray on the breast at all. But there it is, plain as day. This guy is quite the looker, isn’t he? (Or she, it’s not easy to discern gender in this species as far as I know.)

Blue Jay portrait w sig Jan 2019

Something else that strikes me about these jays is that, despite being larger than most of the other feeder birds and having that loud, insistent call, they seem to be more skittish than the other birds. They’ll sit up in a tree boldly making a racket, but when they drop down to the feeders, they usually only spend a few seconds there before zipping away again, as if I’m going to run out and grab them or something. I guess it could be that they know their larger size makes them easier prey for the Cooper’s hawks who prowl through here on a regular basis.

Blue Jay taking peanuts from wreath w sig.jpgOne way I’ve found to entice them to stay for a bit longer is to put whole peanuts in one of these ring feeders so that they have to tug on it to get it out.

If you’ve ever used a birding app or field guide, you’ve probably noticed that bird vocalizations are described in two distinct categories: songs and calls. Songs are most often associated with breeding behavior like attracting a mate or protecting a territory, whereas calls are much more varied in purpose. There are contact calls, used to keep in touch with mates or juveniles while foraging, calls to communicate with other birds in a flock during migration, or alarm calls of varying urgency. As I was writing this I realized that blue jays don’t have much of a typical song. Their raucous calls are impossible not to notice, but their song is a very soft series of whistling and clicking sounds that’s easy to overlook. You can hear an example of their song on Cornell’s All About Birds site, here. Just scroll to the bottom past all of the calls to the “whisper song.”

Blue Jay juvenile begging w sig

Recently fledged juvenile being fed by a parent

The more I think about this bird, the more interesting it becomes. Such a study in contrasts — big, noisy, and aggressive one moment, then skittish and seemingly shy the next.

Blue Jay portrait on hook w sigEven though blue jays are year-round residents here, we still see large flocks of them moving along the Lake Erie shore each spring. Researchers still have many questions about why some blue jays migrate and others don’t. I’ll never forget the first time I looked up and saw a silent river of blue jays streaming along the shore just east of Toledo. There were hundreds of them in a long, narrow avian ribbon, flowing from west to east, not making a sound. Such a fascinating contrast to the noisy birds that visit my yard!

Blue Jay feather - one inch long w sigYou might be wondering about my title, “Monday Blues are Fake News.” Well, let me explain that. The blue jay’s scientific name is Cyanocitta cristata, referring to the blue color (cyanos) and their crested head (cristata). But did you know that blue jays aren’t really blue? Like other “blue” birds, their feathers only appear blue to us due to microscopic structures that reflect all the other colors of light except for blue.  If you crush the feather of a cardinal, it will be red. But if you crush a blue jay feather, it will be brown. The feathers of blue grosbeaks, bluebirds, and indigo buntings contain these same blue-light-reflecting structures. That’s such a fun fact to throw out once in a while to make myself sound smart. 🙂

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12 Responses to Monday Blues are Fake News

  1. patricia clair says:

    Learned something new about blue jays! They are so pretty.

  2. Very nice Kim! Especially liked the feather image!

  3. Littlesundog says:

    Your photographs are outstanding, Kim! We have Blue Jays here all year long and I find them a delight to observe. I’m glad you explained about the blue feathers not truly being blue. I have told more people about this (you mentioned this in a comment on my blog recently) and no one I’ve talked to knew about this phenomenon. Thank you for educating me so much!! You are my bird guru!!

  4. Lisa at Greenbow says:

    The whisper song of.the Jay is an interesting sound. I think I have attributed this to Starlings before. I will have to pay closer attention this summer.

    • Kim Smith says:

      Lisa, yep, most people would never attribute that series of sounds to a blue jay. But once you know what it is, and can locate the bird that’s making the sounds, your brain will never forget it.

  5. Ardys says:

    I noticed the Jays are in the Corvidae family, along with Crows and Magpies. I believe Corvids are thought to be some of the smartest of all birds, certainly the Crow is. We have Pied Butcher Birds here, that are very closely related to Magpies and they have the most gorgeous song. I would have never known that Jay song if I hadn’t heard it, it doesn’t really sound like most bird songs. Thank you, as always, Kim, for an enlightening post! Blue or not, Jays are stunning looking birds.

    • Kim Smith says:

      Ardys, yes, they are very smart! They are able to perfectly mimic the call of a red-shouldered hawk, and I’ve seen very experienced birders get fooled by that occasionally.

  6. Ginny Mann says:

    Thanks for the whisper link. loved it

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