By Tom Dennis
Blue Jay, Cyanocitta cristata
The Blue Jay invasion is back in full force as it is every spring and fall with large numbers of these colorful and raucous birds migrating through the Blue Water Area. Most of this “blue wave” will continue to lower latitudes for the winter however, we are on the northern edge of their year round range. While they are here cleaning out our bird feeders, let’s take the opportunity to study some of their unique features and habits.
Blue Jays are a medium-sized bird and the sexes look alike with bright blue upperparts, pale gray underparts, a large blue head crest, and a white throat surrounded with a stark black necklace. You may have heard that their feathers have no blue pigment and it’s true; the blue color is strictly structural and is seen only when light is refracted through the feather. You can crush one of the feathers and the blue color will disappear! I’m sure you have noticed that these birds are very noisy with their loud and harsh “jay jay” calls but they have a large repertoire of vocalizations that can be quite musical such as the fluty, “rusty pump” call. They are excellent mimics and make calls ranging from those of the Chickadee to local hawks to the squeaky swing set, and they can even learn to mimic human speech.
The genus name Cyanocitta is from the Greek words kyaneos “blue” and kitta or kissa “chattering bird or jay”. The specific epithet cristata, is derived from Latin and refers to the prominent blue crest. Their loud sounds benefit the songbird community by serving as a warning of hawks and other predatory animals. They also gang up to drive out predatory birds, squirrels, cats, and other creatures. They are omnivores, eating a wide variety of plants and animals and the strong black bill is well suited to cracking nuts which they do while holding them with their feet.
Like other members of the corvid family (crows and jays), they are considered highly curious and intelligent. Young birds will snatch and play with brightly colored or shiny objects. In captivity they have been known to use twigs as tools to attempt to open the doors of their cages. Because of their intelligence, they are highly adaptive in nest building, taking advantage of available materials and even appropriating nests from other bird species. Any suitable tree will do but they prefer evergreen species and will use shrubs or man-made structures. The nest is composed of twigs, roots or bark, and the cup is lined with feathers, paper, cloth or other plant materials. Blue Jays typically form monogamous pair bonds for life and both sexes build the nest and feed the young but only the female broods them.
Now, since the Blue Jays have wiped out most of the leftover seed, let this be a reminder that October is the month that overwintering birds establish their feeding patterns. If you haven’t already done so, you should clean your feeders using a mild bleach solution, rinse and dry well, then stock with good quality seed. This, along with a heated water source, will help to ensure an enjoyable season of bird watching while you help them survive the winter.
Tom Dennis is a free-lance writer, passionate birder, zoologist, and naturalist.
Tom Dennis is a resident of Fort Gratiot where he and Laurie Melms Dennis, his wife of 45 years, tend to their bird and butterfly friendly gardens. He is a speaker and free-lance writer, passionate birder, advanced master gardener, creation scientist, and naturalist, with degrees from Michigan State University in Zoology and Biology. Tom is an active member of Blue Water Audubon Society, Master Gardeners of St. Clair County, Port Huron Civic Theater, Ross Bible Church, Tapestry Garden Club, Blueways of St. Clair, and is a steward of the Blue Water Riverwalk with Friends of the St. Clair River.
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