Monday, April 4, 2011

Blue Jays

Blue Jays(Cyanocitta cristata) are easily one of the most recognized birds in Missouri. Their distinctive blue and white plumage and their loud obnoxious calls make them unmistakable. They are located throughout the Central and Eastern United States and parts of Canada. There may be migratory populations in the Western United States. Males and females look alike and their plumage does not change with the seasons like many other songbirds do. A signature mark of this species is the black collar around their neck. Males measure 9 to 12 inches in length with wingspans up to 17 inches....females may be a little smaller. Blue jays also have a crest on top their heads, which they raise when alarmed. These birds are the sentry of the woods, calling out loudly to advertise to all forest residents that danger is lurking nearby.

Blue jay feathers, like many other birds with vibrantly colored feathers are referred to as structural coloration, which means the color is caused by light refraction, rather than any true pigment. If you were to crush the feather it would lose its structural integrity and therefore lose its color too. I found this blue jay feather in our timber, where perhaps the bird is molting into its new springtime feathers. Birds must molt their feathers a couple of times each year. Some will molt into new breeding colors, others like the blue jay merely molt into new, more structurally sound feathers. I love hunting for feathers and have a small collection of them I have found over the years, I think they are among one of the most intricate and beautiful things found in nature.

Blue jays have a large, varied diet that will include nuts such as acorns, seeds, berries, fruit, insects, other bird eggs, small frogs, and other vertebrates. I've witnessed them consuming dog food, cat food and garbage. They are common backyard visitors and many people have mixed feelings about their presence. They are known to be aggressive and will often run more timid songbirds away from feeders and they will even invade the nests of other birds and destroy eggs and nestlings. I've heard people refer to them as "trash birds" which is unfortunate, because they truly are remarkable birds with gorgeous coloring and unique habits. I have at least three nesting pairs each spring and each are welcome visitors. They seem to get along well with the other birds at the feeders, at least for the most part. They often hoard nuts and bury them in the ground, and much like squirrels do that share this same habit they often forget where they buried them. This forgetful nature benefits the trees by allowing the buried seeds to sprout and encourage new trees to grow. From this stand point they help plant trees, which helps the forest grow and succeed. 

The moment a little boy is concerned with which is a jay and which is a sparrow, he can no longer see the birds or hear them sing.  ~Eric Berne

Mating season begins in mid-March and continues until Mid-April. Nests are built in bushes, trees or other suitable locations (they seem to prefer evergreens). Pairs bond for life and both sexes will work together to build the nest. The male will look after his female and even feed her as she sits on the eggs. Typically she will lay four eggs and they will hatch in about 3 weeks. Both mom and dad will take care of feeding the young and they will be ready to fledge the nest in about 3 weeks. The parents and offspring will remain together until fall, when they will go their separate ways. This helps to avoid food competition in the winter when food is more scarce.

In old African-American folklore of the southern United States the Blue Jay was held to be a servant of the Devil, and "was not encountered on a Friday as he was fetching sticks down to Hell; furthermore, he was so happy and chirpy on a Saturday as he was relieved to return from Hell"

Blue jays are highly intelligent and are able to solve simple puzzles and will utilize "tools" to help gain them access to food. They are very vocal and are capable of learning a wide variety of sounds, including human voices, dogs barking, cats mewing, and hawks screetching.  They reside in a wide variety of habitats, including coniferous and deciduous forests, suburban and urban backyards as well rural areas. They are very common in all their range and are even spreading further westward to the Northwestern territories. In these areas they may interbreed with Stellars Jays. 

The oldest blue jay studied by researchers in the wild lived to be 17 years and 6 months old, most blue jays live to about 7 years old. One captive female lived for 26 years and 3 months.

As spring returns and the birds are busy nesting and tirelessly feeding their offspring is a perfect time to exercise some tolerance and appreciate all of the native wild birds that make our backyards their home.

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