Mid-August has arrived, that pause-button time of summer when all the busy activity of the breeding season has wound down but the first changes of fall aren't showing yet. The days are still hot but the mornings are quiet now. Baby birds are full-sized and our fawns and bear cubs are starting to stretch their legs and venture further away from their moms. A number of our migratory birds will already start grouping up and moving south with the next big cold front, so watch for orioles and rose-breasted grosbeaks at feeders on those blustery, drizzly days after a storm. Every year when the seasonal birds quiet down, one raucous year-round resident starts to make itself known again: the blue jay.
Blue jays are quite common and a lot of bird watchers consider them a nuisance bird. I think these highly intelligent, enigmatic members of the corvid genus deserve more credit than many people give them. Blue jays are instantly recognizable with their bright blue crest and back and black neck ring. Their loud squawking cry is heard all year, but in late summer and fall it can be one of the most common sounds you'll hear outside. Blue jays have a complex social structure and have very strong pair and family bonds. Most couples mate for life, with males and females both working hard at nest-building and parenting. Baby blue jays are often fed by their parents for several weeks after they leave the nest, and there's no predictable timetable for how long it takes for them to become independent; it can be 30 to 60 days or longer depending on the brood. People often find "abandoned" blue jay nestlings on the ground. These are just adventurous little birds who've decided to leave the nest ahead of fledging. The parents know they're there, but generally won't feed them until they return home — a universal parenting principle. While blue jays live year-round throughout the eastern U.S., they are technically a migratory bird. The thing is, no one really understands how or why blue jays migrate even though they're a common and highly visible bird. Some of them move north and south with the seasons along the Great Lakes and Atlantic coasts in large flocks. Some of them depart in spring as individuals, and the ones that live on the Florida peninsula don't leave at all. About 80% of blue jays don't migrate at all. And no one really knows why!
Blue jays get a bad rap for being an aggressive bird. I think this is largely because they're loud and conspicuous. They're known for stealing nestlings of other bird species, but a large study of blue jay diets showed that only 1% of birds had evidence of eggs or baby birds in their stomachs. In my experience, I've seen them stalk songbird nests and be chased off by the brooding parents, but I've never actually seen them successfully raid a nest. (I have however seen blue jay nest raided by other corvids). Despite their reputation, blue jays are often dominated by woodpeckers, grackles and even squirrels at feeders. Most of what they eat appears to be nuts and insects. Blue jays are very beneficial to forests because they carefully cache healthy acorns and are crucial to oak forest succession. They're credited with generating the spread of oak forests throughout the U.S. and Canada after the last glacial period. Like other corvids, they're able to solve problems and puzzles and in captivity will sometimes use tools and imitate human speech. Blue jays are known for their loud "jay" call, but they have extensive vocabularies and expertly mimic raptors including red-shouldered and red-tailed hawks.
So give these very cool birds a chance. They like platform feeders and will also eat off of the ground. Adding suet pellets and mealworms to seed mixes is ideal for these omnivores. They also enjoy feed and mineral blocks for deer. I hope everyone lets these important contributors to the forest ecology join the other birds at the feeder buffet.