Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Adirondack Birds: The Noisy Blue Jay

800px-Blue_Jay_with_PeanutStarting in early autumn, a profound silence pervades the forests of the Adirondacks, especially on frosty mornings when the air is calm. In the hours following dawn, only a few avian voices disturb the stillness, such as the soulful song of the nuthatch and the perky call of the chickadee. Yet it is the loud, raucous, squawking voice of the blue jay that prominently violates the solitude of our deep woods and forest edges. During the weeks immediately following the equinox, a new phase begins in the life of this familiar backyard bird, signaled by the intensity of its boisterous calls.

The blue jay strongly prefers to reside in temperate forests where oak trees abound. While this omnivore feeds on a wide array of plant and animal matter, acorns are its preferred food. Any place in which it can secure an adequate supply of these marble-size seeds often becomes a permanent home to this handsome feathered creature. Because of the near total absence of oaks in the Central Adirondacks, the blue jay only uses our interior woodlands for nesting purposes, and then quickly abandons the area as the availability of berries diminishes and the number of bugs dwindles.

In the lowlands on the periphery of the Park, enough oak trees exist to sustain a small population of blue jays throughout the winter. While there is very limited research into the migratory behavior of this bird, it is believed that some of the blue jays observed in the southern foothills on the fringe of the Mohawk Valley, throughout the Champlain Basin, in the St. Lawrence Valley, and west of the Oswegatchie, are individuals that have traveled into the region from further north. The arrival of these migrants triggers a bout of verbal uproar among the birds that nested in the general area. While some of these birds may remain for the winter, others opt to spend the coming season in a more favorable location and vacate the region. It has been reported that some individuals migrate one year and remain the next, only to leave again the following year. It is believed by some naturalists that the decision to migrate may be dependent on the availability of food (i.e. the abundance of acorns).

During years when the acorn crop is good, the blue jay will collect hundreds to over a thousand of these meaty seeds during the autumn and store them in a variety of locations. While some are buried, others are placed inside a cavity of dead trees, in the crotch between two large joined trunks, behind loose slabs of rotting bark, or on a pile of debris entangled in the closely-spaced boughs of a cedar or other conifer. Like the chickadee, the blue jay has an exceptional memory for recalling the location of hundreds of different caches of acorns. By placing its food in many separate stashes, it ensures that if several are plundered by an intruder, there are many others to rely on when food is needed.

Along with having a section of its brain that can remember many separate locations, the ability of the blue jay to reason and to interact socially with family members and neighbors is considered to be one of the most highly developed among birds. For example, it is believed that some blue jays will create enough of a vocal disturbance upon seeing a small animal foraging on the ground, like a gray squirrel or rabbit, to draw the attention of a nearby predator such as a fox or coyote. Should the carnivore come to investigate the noise, notice the prey and then make a kill, the blue jays will follow and wait until the predator discards the carcass for its meal of uneaten meat scraps.

In the absence of acorns, some blue jays are able to realize that they may be able to get enough sunflower seeds and suet from feeders in a neighborhood to keep them properly nourished throughout the winter. As a result, this resourceful bird may be seen around villages and towns throughout the Park during the winter, although some of their family members may elect to leave for the season if they sense that weather conditions could become intolerable.

As the foliage begins to brighten, and nears its peak, many blue jays are leaving the region for more favorable settings. As they pass through places in which resident blue jays live, there is a vocal exchange between them. However, the persistent squawking of this bird heard during the summer in the High Peaks, along the Moose River Plain, or in the West Canada Lake wilderness will shortly be replaced with silence. Undoubtedly its loud calls will still echo through the trees in places where bird feeders exist, or where scattered clusters of oaks occur, disturbing the silence on calm, frosty mornings here in the Adirondacks.

Blue jay photo courtesy Wikimedia user Saforrest.

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Tom Kalinowski is an avid outdoor enthusiast who taught field biology and ecology at Saranac Lake High School for 33 years. He has written numerous articles on natural history for Adirondack Life, The Conservationist, and Adirondack Explorer magazines and a weekly nature column for the Lake Placid News. In addition, Tom’s books, An Adirondack Almanac, and his most recent work entitled Adirondack Nature Notes, focuses on various events that occur among the region’s flora and fauna during very specific times of the calendar year. He also spends time photographing wildlife. Tom’s pictures have appeared in various publications across the New York State.

2 Responses

  1. Mark f says:

    very interesting, thanks!

  2. SwilliAm says:

    Very interesting, indeed. I did know blue jays are fellow members of the Corvidae family, including crows, magpies and ravens, but I had no idea they scavenged as the others do. I never considered blue jays as intelligent as the crows and ravens, but come to think of it I remember robber jays being quite clever around the campsite.

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