Migration topic: the charismatic yet vexing blue jay

Some bird species that live on flying insects saw the biggest declines, including the chimney swift, the Eastern phoebe and the tree swallow. But even the more common blue jay saw a 25-percent decline over the survey years between 1989 and 2013.

I love fall migration, especially the mornings when I don’t have to be at my National Park Service job until 10:30 a.m., and I have an hour or so to work my local patch before commuting. However, as much as I delight in finding fox sparrows, yellow-rumped warblers, and sharp-shinned hawks zipping past, I have to survive the blue jay migration.

I used to enjoy blue jays. Sure, they can behave like bullies at the bird feeder – squawking when they arrive, causing all the other birds to scatter. And sure, they eat other birds’ eggs, but many birds do that, so I can’t just criticize the blue jay. I used to enjoy their jaunty hops on deck rails, their ability to cache peanuts, and their mimicry. My relationship with the blue jay was cordial until I got a cockatiel. For whatever reason, blue jays make him sound the alarm. I don’t understand why. Cockatiels are an Australian species so why would a North American jay cause him to panic and warn everyone in a one-mile radius that a dangerous blue jay is nearby? But in the fall, when hundreds blue jays pass through our yard calling like crazy, our cockatiel’s loud freak-out is a daily occurrence.

When I was young, it never occurred to me that blue jays migrate because they were a permanent fixture in my parents’ backyard in Indiana. But they probably weren’t the same jays year round. My first encounter with migrating blue jays was at Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory in Duluth, Minn. I was new to the world of hawk watching, and though I had read about “kettles of hawks” I had no idea how to identify a flock of hawks. So I pointed at the first large flock of medium-sized birds that flew past, and someone told me they were migrating blue jays.

We know little about blue jay migration. Some blue jays migrate from the northern North America to the southern United States. We see flocks of hundreds of birds on the move in the spring and fall. On Sept. 12, 2015, Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory counted more than 10,000 blue jays flying past the ridge. Yet many blue jays in the fall gobble up and store food, and quite a few blue jays visit bird feeders all winter. When I helped out at a hawk trapping station, blue jays frequently would fly down and grab leftover corn that the bait pigeons didn’t eat. If you were migrating, why would you need to cache food for the winter? There’s speculation that only birds of a certain age migrate or that the prevalence of food available in winter from bird feeders might be changing their migratory pattern, this encouraging them to stick around.

Regardless, it will relieve my eardrums when their numbers in my neighborhood diminish and stop setting off my cockatiel alarm. If you do not own a cockatiel and want to feed blue jays through the winter, they love corn, peanuts, sunflower seeds and nut-flavored suets.

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