Bird Watcher's General Store

Blue Jays Quiet When Nesting - 05/02/08


Dear Bird Folks,

During the spring my husband and I like to take early morning walks. We enjoy hearing the songs of the robins, cardinals, orioles and all of the other birds that make up the dawn chorus. Recently, I realized that one significant bird has been missing. For some reason we never hear Blue Jays on our morning walks. How could that be? Why is the bird with the biggest mouth not singing with all the others?

- Ana, Ledyard, CT

It's the casino,

Ana, Unless I've misheard those endless TV ads, Ledyard, CT is the home of the Foxwoods Casino. Right? It's well known that any Blue Jay within fifty miles of a casino never gets out of bed before noon. Why is that, you ask? Well, in a recent study printed in last month's Birds and Blackjack Magazine, it seems that jays are hardcore blackjack players. Who knew? According to the article, the birds keep such late nights sitting at the tables, they are too tired to get up early with all of the other birds. At first I was a little skeptical of this story, but after I started thinking about it, it also explains why jays are such hogs at our feeders. They are probably selling the extra seed for cash to feed their gambling habit. Suddenly it all comes to together.

Very good observation, Ana. When most songbirds awaken on a spring morning, the first thing they do, even before breakfast, is announce their territory. Regardless if they already have a mate, the insecure male birds are so paranoid of losing their territories that they sing constantly to make sure the other males know to stay away. Yet, strangely enough, the male Blue Jay, a bird that is often accused of being aggressive, a bully and loud, is so self-confident that he doesn't bother singing to keep the other jays away. The male Blue Jay is like the Fonz. He's totally cool and he knows it.

In late winter or early spring the jays can be rather loud and rowdy while they choose their mates. But once the pairs are formed the birds become amazingly quiet. They silently and peacefully go about picking a nest site, building a nest and laying eggs. For whatever reason, Blue Jays don't feel the need to defend territories the same way other songbirds do. There is no early morning singing. They don't chase each other back and forth across our yards like the revved-up orioles do. They don't bang their heads against the sides of our homes like the woodpeckers. And they certainly don't attack their own reflections in our windows like those idiot robins and cardinals do. In one of nature's least noticed ironies, the Blue Jay, a bird that's always ready to rumble, breeds with a maturity that other birds and many humans could learn from.

Don't get me wrong; the feisty Blue Jays haven't gone soft. The energy and aggression that they save by not fighting with each other can be turned against a predator in a flash. The instant a hawk, owl, snake, cat or kid with an evil eye gets close to a nest, every jay in the state will come screaming like it's Armageddon. Also, young, unmated jays can be heard throughout the spring noisily looking for mates, which they may or may not find. So if you hear a jay or two yelling in late spring it is probably just a few young punks that haven't figured out the marriage thing yet.

Mated Blue Jays are fun birds to watch. During the later stages of courtship the male is totally sweet to the female. He serenades her with soft, un-jay-like calls and brings her bits of food. He then passes the food from his beak to hers. This kind of food-passing courtship might work great for jays, but it totally backfired on me when I tried courting my wife the same way. Not only did she not dig it, but we were asked to never go back to that restaurant again.

Even during nest building the male continues his engaging ways. He searches for just the right twig take to his mate. She then builds the nest from material that he gathers for her. Once the nest is completed she lays the eggs and begins to incubate them. While she is sitting on her eggs the dedicated father continues feeding her. After the eggs hatch the female will stay on the nest to keep the nestlings warm, forcing dad to work even harder to find food for both mom and the chicks. Providing all of that food is a lot of work for the male, but if he is anything like me, I'm sure he would much rather be out all day looking for food than have to stay home with the kids.

Don't worry about the Blue Jays, Ana. They are doing fine. Although, I'll admit it does seem odd that one of our most vocal birds can become basically silent just when all of the other birds are at their loudest. I guess that's one more reason to like jays. They are handsome, self-confident and cool in whatever they do. Just like the Fonz.



Artwork by Catherine Clark


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