Contributed by Winsor Marrett Tyler
[Published in 1947: Smithsonian Institution United States National Museum Bulletin 191: 32-52]
The blue jay is a strong, healthy-looking bird, noisy and boisterous. He gives us the impression of being independent, lawless, haughty, even impudent, with a disregard for his neighbors' rights and wishes--like Hotspur, as we meet him in Henry IV, part 1.
To be sure, the jay has his quiet moments, as we shall see, but his mercurial temper, always just below the boiling point, is ever ready to flare up into rage and screaming attack, or, like many another diplomat, beat a crafty retreat. He is a strikingly beautiful bird--blue, black, and white, big and strong, his head carrying a high, pointed crest which in anger shoots upward like a flame. Walter Faxon long ago told me of a distinguished visiting English ornithologist who was eager to see a live blue jay because he considered it the finest bird in the world. He was surprised to find that this beauty, as he called it, is one of our common birds.
Originally a wild bird of the woods, the jay was canny enough to adapt itself to civilization, and nowadays it often builds its nest close to man, even in our gardens.
Spring.--Although the blue jay is considered a permanent resident over a large portion of its breeding range, and instances are known of a banded bird visiting a feeding station throughout the year, there is plenty of evidence that as a species the jay is highly migratory. In New England we detect little actual migration in spring, as a rule. Although jays become more numerous and noisier as summer approaches, they steal in without attracting much attention. E. A. Doolittle (1919) cites an observation in Ohio that may account for the inconspicuousness of the jay in its northward migration. He says: "By chance I looked up and saw five Blue Jays flying about fifty feet above the tree tops, and before my glance had ended others came into view and still others behind them. They were flying northeast and keeping very quiet. I began to count them, and in about fifteen minutes' time had seen ninety-five Jays. And this does not begin to number those that passed, for, on account of the trees, my view to each side was much restricted, and there is no telling how many had gone on before I casually looked up. They were in a long stream, with now and then a bunch of five to fifteen."
W. Bryant Tyrrell (1934) describes a striking assemblage of jays at Whitefish Point, Mich., which were preparing "to cross the eighteen miles of Lake Superior to the Canadian shore"--a favorable migration route. He says:
Extending south, back of the dunes--along the Lake Superior shore, is a wooded region composed mostly of Jack pine, broken by small swampy areas. In this wooded region the birds [of various species] congregate by the thousands before migrating north across Lake Superior. It was in these Jack pines that I saw hundreds--if not thousands--of Blue Jays (Cyanocitta c. cristata) on the morning of June 5, 1930. It was a dull cloudy morning with a chilly northwest wind blowing off Lake Superior. When we arrived at the Point, soon after daylight, the birds, mostly Blue Jays. . . were exceedingly restless, apparently waiting to go north but not caring to venture across in a northwest wind. The Blue Jays made very little noise but were constantly milling around, usually in flocks of varying size. A flock would form and fly off towards the lighthouse, circling and rising all the time until they were over the lighthouse several hundred feet high. They would continue to circle and then would come quietly but quickly back to the pines, only to repeat the same procedure in a short while. By the middle of the morning they had broken up into small flocks and gone off into the woods for the day to feed, congregating again in the evening. Each morning the same maneuvers took place until the morning of June 11 when the wind changed to the northeast and the weather became much warmer. On this date the birds were again circling, though flying so high that at times they were almost out of sight. I did not see a single flock actually start and fly off across the lake, but on the morning of the 12th there was hardly a bird to be found in the Jack pines.
Courtship.--A survey of the literature brings little to light in regard to the courtship of the blue jay. We may infer therefore that courtship is not a conspicuous feature of the bird's behavior. Mr. Bent describes in his notes some actions having the appearance of mild courtship. He says under date April 30, 1940:
This morning about 7:30 I saw a flock of 7 or 8 blue jays having a merry time in the top of a large oak in my yard. They were apparently courting. I could not distinguish the sexes, of course. Perhaps there was only one female, and the males were all following her, just as male dogs will follow a female in heat. Several of them, presumably males, were bobbing up and down as they do when they make that musical note often heard at other times, but I heard no notes. They were constantly changing places in the tree and chasing each other about. At least one was evidently trying to escape, or perhaps starting a game of "follow the leader." Finally, one did fly away and all the others trooped after it. Perhaps they were only playing a game; if so, it was a lively one.
I saw (Tyler, 1920) a similar gathering of jays at about the same time of year (April 6, 1913) acting much the same way. "Ten of the birds were sitting in a bare tree. A few were mounting toward the top of the tree by stiff upward leaps, the others, well scattered high in the tree, sat quiet; most of the company were screaming. Every few seconds came the growling note, a sound which suggested a 'snoring' frog, the quick tapping of a Woodpecker, or the exhaust from a distant motorcycle --g-r-r-r. During the growl, and immediately after it, one or two birds, and perhaps more, moved up and down as if the branch on which they sat were swaying. There was none of the teetering motion of a Spotted Sandpiper; the whole bird rose and sank as a man would move up and down on his tiptoes. Soon the birds flew off [as did Mr. Bent's] in a screaming company and were joined by other Jays."
Hervey Brackbill sent the following account of "Courtship Feeding" to Mr. Bent: "About sunset, 7:06 p.m., May 9, 1939, I noticed three jays in the top of a tall oak but paid no attention to them until I saw one feed another. Then I began to watch and shortly saw another feeding. For a long time at least one of the birds frequently uttered the little note that sounds like quick, and for a while one sang much like a catbird. This went on for some minutes, but as the birds kept moving about in the treetops and were often hidden in thick foliage, I could not tell how many feedings there were or whether there was copulation."
Nesting.--Bendire (1895), in his excellent account of the blue jay, says: "It prefers mixed woods to live in, especially oak and beech woods, but for nesting sites dense coniferous thickets are generally preferred; oaks, elms, hickories, and various fruit trees, thorn bushes, and shrubbery overrun with vines are also used, the nests being placed in various situations, sometimes in a crotch or close to the main trunk, or on the extremity of a horizontal limb, among the outer branches. They are placed at distances from the ground varying from 5 to 50 feet, but usually below 20 feet. . . . I believe but one brood is usually reared in a season, but in the South they may occasionally raise two."
Describing typical nests, he says: "The nests are generally well hidden and are rather bulky but compactly built structures, averaging from 7 to 8 inches in outer diameter by 4 to 4 1/2 inches in depth; the inner cup measures about 3 1/2 to 4 inches in diameter by 2 1/2 inches in depth. Outwardly they are composed of small twigs (thorny ones being preferred), bark, moss, lichens, paper, rags, strings, wool, leaves, and dry grasses, the various materials being well incorporated and sometimes cemented together with mud, but not always; the lining is usually composed exclusively of fine rootlets. Occasionally the Blue Jay will take the nest of another species by force."
John R. Cruttenden writes to Mr. Bent from Illinois: "A peculiar habit of this bird is to line its nest with a piece of cloth or waste paper. This is true in the majority of nests placed near dwellings or in the city, undoubtedly because of the more abundant supply of materials in the city, although the habit is not unusual in nests situated away from man." Henry Mousley (1916) reports: "Evidently the Blue Jay betakes itself to very secluded spots during the breeding season, as I have only succeeded so far in finding one nest, in May of the present year (1915), and had never seen the bird before during the months of June, July and August." Mr. Mousley is speaking here of his experience in Hatley, Quebec. Farther to the south, in New England and the Middle Atlantic states, however, the jay commonly breeds in thickly settled regions, often near houses, as the following observations show.
Frederic H. Kennard (1898) writes: "We have a pair of Blue Jays (Cyanocitta cristata) in Brookline, Mass., that have this year built their nest in a most conspicuous place, between the stems of a Wisteria vine and the capitol of a pillar, supporting a piazza roof. This piazza is in almost daily use, and the path leading immediately beside it is also used constantly." Charles R. Stockard (1905), writing of Mississippi, says: "With the exception of the English Sparrow, the Blue Jay is probably the most abundant bird in the state. The shade trees bordering the streets of towns, the groves near dwelling houses, trees along road sides, orchards, pastures, and pine woods as well as thick woods, are nesting localities of this bird. One nest was placed in a tree crotch not more than six feet from a bedroom window, thus one might look out on the bird as she sat calmly upon her eggs, and later she was not noticeably nervous while feeding her nestlings before an audience of several persons who observed the performance from the window."
I remember some years ago seeing a nest containing eggs in a situation with no concealment whatever--on the cross-beam of an electric light pole. The pole stood near a flight of steps used continually by pedestrians in crossing over the tracks at the main railroad station in Lexington, Mass. From the steps I might have touched the sitting bird with an umbrella. Needless to say, the nest was soon knocked down, presumably by boys.
On June 12, 1942, in Tiverton, R.I., Roland C. Clement showed us a most unusual blue jay's nest under the overhang of a cutbank beside a woodland road, which held at that time a brood of nearly fledged young. As he did not get a chance to photograph it, he has sent us the following description of it: "The recessed face of the cutbank in which the nest is placed lies only 10 feet from the farm road, the cut itself being about 6 feet high and its concavity amounting to about 10 inches two feet below the overhanging brink. In this sheltered recess two stout oak roots of 1 inch diameter reach out horizontally into space, intersecting past their exerted centers, and in this crotch our adaptable jays have firmly anchored an otherwise typical nest. The nest is thus about 4 feet from the ground below and, though not absolutely secure from molestation by terrestrial predators which would probably clamber up to it without undue difficulty because of the moderate incline of the bank, it is indeed inconspicuous among the pendant roots and rootlets of the vegetation above, which presently consists merely of shrubs such as Corylus and Myrica.
"The nest itself is well and firmly woven of long, pliant dead twigs of various species, including some spiny stems of Smilax and a few culms of coarse grass, as well as a long strip of paper; and it is lined with fine rootlets, probably those of the brake fern (Pteris), which abounds nearby. The nest cavity is 4 1/2 inches long, parallel to the bank, and 4 inches wide."
Mrs. Harriet Carpenter Thayer (1901) watched the family life of a pair of blue jays at a nest at close range and states that the male aided in making the nest and that both birds incubated, "each relieving the other at more or less regular intervals. And the bird at play did not forget its imprisoned mate, but returned now and then with a choice bit of food, which was delivered with various little demonstrations of sympathy and affection."
Jays are very quiet about their nest. I knew of a nest near the center of the city of Cambridge, Mass., and if I had not happened to see the nest, I should not have suspected that jays were breeding near.
Bendire (1895) quotes W. E. Loucks, of Peoria, Ill., as saying: "A nest of a pair of Robins, built in an elm tree, was stolen and appropriated by a pair of these birds. It was fitted up to suit their needs, and eggs were deposited in it before the eyes of the angry Robins."
A. D. Dubois sent the following note to Mr. Bent: "While listening to the Memorial Day exercises in the auditorium at Chautauqua Grounds (a large pavilion with open sides) I noticed a jay which flew in from the side and up to a nest in one of the roof trusses, where it fed its young and flew out again. This is the first jay's nest I have ever found in a building of any kind."
Dr. Samuel S. Dickey reports that nests found by him have been in the following trees: 20 in white pines, 18 in hemlocks, 2 in red spruces, 2 in intermediate firs, 12 in white oaks, 5 in alders (Alnus incana and rugosa), and one each in a pitch pine, sour gum, Cassin's viburnum (only 3 1/2 feet from the ground), and flowering dogwood.
Eggs.--[AUTHOR'S NOTE: The northern blue jay ordinarily lays four or five eggs, sometimes as few as three, frequently six, and very rarely as many as seven. These are quite uniformly ovate in shape, with occasionally a tendency toward short or elliptical ovate; they have very little or no gloss. The ground color is very variable, and shows two very distinct types, an olive type and a buff type, with a much rarer bluish type; the olive type is by far the commonest. In eggs that I have examined, I have noted the following colors: "Olive-buff," "deep olive-buff," "dark olive-buff," pale "ecru-olive," "pale fluorite green," pale "lichen green," "pale glaucous green," "sea-foam yellow," "light buff," "light ochraceous-buff," "pinkish buff," "pale pinkish buff," and pale "vinaceous-buff." There are also many intermediate shades of pale olives, buffs, greens, and very pale "wood brown," down to pale dull blue, bluish white, or greenish white.
The eggs with the pinkish-buff ground color are often very pretty, being sparingly marked with small spots of bright or purplish browns, and with underlying spots of pale quaker drab or lavender. The pale greenish and bluish types are also sparingly marked with pale, dull browns or olives and a few underlying spots. The olive types are usually, but not always, more heavily marked with spots and small blotches of darker browns and olives of various shades. Some eggs are evenly marked over the entire surface with spots or fine dots, and in others the markings are concentrated at one end; an occasional egg has a few black dots.
The measurements of 135 eggs in the United States National Museum average 28.02 by 20.44 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 32.8 by 19.6, 25.9 by 22.4, 25.2 by 20.1, and 25.9 by 18.8 millimeters.]
Young.--From a comprehensive, carefully prepared study of the blue jay, a thesis for the degree of doctor of philosophy, sent to Mr. Bent in manuscript by John Ronald Arnold, the following observations are abstracted: The period of incubation was found to be 17 or 18 days in the vicinity of Ithaca, N.Y., and 17 days in New Jersey. The young at the time of hatching were limp, blind, and nearly naked. When 3 hours old they were able to raise their heads to the rim of the nest. By the fifth day the eyes were just beginning to open, and the birds grasped the lining of the nest with their claws. "During the eighth and ninth days the feathers in all the body tracts except the head and neck regions begin to break from their sheaths." By the seventeenth day the nestlings begin to resemble a blue jay and are almost ready to leave the nest. They leave 17 to 21 days after hatching.
In close agreement with these dates, Isabella McC. Lemmon (1904) gives the incubation period between May 2 and 19 and reports that the young flew on June 6.
Donald J. Nicholson (1936) writes, referring to the young Florida blue jay:
They leave the nest in from fifteen to eighteen days, at which time the tails are quite short, and the feathers not fully developed on any part of the body or wings. Their power of flight is not by any means strong when they first leave the nest, and only short spaces can be covered. Many a young bird at this time of the year falls an easy prey to cats and various snakes. . . .
In three weeks to a month, it is difficult to distinguish the young from the adults, but the face and throat is a smoky, dark color, instead of the rich black of the adult, and the bill is horn-colored, instead of black as in the parents; otherwise the plumage is apparently the same to all outward appearances. By the following spring no difference is seen. Even by fall I cannot discern a particle of difference. A fledgling when caught, if caught by anything, emits terrified screeches as if in mortal agony, bringing the parents to its defense at once.
Apparently the voice develops early; I have heard a young bird on leaving the nest shout almost as loudly as its parents.
Francis Zirrer has sent us the following note: "Although considered more or less a raptor, the young blue jay must learn about the various small game before it will touch it. At our woodland cabin we were greatly annoyed by various species of wild mice, especially Peromyscus. Throughout the winter many were caught and deposited on the feeding table in the morning. We noticed, however, that the majority of the blue jays, apparently the young birds of the previous summer, were plainly afraid of the mice. Coming to the table they would, with all signs of fright, jerk back, flutter with the wings and fly away. It was up to the old birds to take the mouse, fly with it to a nearby branch, and begin to tear it to pieces. And then the young birds would come near and were fed by the adults."
Plumages.--[AUTHOR'S NOTE: The following abstracts are taken from the manuscript thesis of John R. Arnold, referred to above. He has made a thorough study of the plumages of the blue jay, and says that the young are hatched naked and have no natal down at all. On the eighth and ninth days the body plumage begins to break the feather sheaths, and when the young bird leaves the nest, at an age of about 20 days, the juvenal plumage is largely grown and the bird is able to fly. He describes this plumage as follows: "Pileum between cadet gray and columbia blue. Feathers of forehead black at base with bluish-white tips. Superciliary line grayish white. Throat bluish white to white. Nuchal band black. Black of lores less pronounced than in adult. Back and lesser wing coverts light to deep mouse gray, tinged with blue. Wing and tail feathers as in first winter and similar to adult. Breast and flanks smoke gray, belly and under tail coverts white."
A partial post juvenal molt takes place when the bird is between 50 and 90 days out of the nest; this produces a first winter plumage that is hardly distinguishable from that of the adult, though somewhat paler and less violet on the head and neck, and with the bars on the tail less pronounced. This molt involves the contour plumage and the lesser wing coverts only.
Adults have a complete postnuptial molt between June and September.]
Food.--The blue jay eats almost every kind of digestible food; like its relative, the crow, it may be considered omnivorous. F. E. L. Beal (1897), in an exhaustive study to determine the exact economic status of the jay, published the results of an examination "of 292 stomachs collected in every month of the year from 22 states, the District of Columbia, and Canada." He says:
One of the first points to attract attention in examining these stomachs was the large quantity of mineral matter, averaging over 14 percent of the total contents. The real food is composed of 24.3 percent of animal matter and 75.7 percent of vegetable matter, or a trifle more than three times as much vegetable as animal. The animal food is chiefly made up of insects, with a few spiders, myriapods, snails, and small vertebrates, such as fish, salamanders, tree frogs, mice and birds. Everything was carefully examined which might by any possibility indicate that birds or eggs had been eaten, but remains of birds were found in only 2, and the shells of small birds' eggs in 3 of the 292 stomachs. . . .
Insects are eaten by blue jays in every month of the year, but naturally only in small quantities during the winter. The great bulk of the insect food consists of beetles, grasshoppers, and caterpillars. . . . The average for the whole year is nearly 23 percent.
Under vegetable food Professor Beal lists corn, wheat, oats, buckwheat, acorns, chestnuts, beechnuts, hazelnuts, sumac, knotweed, sorrel, apples, strawberries, currants, blackberries, mulberries, blueberries, huckleberries, wild cherries, chokecherries, wild grapes, serviceberries, elderberries, sour-gum berries, hawthorn, and pokeberries. He continues: "Grain is naturally one of the most important groups, and may be considered first. Wheat, oats, and buckwheat occur so seldom and in such small quantities (1.3 percent of the whole food) that they may be dismissed with slight comment. Wheat was found in only eight stomachs, oats in two, and buckwheat in one. The wheat was eaten in July, August, and September; oats in March and July, and buckwheat in October. Corn was found in seventy-one stomachs, and aggregates 17.9 percent of the food of the year. This is less than that eaten by the crow (21 percent) or by the crow blackbird (35 percent)." Professor Beal summarizes his findings thus:
The most striking point in the study of the food of the blue jay is the discrepancy between the testimony of field observers concerning the bird's nest-robbing proclivities and the results of stomach examinations. The accusations of eating eggs and young birds are certainly not sustained, and it is futile to attempt to reconcile the conflicting statements on this point, which must be left until more accurate observations have been made. In destroying insects the jay undoubtedly does much good. Most of the predaceous beetles which it eats do not feed on other insects to any great extent. On the other hand, it destroys some grasshoppers and caterpillars and many noxious beetles, such as Scarabaeids, click beetles (Elaterids), weevils (Curculionids), Bupestrids, Chrysomelids, and Tenebrionids. The blue jay gathers its fruit from nature's orchard and vineyard, not from man's; corn is the only vegetable food for which the farmer suffers any loss, and here the damage is small. In fact, the examination of nearly 300 stomachs shows that the blue jay certainly does far more good than harm.
William Brewster (1937) describes jays collecting acorns thus: "1898, September 30.--Several Jays spent the entire day harvesting acorns in a Red Oak that shades a village street of Bethel, Maine, taking them thence across open fields to rather distant woods. They invariably plucked them from the twigs while hovering on fluttering wings and not when perched. The acorns were still green where the cups covered them. Each Jay apparently always carried two at once, one in the mouth or throat, the other held in the tip of the bill."
Mr. Brewster (1937) also speaks of the jay as a flycatcher: "1888, September 9.--At sunset this evening when the air was warm, damp and calm, I saw about a dozen Blue Jays scattered about in the tops of small aspens growing by the Lake-shore where they were catching flying insects. In pursuit of these they would mount straight upward from ten to twenty feet and then return to their perches by swooping downward on set wings. Their flights were altogether so very like those of Kingbirds similarly engaged that I mistook them for birds of the latter species at first glance."
G. Gill (1920) tells of a blue jay trying to catch a mouse. "On Feb. 2, 1918," he says, "the scream of a Blue Jay rang out through the air, and, looking toward the barn, I saw the bird swooping down to the ground after something. I was interested at once, and at first I could not see what was running across the snow; when it reached the barn, where it was clear, I saw that it was a mouse.
"The Blue Jay boldly followed it right into the barn, dodging in and out of the wagons and pecking at the mouse at every chance it got. About this time the Blue Jay's mate joined the chase, but she was just a little too late. The mouse, nearly beaten, hopped into a friendly hole and escaped. For a little while the pair watched the hole, and then gave it up."
This would appear strange prey for a jay, but F. E. L. Beal (1897) states that "the jay kept in captivity by Mr. Judd showed a marked fondness for mice, and would devour them apparently with great relish."
W. L. McAtee (1914) calls attention to a bizarre feeding habit of the jay apparently seldom resorted to. He quotes Grace Ellicott from the Guide to Nature, 1908, p. 168, as follows:
The occupants of a recently disturbed ant hill were excitedly crawling about the hill and the adjacent cement walk. They were large, and to a blue jay in a neighboring tree they must have looked luscious, for flying down, the jay began to pick them up with an eagerness that seemed to say that this was an opportunity that might come his way but once. As rapidly as he could do it he seized the ants, with each capture lifting a wing, sometimes one, sometimes the other, and seemed to deposit his prey amongst the feathers back of and underneath it. So quickly he worked and with such evident eagerness to make the most of this rare occasion that, as he lifted the wing, putting his bill amongst the feathers, it often seemed that he must lose his balance and topple over backwards. But he kept his poise, worked on with all speed and had laid in quite a store when a passerby frightened him from his task. Whether this jay had only just discovered the most convenient of storehouses for his use or whether this food was to be carried to the nest for the young, for it was nesting time, he was most interesting.
McAtee comments on the observation as follows:
This Blue Jay was therefore taking advantage of the instinct of ants when disturbed to fasten their jaws onto any object that presents itself. . . . These three most interesting observations suggest that numerous birds may have the same or other wonderful habits about which we are ignorant. They should stimulate minute and careful research and comfort those who fear that all the interesting things have already been discovered. [See Auk, vol. 57, pp. 520-522, 1940, and vol. 58, p. 102, 1941, for other similar performances.]
Behavior.--The jay commonly progresses through the air steadily but rather slowly, although with full and regular quick flips of the wings. He keeps on an even keel and maintains a characteristically level flight. The long axis of the body is parallel to the ground, although his beak appears to point slightly downward, perhaps only because his crest gives the impression of a downward-sloping profile.
A company of jays, like their small relatives the chickadees, almost always fly across a wide, open space one at a time, at some distance from each other. They generally fly directly to the place where they are about to alight, rarely deviating from their courses by swerving from side to side, and, on arriving at their perch, often come to a stop deftly upon it in perfect balance, although they may sometimes alight, with head held proudly high, after a short upward-slanting sail. I have seen a jay come to rest on a slender vertical rod (a radio aerial) as neatly as any kingbird.
Sometimes, in making short flights, jays will undulate a little, sailing with wings held open longer than in the steady, level flight. Now, as they fly overhead, slowly and silently, they flap the wings back and without an instant's pause fan them out full again. Here there is a short pause with the wings expanded, during which the bird sinks a little in the air before the next stroke carries him on and upward again--very different from the undulating flight of a woodpecker, which closes its wings on the downward plunge.
William Brewster (1937) describes an unusual method of flight which he observed at Lake Umbagog. He writes: "1895, September 20.--About eight o'clock this morning I was standing on a wooded knoll near our camp at Pine Point, watching some small birds, when a sound resembling that of strong wind blowing through the pine tops came from directly overhead. It could not be ascribed to such an origin, however, for the air was then perfectly calm. The mystery remained unsolved until an hour or so later when I saw a dozen Blue Jays mount in a compact flock, by a spiral course, to a height of several hundred feet above the tallest trees and then dash almost straight down together, with half-closed wings, like so many stooping falcons, thereby producing a loud rushing sound exactly like that heard earlier in the morning."
The motions of a company of jays as they flit about among the branches of a tree are surprisingly easy, light, and graceful. The wings move slowly, like great moth's wings, yet the birds alight accurately on the branches, or float to the ground from which they often almost bounce up to a high perch again. With all their energy, alertness, and spirited behavior, jays seldom seem to be in a hurry; we never see them move with that intensely rapid, flashlike speed which is characteristic of many birds.
Nowadays we regard the blue jay as rather a tame bird--almost as tame as the robin--but Witner Stone (1926) states that in Germantown, Pa., the bird's habits have changed in the last 3 or 4 decades. He says: "When studying birds in Wister's woods and vicinity from 1880 to 1897, the Blue Jay was a very wild species occurring only during the autumn flights, but upon returning to reside in the old neighborhood after some thirty-five years absence I found the bird's habits totally changed. I was surprised to find a pair of Jays present about the end of May, 1922, acting as if they were located for the summer. Later, I detected them constructing a nest in a beech tree close to the railroad station about ten feet above a path along which hundreds of persons passed to and from the trains, and not over fifty feet from the tracks."
On the other hand, Nathan Clifford Brown (1879), writing of Coosada, Ala., says that the blue jay is a "very common resident, and, to one who has known the species only at the North, remarkably tame. I observed them feeding in the streets of Montgomery, and unsuspiciously flying about much after the manner of the domestic pigeons of Northern cities."
Individual jays react differently in the presence of man. Wilber F. Smith (1905) gives an instance of remarkable tameness in a sitting bird. He says:
To those knowing the Blue Jay only as a wild, shy bird of the tree tops, so hard to approach, or by reputation, as a thief or a robber of other birds' nests, there remains a pleasure like unto finding some new and rare bird, to watch a pair of Jays through the nesting season and to find them so devoted to their nest and young that they lose much of their shyness and allow a familiarity which very few other birds will tolerate. One pair of Jays built for several years in a tangle of briers near my home, and the female became so tame, through constant visiting, that I could at last spread her wings and tail-feathers without her leaving the nest, and even stroke her back with no further sign of disapproval than a settling lower in the nest and a parting of the bill.
Mrs. Harriet Carpenter Thayer (1901) says of a pair which nested in her garden: "The Jays were not at all shy, but on the contrary were very valiant and determined in standing by their home. Soon after the eggs were laid, the house-painters began work opposite the nest, and many sharp pecks they received on their ears and backs."
In its relation to small birds, consensus classes the blue jay as an outlaw and robber. Bendire (1895) says:
Few of our native birds compare in beauty of plumage and general bearing with the Blue Jay, and while one cannot help admiring him on account of his amusing and interesting traits, still even his best friends cannot say much in his favor, and though I have never caught one actually in mischief, so many close observers have done so that one cannot very well, even if so inclined, disprove the principal charge brought against this handsome freebooter. He is accused of destroying many of the eggs and young of our smaller birds, and this is so universally admitted that there can be no doubt to its truth. . . .
Mr. Manly Hardy, of Brewer, Maine, fully corroborates these statements, writing me as follows: "It is a great robber of birds' nests, taking both eggs and young. I also feel quite sure that in some cases it kills adult birds. . . . There is little doubt that they destroy many nests of eggs and young; all of the small birds say so."
Mrs. Marie Dales (1925) thus adds her testimony against the jay: "I saw a Blue Jay harassing a Mourning Dove, eighteen or twenty feet up in a tree. He would pluck out a mouthful of feathers and then retreat for a moment. When the dove had settled down, back would come the jay to torment her again. On closer observation I discovered the nest, wonderfully well hidden for a Mourning Dove's nest. The jay kept up his attacks for several minutes and finally the dove left the nest and went to her mate sitting on a limb farther out. This was just the opportunity the jay was waiting for. He hopped to the nest, pecked a hole in the egg and carried it off." William Brewster (1937) states that he "saw a Blue Jay take an egg from a Robin's nest and fly off with it, hotly pursued by the outraged Robin."
The following story, sent to Mr. Bent by Dr. Daniel S. Gage, gives an interesting sidelight on the blue jay's character: "I once saw a demonstration that animals note the warning cries of the blue jay. I was walking on a trail in the Flat Top Mountains of Colorado. A porcupine was waddling along ahead of me. The trail ran through an open space several hundred yards across, dense woods bordering it on all sides. The porcupine was going away from me and did not notice me, as he could not see behind him as he waddled along. He stopped repeatedly to nibble at some plants at the side of the trail. I halted each time he stopped to bite at a plant, and he did not note me at all, although I was only a few feet behind him. Suddenly, from the woods some hundred yards away, a blue jay shrieked his jay, jay, jay. He had seen me. Instantly, the porcupine raised his quills, rose to his hind feet and sniffed in each direction. Then he noticed me, although I was standing perfectly still, eyed me carefully, his quills erect. Then finally, with angry mien and raised quills, he dropped down and ran as fast as he could into the forest."
Aretas A. Saunders reports: "A family of jays came to my bird bath fairly regularly late in summer. Six birds would come together and stand about the edge of the bath while each one in turn bathed," and Mr. Bent calls attention to the jay's habit of sunning itself. He says: "I have been amused lately in watching them sunning themselves on my lawn, even on the hottest days. Usually the bird turns over on one side, with its breast toward the sun and the upper wing partially raised, so as to let the sun in on its under plumage, remaining in this position for several minutes. At other times it lies prone on the ground, breast down, with both wings widely spread, so as to sun the wings."
Henry C. Denslow sent to Mr. Bent a record of a banded blue jay that lived for 15 years. Other banded individuals have been recorded as 9, 11, and 13 years old.
The jay's tendency to pester owls and hawks is one of its best-known habits. If a jay comes upon an owl hidden in the daytime, he sets up an outcry to which all the jays within hearing respond, and, collecting in a screaming mob, they drive the owl from tree to tree. It is sometimes to our advantage to follow up such a gathering when their voices rise to the high pitch of anger, for the jays may have found a rare bird.
In regard to the jay's habit of storing food for future use, Bendire (1895) says: "Where they are resident they lay up quite a store of acorns, corn, and nuts in various places for winter use, but where they are only summer visitors they do not resort to this practice."
Dwight W. Huntington reports the following observation: "I had many small pheasants running at large in my gardens, and one day a blue jay lit on a small tree just above a bantam with a brood of golden pheasants. He evidently had his eye on the little birds, and the bantam led them away. The jay followed, lit in another tree, and this was repeated several times until, much to my surprise, he struck at the little birds just as a hawk does. The bantam flew up at him as he came down. The birds came together, and a fight was on. Blue feathers and black from the bantam soon covered the ground. The bantam won, and, seeing that the jay was dead, she proudly led her little brood away. I was dumbfounded and amazed at what I had just seen and called a gamekeeper to come and see the dead jay and the feathers scattered about."
Voice.--It is the blue jay's voice, more than his gay color, that makes him conspicuous. We cannot be long in the open air before we hear him--in woodland, in open country, in the suburbs of our large cities. At the least alarm he begins to shout, and often, with no apparent cause, even a lone bird will break out, like a schoolboy, it seems, out of pure joy in making a noise. Especially in autumn the jays shout so loudly that they fill all outdoors with sound.
The note we hear oftenest is a loud, clear cry often written jay or jeer, well within the range of human whistling and readily imitated by the human voice. Peer or beer, with no r sound, is perhaps a closer rendering, because the note lacks the hard j sound at the beginning. It is long drawn out, falling in pitch at the end, and is generally repeated a number of times. This is the note we hear all through the autumn from screaming companies of jays traveling through the woods. It suggests to us various emotions or states of mind--remonstrance, taunting defiance, whining complaint, anger, but never, I think, fear. The tone of voice varies too much. It may be harsh, hard and flat, or musical and delicate; sometimes it has a tin-whistle quality; and rarely it is pitched so high that it resembles a killdeer's piercing whistle.
The jay uses a great number of calls--too many for us to describe them all in full detail--and the fact that they tend to run into each other makes enumeration difficult. Even dissimilar notes, by a slight alteration in inflection or tone, will often merge into one another. For example, when the jay call is produced in its purest musical form, and uttered as two notes, it becomes the well-known, bell-like, tull-ull or twirl-erl. When a bird is near us we can sometimes detect the transition as one note is gradually converted to another.
Francis H. Allen terms the tull-ull the anvil call, an apt comparison, and says that in making the note "the jay raises and lowers its head twice, once for each part of this dissyllabic note. This bobbing of the head is up and down, not down and up."
During the warmer months the jay often utters a pleasing whistled note that sounds like teekle, pronounced like our word tea-cup. Over and over he sings it as he flies about, sometimes giving it in pairs or series. It seems to reflect a quiet, happy mood in which the bird is free for the moment from antagonism. This note is allied to the creaking, wheel-barrow call, commonly written as whee-oodle.
Frequently heard in the autumn gathers is a chuckling, conversational kuk. This note differs widely in its mode of delivery. It may be extended into a bubbling chatter--a sort of twittering laugh--or, ranging up and down in pitch, it may run off into pretty, rambling phrases. The voice is not loud, and we have to be near the bird to appreciate the charm of the phrasing. Jays give a modification of the kuk when they are feeding in trees or when they visit feeding stations.
Quite different from the shouted or whistled notes is a dry, wooden rattle, almost a growl. A lone jay may give it, or one or more in a large company. The notes are often accompanied by an odd rising up and down on the perch. Francis H. Allen speaks of it as "a grating, pebbly r-r-rt, generally given twice, but sometimes three times. The repetition is in the manner of most of the calls of the species. The grating quality I express by the r, but of course the it sound ran all through the note. 'Pebbly' seems to express it rather well."
Comparatively few observers are familiar with the song of the blue jay. When he sings, the jay throws off his boisterous demeanor. He retires to the recesses of a wood or seeks seclusion in a thick evergreen tree and there, all alone, sings his quiet solo. I have sometimes heard a song from a bird hidden in a tangle of second-growth, and have not at first recognized the author as a jay at all. The song is a potpourri of faint whistles and various low, sweet notes, some in phrasing and pitch, suggesting a robin's song--a mockingbird might be singing, sotto voce. But as the song goes on one realizes that most of the notes are clearly in the blue jay's repertoire but are disguised by being jumbled together and delivered gently and peacefully.
Francis H. Allen has noted the song several times in his journal. He heard it first on February 28, 1909, the notes "coming from a row of large hemlock trees. The bird was keeping in the very heart of the tree, near the trunk. The notes sounded not unlike the goldfinch's song, but very subdued in tone. The song consisted of sweet lisping notes and chippering, and was continuous and long." Again he says: "Sweet and rather loud song notes from a jay in one of our Norway spruces this morning (September 4, 1933). One was a sort of short descending trill, rather high pitched, that suggested a mockingbird." And on March 22, 1935: "Long subdued song from a jay in a hemlock. It lasted two or three minutes, I should say, and was absolutely continuous, with no pauses between phrases. Some notes were very suggestive of Spinus tristis, both the long upward-slurred note and the succession of short notes resembling per-chic-o-pee. The whole remarkably soft and sweet. The bird remained hidden among the foliage, as is the jay's custom in this sort of singing."
Isabel Goodhue (1919) speaks of the song as "sweet, tender and quite lovely; delivered. . .with a retiring modesty not perceptible in the Blue Jay's deportment on other occasions."
The jay's loud cry often sounds exactly like the teearr of the red-shouldered hawk. I have sometimes been misled and have mistaken one note for the other. On more than one occasion I have supposed I was listening to a hawk screaming in the distance but found that a jay near at hand was the author of the notes.
This similarity to the scream of the red-shouldered hawk and the resemblance of some of the jay's notes to those of other birds have given him a reputation as an imitator. It is difficult, perhaps impossible, to be sure that such cases are not coincidence, especially when we recall the multiplicity of the jay's vocabulary.
Taverner and Swales (1907), in their studies at Point Pelee, say: "During the hawk flights of 1905 and 1906 they were much harassed by the Sharp-shins but, as they are perfectly able to take care of themselves and kept pretty close in the grape vine tangles, it is not probable that they suffered much. . . . In fact once within the shrubbery, they seemed to rather enjoy the situation, and from their safe retreats hurled joyous epithets at their baffled enemies. . . . We have only once found the remains of a hawk-devoured bird of this species."
Frank Bolles (1896) speaks thus "of an encounter between a sharp-shinned hawk and a flock of blue jays":
The hawk arrived when several flickers were in the tree and hurled himself upon them. They fled, calling wildly, and brought to their aid, first a kingbird, which promptly attacked the hawk from above, and then a flock of blue jays, which abused him from cover below. When the kingbird flew away, as he did after driving the hawk into the bushes for a few moments, the jays grew more and more daring in approaching the hawk. In fact they set themselves to the task of tiring him out and making him ridiculous. They ran great risks in doing it, frequently flying almost into the hawk's face; but they persevered, in spite of his furious attempts to strike them. After nearly an hour the hawk grew weary and edged off to the woods. Then the jays went up the tree as though it were a circular staircase, and yelled the news of the victory to the swamp.
Henry C. Denslow sent the following note to Mr. Bent: "It is said that shrikes sometimes attack blue jays, but in one case the tables were turned. A shrike came to a feeding table where eight blue jays were feeding and met a war reception. The shrike alighted on a branch a little above the jays. They looked at him for an instant and then all started for him. He flew into a hedge for protection, but was driven out, then started for an evergreen tree, but the jays were so hot on his trail that he took flight-- all the jays trailing after, each one screeching his loudest, until the sound of battle faded away in the distance."
Feathers and other remains of blue jays are often found in and about the nests of the duck hawk.
Dr. Herbert Freidmann (1929) mentions two records of the blue jay being imposed upon by the cowbird but suggests that "the eggs of the Blue Jay are so much larger than those of the Cowbird that there is little probability of the latter ever hatching if present."
Harold S. Peters (1936) lists as external parasites on the blue jay four lice (Degeeriella eustigma, Menacanthus persignatus, Myrsidea funerea, and Philopterus cristata), one fly (Ornithoica confluenta), one mite (Liponyssus sylviarum), and one tick (Haemaphysalis leporispalustris).
Fall.--The migration of blue jays in autumn is much more conspicuous than the northward movement in spring. P. A. Taverner and B. H. Sales (1907) describe a flock leaving Point Pelee on their southward journey on October 14, 1906. They say:
We noticed a very interesting migration across the lake. All morning long we saw large flocks passing out the Point. In the afternoon we followed them to the end and, though most then had passed, we witnessed one small bunch of perhaps fifty birds essay the passage. The day was fine and clear and but very little wind blowing, but when they came out to the end of the trees they turned back and sought a large tree-top, where they settled to talk the matter over at the top of their voices. Then, reassured, they started out, rising above gun shot from the ground and making for the Ohio shore, not for Pelee Island as we supposed they would. When they got far enough out to see the blue water under them they slowed up, and when we waved our hats and shouted at them a few wavered, paused and then fled back to the shore to their tree again, followed a moment later by the whole flock. Another pow-wow was held and again they started with great determination and seemingly filled with the motto "Ohio or bust." This time they had hardly got well out over the lake when a Sharp-shin was discerned far in the distance, but it was enough to again send them shrieking back to their oak tree. This time the consultation lasted a little longer than before, but at last the coast seemed clear and they started once more. Again, as they drew over the water, they slightly paused as though doubtful, but no one shouted, there was not a hawk in sight and, as there was no possible excuse for backing out this time, they kept slowly and gingerly on until well started and away from land, when they settled into their pace and, when lost sight of in our glasses, were continuing on their way in a straight line that would carry them several miles to the east of Pelee Island.
William Brewster (1937), under date of September 21, 1895, gives this account of migrating jays at Lake Umbagog, Maine:
As I was bathing in the Lake at seven o'clock this morning a flock of seventeen Blue Jays started from the woods at Pine Point and rose above them to a height of fully two thousand feet, by a spiral course not less than a half mile across, making only one complete and another half, lateral turn during the entire ascent. They then started off towards the southwest and kept straight on, with ceaseless flapping; until lost to sight in the distance, thereby accomplishing what was obviously the initial stage of a diurnal migratory flight. . . . An hour later the members of another flock, seventeen in number, appeared over the Point at a height of about two hundred feet, probably arriving from somewhere further north. Setting their wings they came hurtling down altogether, precisely like those seen yesterday and making the same sound as of rushing wind. [Quoted under Behavior.] It was loud enough to bring Jim Bernier, my guide, running forth from his tent with the expectation, as he afterwards admitted, of seeing a big flock of Scoters pitching down into the Lake. That the first flock of Jays should have apparently started on a migratory journey, and the second have completed one at so nearly the same time of day seems very interesting, and also suggestive of the inference that these flights may often be of no great duration. While engaged in them the birds remain severely silent, in this respect differing from migrating Crows. Such, at least, has been the case with all that I have observed for not one has ever uttered a vocal cry of any kind within my hearing, when on wing.
I remember seeing, several years ago in mid-September, a migration of jays that covered a wide area. During a drive of 50 miles northwest out of Boston, Mass., jays continually crossed the road in front of my car. I soon noticed that all of them crossed from the right to the left side of the road and were therefore flying south. Most of them were single birds, but occasionally two or three flew near together. I noticed them for 20 miles or so. Again, also in September, I saw a flock of 15 or 20 jays fly southward across the parade ground on Boston Common, which is surrounded on all sides by miles of closely built-up city. These birds were so closely packed that I mistook them at first for a flock of grackles.
William Brewster (1937) speaks of a similar observation thus: "1888, September 13.--During the last three days I have seen many flocks of Blue Jays, containing anywhere from a dozen to twenty birds each, flying southward in the daytime over open country, not in scattered order, but as compactly 'bunched' as so may Blackbirds correspondingly employed. Without doubt they were migrating."
Rev. J. J. Murray writes to us: "In the Valley of Virginia, they are certainly migratory. Here they are much commoner in summer than in winter, being very scarce indeed during some winters. Migration is more noticeable in fall than in spring. Through October, and sometimes up to the middle of November, migrating flocks are seen moving south. I have seen as many as 25 or 30 blue jays pass a favorable location in an hour, usually in strung-out flight."
Maurice Broun (1941) reports heavy migrations of blue jays at Hawk Mountain, Pa., "from the third week in September until mid-October." He says:
The jays may be seen in loose flocks, or in orderly processions, on either side of the ridge, and at any elevation, in numbers varying from twelve to three hundred or more birds. I have noticed each season that jays are on the move by 7 a.m., but by mid-afternoon their flights terminate. As a rule, the birds keep just above the tree tops, and seldom is there much fuss or noise; indeed, observers at the lookout must be keenly alert to detect each passing group of jays. . . .
During a sixteen day period beginning September 24, 1939, I made an approximate count of 7,350 Blue Jays. Doubtless many jays slipped by uncounted. The majority of the birds passed through in a constant stream regardless of weather conditions, from September 30 to October 6. The peak of the migration came on October 1, a day of alternating rain and mist, with raw northerly winds; at least 1,535 birds passed the lookout, even during the rain, in groups of from 100 to 350. Again on October 3, despite obliterating mists during the forenoon, and fresh easterly winds all day, I counted several large flocks at various parts of the Sanctuary, and the far from complete count for the day was 1,250 birds.
Winter.--The blue jay is an
attractive winter bird. He fits well into the wintry
scenery--bright, clear sky, and the blue shadows on the snow.
After his burst of noise in the autumn, he becomes comparatively
quiet, and during the colder months uses mainly his jeer
call, and this not overmuch. But on soft mornings in January and
February, when the temperature is rising, we may hear his sweetly
whistled teekle note. Tea-cup, tea-cup, he
sings--a sure sign of a mild day.
Blue Jay* Cyanocitta cristata [Northern Blue Jay]
*Original Source: Bent, Arthur Cleveland. 1947. Smithsonian Institution United States National Museum Bulletin 191: 32-52. United States Government Printing Office