The blue jay is a pretty bird, but not, perhaps, a popular one.
Bird lovers often think the blue jay is a bully, and other birds may think so, too.
The blue jay is larger than most birds that frequent feeders and often runs the smaller birds off the food.
Nevertheless, the blue jay is welcome at my feeders.
His actions are quite natural, of course. Blue jays must eat, too, and nature is a competitive place.
As well, the blue jay is a bright flash among what often are drably colored birds.
Plus, blue jays are smart and acrobatic.
Both Suezette and I enjoy watching them.
In fact, we’ve begun luring them up to the deck door. This we do by putting peanuts just beyond the glass. Blue jays are bold, and it never takes long for them to find the peanuts. We’ve had as many as four on the deck at one time.
Nor do they waste time carrying them away. A couple of dozen peanuts will disappear inside a half an hour.
The blue jays are not eating the peanuts.
They are notorious hoarders.
Each of the peanuts they carry away is hidden somewhere—somewhere that only the blue jay knows.
The extent of caching food items is quite astonishing. “Each individual adult probably harvests and eats or caches several thousand acorns, beechnuts, hazelnuts, hickory nuts, or other hard mast each autumn.” So says the monograph on the species published in 1999 in “Birds of North America.”
Our area doesn’t offer a wide variety of mast. Bur oaks are native here, but the other trees mentioned are out of range in the Red River Valley and on the Great Plains in general.
As a consequence, that makes blue jays less widespread in North Dakota than they are farther east and north.
It also may help account for Suezette’s interest in blue jays and my own.
We are graduates of Severson High School in Stanley, N.D., which is 250 miles west of Grand Forks (and less than 80 miles from the Montana border). Our sports teams were called the Blue Jays.
But Mountrail County is a treeless place, by and large. The Missouri River flood plain had cottonwood forests, of course, and choke cherries and an occasional oak tree flourished in creek valleys.
Every tree on the upland prairie was planted, though, many by my father, who worked seasonally for the Soil Conservation Service. This didn’t interfere with his farming operation, since tree planting season precedes grain planting season.
And it was a government job, with regular hours, so we could get the cows milked before he reported for work.
The trees he planted are mature now, and blue jays have shown up in northwest North Dakota. But the first blue jay I ever saw was in Grand Forks, when I came here to go to college.
North Dakota’s first birdwatchers, Lewis and Clark, make no mention of blue jays in their journals, but one member of their party told Alexander Wilson, a pioneering ornithologist, that they occurred as far north as the Big Bend of the Missouri. This is in central South Dakota, flooded now by the Oahe Reservoir.
In 1975, Robert E. Stewart rated them as fairly common in the Red River Valley and the Turtle Mountains, fairly common in much of the central part of the state and uncommon and local in the far west.
Today, the species occurs as far west as central Montana.
Wilson—quoting the unnamed explorer who accompanied Lewis and Clark—noted that black-billed magpies became more common as blue jay numbers dropped off. This may explain their relative scarcity farther west, where magpies are more common.
These population dynamics suggest the blue jay is an opportunistic species whose range has been expanding steadily.
It’s not clear, though, whether blue jays are expanding from their eastern range or from their northern range. They have always occurred in the forest belt just north of the Great Plains, extending into Alberta and British Columbia.
In any case, no doubt they are abetted by bird lovers who offer them food.
Blue jays are much more conspicuous in winter months than in summer. In winter, they come eagerly to feeders, eating sunflower seeds and peanuts—unsalted please.
In summer, blue jays are shy and secretive—a kind of survival strategy. One summer, I was amazed to find fledgling blue jays on the fence at our house in the Riverside neighborhood. I had no idea blue jays were nesting in the evergreen in our front yard.
Beauty and surprise! Two attributes to recommend the blue jay.