For the Birds Radio Program: Blue Jay

Original Air Date: Jan. 7, 1987

Two Blue Jays are coming to Laura’s porch to take peanuts from her hand.

Duration: 3′22″


(Recording of a Blue Jay)

The one time I did a survey about people’s favorite birds, two letters poured in to KUMD–and one of them was from my mother-in-law. But I know that there are at least twelve other listeners out there, and I’m curious about whether any of you are patiently waiting for me to talk about a particular favorite of yours. Since nobody’s made any requests lately, I’m going to fall back on my own personal favorite, the Blue Jay.

In winter a lot of Blue Jay haters relax their vigil a bit, since there are no baby birds around for Blue Jays to snatch off. But some people get most annoyed with jays in winter, when these birds pig out at feeders, often chasing away meeker species. In my view, since Blue Jays are at the apex of creation anyway, I can’t think of another bird I’d rather look at, but there might be one or two people out there who see the matter differently.

The Blue Jay, along with its relatives, the crows, ravens, and magpies, is considered a fairly primitive songbird by the American Ornithologists’ Union–that’s why you’ll find it in your field guide and on checklists just after the larks and swallows, and before the more advanced thrushes, warblers and vireos, sparrows and finches. But the British Ornithologists’ Union disagrees with the American classification system–they place this family, called Corvidae, at the very end of their system, regarding crows and jays as both the most intelligent and the most highly evolved of all birds. The American Ornithologists’ Union has adopted a lot of British ideas lately–they’ve even changed a lot of our American birds’ names to British ones. But the various premises and assumptions that each classification system is based upon are so complicated that the two countries will probably never agree about where to put the jays.

Many Blue Jays leave the Northland in winter. In September and October, thousands pass over Hawk Ridge in silent flocks. It’s not known for certain whether the birds we have in winter are always ones that spent their summer further north, or whether some individual jays remain here all year.

Back when flocks were migrating through this fall, I had a few dozen jays feeding in my yard. All of these migrants spent their feeding time sitting in the feeders and opening each sunflower seed one by one to eat the seed within. But I had two jays that spent their time stuffing their throat pouches with seeds–then they’d fly off and hide the seeds all over the neighborhood. Those are the same two jays that are still hanging around. They love peanuts, and have learned that when I whistle from my front porch, there’s a treat for them, and immediately fly in from as far as a few blocks away. They have me trained equally well–when they call from the maple tree or tap on my living room window from the porch, I always toss them a few peanuts.

British ornithologists may love the jay most for its intelligence, but for me the jay’s finest quality is its sense of humor. As Mark Twain said, “It ain’t no use trying to tell me that a jay hasn’t got a sense of humor, because I know better.”

(Recording of a Blue Jay)

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”