For the Birds Radio Program: National Blue Jay Awareness Month 2004

Original Air Date: July 30, 2004 (estimated date)

Blue Jays are facing West Nile Virus, but once in a blue moon we should take time to honor them.

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Blue Jay Awareness Month

Tomorrow is a full moon, and since it’s the second one this month, many people consider it a Blue Moon. Which makes this month National Blue Jay Awareness Month.

Blue Jays are so common that we take them for granted, but if they were the slightest bit rare, birders would flock to see them because of their extraordinary beauty and interesting behaviors. Some people dislike jays for stealing baby birds and eggs, but at least Blue Jays do this almost strictly to feed their own hungry babies—in one intensive study of Blue Jay stomach contents, only 1% of the sample birds had any bird or egg material in their stomachs. Adult jays get virtually all their animal protein from insects. Some people dislike jays because they’re so noisy and squawky, though most species of birds seem to appreciate a jay’s willingness to let everyone know when danger approaches.

Jays are one of our largest songbirds, tough and spirited, but they’re tragically vulnerable to West Nile Virus. In some areas in the east, it’s hard to find them now. Dead Blue Jays were the first evidence that the virus had hit many cities and towns—this morning there was a report that a Blue Jay was found dead in Wayne County, Michigan, that tested positive for the disease, the first evidence that the virus had hit the Detroit area this year. Like canaries in a mine, dead and dying Blue Jays have warned us of the virus reaching a great many areas, including Duluth two years ago. Almost all jays that are exposed to West Nile Virus die. A great many of us have already been exposed to the disease and developed antibodies, but like their relatives, the crows, Blue Jays apparently lack any resistance at all. Chickadees seem vulnerable, too, but most sick chickadees die in their roosting cavities or are just too tiny to detect. When a jay or crow keels over in our backyard, it’s easy to find and test. There are plenty of Blue Jays, so eventually the species will develop a resistance to the disease. It’s much harder to be optimistic about the fate the disease poses to endangered and very small populations, such as the Yellow-billed Magpie of central California or the Florida Scrub-Jay.

But if Blue Jays have served as an early warning system for this disease, they don’t know it. Right now, healthy adult jays are tending to their babies. They raise one brood of five babies each year, and after the babies fledge, the whole family stays together for a couple of months as the parents teach their young the important skills they’ll need to negotiate this complicated world. Come late August, jays will start to migrate. Unlike most songbirds, they migrate by day, so when we stand near the shore or on one of the many ridges along the north shore, we can watch them pass over, their white wing linings twinkling. No one has completely teased out the mysteries of jay migration—how many of the birds are young, how many are adults; whether families stay together or the young go their separate ways; why some individuals leave while others stay. We may not fully understand it, but Blue Jay migration is one of the lovely and thrilling sights that add richness to our lives. They may be common, squawky birds, but it’s good to appreciate their beauty and spunk, and to thank them for helping our own health agencies track and prepare to deal with a nasty disease, at least once in a blue moon.