For the Birds Radio Program: Blue Jay Migration
One of the most numerous migrants through the Northland is also a bird we see year-round, and it’s Laura Erickson’s favorite bird as well. 3:18
September migration is my favorite time of year. Knowing I’m connected with Hawk Ridge Nature Reserve, some people naturally assume that it’s the thousands of hawks passing through that set my heart a beating. Knowing my love for warblers, some people assume it’s the hundreds of thousands of warblers that do the trick. But what really sets my soul soaring in September are nothing more than Blue Jays.
Yes, of all the sights of autumn, my hands down favorite is a flight of Nature’s Perfect Birds. Blue Jays never migrate alone. In late August we start seeing flocks of twenty or thirty moving silently through above the treetops. By the second week in September, their flocks have grown to hundreds. On September 8 this year, I counted 1131 at the Lakewood Pumping Station in two hours.
Jays are easy to recognize even in poor light. We can’t see the crest at all, since it’s completely lowered, but their long tail and rounded wings are distinctive, and their even, steady flight in a long line diagnostic. Backlit when they fly above us, the white of their underwings and tail twinkles and sparkles in the sunlight. From the side, we can see a blue flash when the light hits them just right. From any direction, they are pleasing.
Many people dislike Blue Jays because of their habit of taking eggs and nestlings from other species to feed their babies. But this unsavory habit is completely restricted to the breeding season. This time of year, Blue Jays are victims rather than victimizers. They get tuckered out rather easily, so they usually stay at low elevations, not much above treetop level, right where Sharp-shinned Hawks do their hunting. They’re among the slowest of fliers, and migrate in straight lines, so hawks find them easy pickin’s, and with their large size they’re mighty filling, too.
Blue Jays have a special “rit-rit” call that they use only when a sharpie buzzes a flock. If it’s a close call, the jays squawk and squawk, and if the hawk actually kills one of their group, the jays hold what seems like an Irish wake, lamenting and reminiscing and recounting the whole story again and again at top volume. This noisy ritual of mourning can last ten minutes or longer, but eventually the jays set out again, reluctant to forget their fallen comrade friend, but pressed on by an inner need to move south.
Our jays don’t go all that far–mainly to the central states–and many, especially adults, stick it out here even in the most frigid of northland winters. Those of us who love jays especially appreciate how we can see them year round and yet still manage to watch their lovely migration. Who but a Blue Jay would have the intelligence and creativity to work out a system whereby it could live in a place year-round and yet migrate, too?