For the Birds Radio Program: Autumn Colors: Blue Jay
When most people celebrate autumn’s colors, they’re rejoicing at glorious reds, oranges, and yellows of the changing trees. Me, I’m focusing on the opposite end of the spectrum—the rich blues of Nature’s Perfect Bird, the Blue Jay, as it passes through. From deep shades of dark and sky blue through the most delicate shades of violet, the vividness and brilliance of jays is every bit as remarkable and lovely as the most beautiful maples.
We associate the changing leaves with harvest time, and during our own season of abundance, Blue Jays, too, are feasting upon their own cornucopia of natural food. Oak trees offer their primary, and favorite food—acorns. Farther east they also eat beech nuts. And many people are opening up their feeding stations for business once again, offering sunflower seeds and suet. And there are even a few people out there, like me, who set out peanuts for them—their favorite dessert. We humans often butcher and feast upon a big bird at Thanksgiving—usually a turkey or goose. Jays pick up a squashed warbler here and there, along the highway or under a window, for their annual pig out fest.
All this food and the Blue Jay’s naturally congenial nature bring the jays together in big flocks. For over a week, my backyard has been sparkling with them, their bright colors the perfect contrast to the changing leaves. I’ve had as many as nine blue jays at one time in my fairly small platform feeder, eight in my bird bath, their crests all down, their big eyes brown and gentle, all celebrating their early Thanksgiving with conviviality and plenty of Blue Jay conversation. Of course, like humans gathered around the television at holiday time, yelling cheers and boos as they watch football, they jays have plenty of cheers and boos for the hawks passing through at the same time. And if a hawk dares to swoop in and pluck a jay out of their midst, they squawk for a long time in what has the sound and feel of an Irish wake. I like to imagine what they’re saying to each other. “My gosh! Poor Jamie, snuffed out in the prime of life… Those bloody orange-eyes!… It was such a close call—those talons missed me by millimeters… I saw it happen as if it were in slow motion, but there wasn’t a thing I could do… He was such a good guy—how we’ll miss him… Remember the time he found that shiny watch in the road?.. Ah, Jamie—he could always make me laugh… And his poor widow—Jayne may mourn for weeks before she finds someone to take his place…” The chatter goes on sometimes for over an hour before the jays move on to the rest of their lives. And every time a hawk passes over, whether it’s coming for any of them or not, they squawk in Irish anger in memory of all the friends they’ve lost over their lives.
Migrating Blue Jays are settling down for long meals at our feeders, and sometimes large numbers of them linger for days or weeks before moving on. They have to work harder at migration than most birds, their fairly short, round wings beating steadily to support their weight in flight. They migrate by day, moving half a mile or a mile at a time and then lighting in the trees for a snack and some conversation before moving on. Some jays will stay with us all winter long, but the majority of the jays filling our eyes with beauty right now are just passing through. We keep our feeders filled and set out a handful of peanuts on the picnic table every morning and afternoon in hopes that they’ll linger, but knowing with the same certainty that the beautiful leaves will eventually disappear from the trees that one day these jays will light out for the territory. And that will mean winter, indeed.