For the Birds Radio Program: End of National Blue Jay Awareness Month

Original Air Date: Dec. 31, 2009

As National Blue Jay Awareness Month draws to a close, Laura is thinking of all the ways Blue Jays figure in our culture, and why.

Duration: 4′36″
  • Blue Jay
  • John White
  • Mark Twain
  • Linnaeus
  • Mark Catesby
  • Alexander Wilson
  • Harper Lee

Transcript

Blue Jay Ever since the 1980s when I declared any month with a blue moon to be National Blue Jay Awareness Month, people have been questioning my sanity. Blue Jays are quite capable of making us aware of themselves anytime they want, with their loud voices and conspicuous plumage. So people naturally wonder how I could possibly think they need special attention, especially compared to the many birds that no one ever hears about but are endangered or threatened, and compared to the many common but worthy birds that just don’t get enough recognition. And, of course, a lot of people vilify Blue Jays for raiding nests and squawking so loudly, and would prefer they disappeared rather than getting honors for a month every so often. Ironically, most birds relish the presence of Blue Jays in their neighborhood specifically for all that noise they produce: Blue Jays warn everyone near about the presence of shrikes, hawks, cats, snakes, and every other potential danger. The only time birds try to chase a Blue Jay away is when the jay is approaching a nest.

Blue Jays are common throughout most of the eastern United States and Canada and, increasingly, in the West as well. It’s perhaps that very commonness that makes most people take little interest in learning more about Blue Jays. But these birds are fascinating and gorgeous. Birders have often noted that if jays were uncommon, birders would eagerly travel hundreds or thousands of miles to add them to their life lists.

In the sixteenth century, John White made a watercolor illustration of this bird, Mark Catesby drew one in 1754, and Linnaeus used Catesby’s text and illustration of the “Blew Jay” in 1758 when he wrote what became the official description of the species. He named it Cyanocitta cristata, which means crested blue jay.

Blue Jays do like to be taken notice of. Alexander Wilson wrote in 1831that the Blue Jay “is distinguished as a kind of beau among feathered tenants of our woods, by the brilliancy of his dress; and like most other coxcombs, makes himself still more conspicuous by his loquacity, and the oddness of his tones and gestures.” Mark Twain wrote that “It ain’t no use to tell me that a Blue Jay hasn’t got a sense of humor because I know better.” Toronto named their expansion baseball team the Blue Jays in 1977. The Blue Jay is also the athletic mascot of The Johns Hopkins University and Creighton University. The Blue Jay doesn’t serve as a state bird for any of the 50 United States, but is the provincial bird for Prince Edward Island.

In old African American folklore of the southern United States, the Blue Jay was held to be a servant of the Devil, and was never encountered on Fridays—that’s when he was fetching sticks and carrying them down to Hell; Blue Jays were always happy and chirpy on Saturdays, relieved to be back from Hell. Harper Lee was focused on the Blue Jay’s negative reputation when she had Atticus Finch say as he gave his children air rifles for Christmas, “Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit ‘em. But remember, it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”

For as conspicuous as they are, Blue Jays are poorly understood by ornithologists, who can’t make out patterns to their migration at all. But they’re fun to watch, in backyards or anywhere else, and attentive people may notice the soft and lovely sounds they make in intimate encounters with their mate. After tonight’s blue moon, Blue Jays will recede from our attention until the next National Blue Jay Awareness month, in August of 2012. But for one last day, attention must be paid.