For the Birds Radio Program: Blue Jays
Duluth’s fall migration is famous for its hawk numbers, and also for conspicuous, beautiful flights of Cedar Waxwings, Red-breasted Nuthatches, warblers, and lots of other cool species. Of all of them, the one species that thrills me more than any other during migration is the Blue Jay.
We get huge numbers of jays along the North Shore—one day last week Karl Bardon, one of the raptor counters at Hawk Ridge, managed to tally 5.000 Blue Jays. Blue Jays migrate in flocks. They have fairly short rounded wings and a long, slender tail, giving them a shape enough like an accipiter that a great many people confuse them with Sharp-shinned Hawks. But the underside of a Blue Jay’s wings and tail is pure white. Each bird in a flock has a steady, straight flight with regular, steady wingbeats, but since the birds aren’t in perfect synchrony, there’s a lovely twinkling effect as they fly through.
Jays seem to tire quickly on long journeys, stopping frequently to rest and feed. So we seldom get to watch a group flying from one horizon to the other without seeing them drop down to rest. Because their flight is so regular and direct, they’re easy for hawks to predict and intercept, and one Blue Jay provides a lot calories compared to a warbler or a sparrow, so they’re often buzzed by Sharp-shinned Hawks during their flights. When that happens, the jays squawk and yell with a tone that in humans would definitely be described as indignant and angry. If a hawk actually succeeds in dispatching a jay, the rest of the flock continues its squawking for many minutes. Sometimes I’ve seen the flock keep yelling for three quarters of an hour, as if they’re holding an Irish wake. Not a lot is understood about jay migration—in a given year, some individuals migrate and some don’t, and individuals that migrate one year may or may not the next. But most young jays do migrate, and most of the birds that don’t migrate tend to be older birds. Their movements bring them to areas with a lot of acorns and beechnuts, their favorite kinds of food, but some winters they remain on my block with nary an oak or beech in sight. Jays establish relationships with both their families and their neighbors, and flocks seem to be made up of birds that know each other or quickly welcome newcomers. So when the jays are squawking after one jay is killed by a hawk, there may well be a specificity when they vocalize their loss, and there may well be a genuine mourning involved, too. Even as they sit and squawk, they pick up any bugs or berries on the branches near them—sort of a funeral luncheon which also fuels their migration. Life and death struggles are part of the fabric of the natural world, and movement is the order of the day during migration, so within a half hour or so the jays have leapt back into the skies and headed on.
During this migratory period, jays become abundant in backyards. I live right under Hawk Ridge, and I’ve been seeing hundreds in my yard every day. While they’re feeding together, jays use body language to let everyone know they’re feeling sociable and friendly. They do this by keeping their crests lowered. The crest pops up if a jay notices a hawk approaching, and squawking ensues. It’s hard for me to photograph the crest up this time of year, because that usually happens only during a very dangerous moment, and as the crest is going up, the jay usually ducks into a tree for cover. In other seasons, you can more easily photograph squawking or silent jays perched with their crests up, when they’re feeling territorial or spotting less immediate dangers than hawks. This time of year I photograph peaceable jays with the crests plastered down. I’ve posted a bunch of the photos at my Blue Jay photo gallery, which you can find at Lauraerickson.com. But why anyone would go to the internet to see photos of jays when they can look outside and see the real thing is beyond me.