Always in Season/ Mike Jacobs: Blue jays dominate without aggression
Blue jays seem to come in some rank order of their own, and they don’t fight about food. They can be shrill, to be sure, and smaller birds defer to them, but blue jays themselves are not quarrelsome.
Part of every morning at our place west of Gilby, N.D., is spent with blue jays. The jays are conspicuous. They bring brilliant color to a scene that has grown noticeably more muted as autumn has progressed.
Blue jays aren’t early risers, it seems to me. If I put out a supply of unshelled, unsalted peanuts at first light, I have to wait for the jays to appear. But by 8:30, they’re demanding their daily rations. This may have more to do with conditioning than it does with the jays’ daily routine. Perhaps they’ve grown accustomed to my own habit, which has been to feed the birds after I’ve had my own breakfast.
On Monday, Nov. 2, Statehood Day in North Dakota, I altered the routine and put out the peanuts just as the sun was rising, about 7 a.m. now that we’re back to Central Standard Time. Activity among the birds began immediately, but the blue jays were absent. Instead, I watched siskins, nuthatches and woodpeckers work their way through the peanuts, suet and sunflower seed that I had on offer.
A nuthatch even managed to carry off a peanut, an astonishing feat, I thought, since nuthatches are small birds. Nary a jay interfered with this accomplishment. I had fed myself and the other birds before the first blue jay appeared.
The second was not far behind. Then several others appeared.
It should be possible to know exactly how many blue jays visit my feeders regularly, but that would require identifying individual birds somehow, by marking or banding them, and I have neither sufficient training nor proper licensing nor, frankly, adequate incentive to undertake a meaningful census.
Instead, I am content to watch blue jays come and go, and to imagine how many individuals there might be. This year, four is the maximum I have seen at one time. I suspect there are at least one or two more since traffic at the peanut pile moves swiftly. I doubt it would be possible for each bird to take away a peanut, stash it somewhere and get back as quickly as the birds come to the feeder.
Blue jays seem to come in some rank order of their own, and they don’t fight about food. They can be shrill, to be sure, and smaller birds defer to them, but blue jays themselves are not quarrelsome. This seems to contradict the popular impression of the blue jay as an aggressive species, so I turned to my go-to source of information, “Birds of North America,” a series of monographs covering every species that occurs on the continent. The American Ornithologists’ Union published these.
The monograph on the blue jay confirmed my observation. In a section labeled “Spacing,” this sentence occurs: “Individuals rarely touch.” There are exceptions, mostly involving courtship and feeding young. Neither of these activities takes place in November.
November is a social time for a species that is not notably gregarious during much of the year. Individuals occur as mated pairs and family groups during the summer months, and they are quite secretive. In fall and winter, blue jays come together in small groups wherever adequate food is available. These groups may include paired adults and young-of-the year, and that might explain the “rank order” that blue jays seem to display at feeders. The apparent order – according to the ornithological experts – is breeding male, his mate and the young.
This sort of behavior among birds gave rise to the notion of “pecking order,” a term often applied to families and workplaces in the human world. Blue jays don’t have a pecking order, though, because they don’t peck at each other. Nor does any individual keep any other from its share of available resources.
Blue jays have a way of dealing with shortage. They are hoarders. The jays at my feeders aren’t eating all of the peanuts they carry away. They stash some of them. I quite often find peanuts when I begin working my garden in the spring. These would be surplus peanuts, because blue jays are well known for remembering where they cache food.
Activity at my feeder array has picked up, but the customer base has changed in the past week. During October, Harris’s sparrows were regulars; likewise, fox sparrows, white-throated and white-crowned sparrows. They’ve moved on to be replaced by pine siskins and American goldfinches in winter plumage.
Nuthatches and woodpeckers – both downy and hairy – are dependable customers, and blue jays have joined their ranks. For several days last week, a magpie showed up at the feeders, and on Election Day, a merlin swooped through the backyard, creating quite a commotion among the feeder users, blue jays included.
Jacobs is a retired publisher and editor of the Herald. Reach him at email@example.com.