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ALWAYS IN SEASON/ MIKE JACOBS: Blue jay habits create blue jay habitat

Illustration by Mike Jacobs1 / 2
Mike Jacobs2 / 2

Here is a description of the blue jay:

"Although it is beautiful and resourceful, the blue jay can at times prove to one of the most annoying birds around."

What struck me more than the description, however, was its occurrence in "Saskatchewan Birds" (Lone Pine Publishing, Edmonton, Alta., 2001). From my hometown in northwestern North Dakota, Saskatchewan was less than 40 miles away, but the blue jay seemed to be an exotic species. True, our high school teams were called the Blue Jays, but the first blue jay bird I ever saw was in Grand Forks. Still, it took several decades until I appreciated how appropriate the blue jay was for a high school mascot.

It is, of course, a beautiful bird. It also is cagey, which is another word for resourceful.

The blue jay is a member of the Corvid family, which also includes crows, ravens and magpies, all of which are acknowledged to be among the cleverest of birds. That doesn't explain why the blue jay became the symbol of a high school in a town on a windswept hill where every tree had been planted.

It must have been aspirational.

If so, the dream came true.

Blue jays have spread westward, essentially following humans who planted trees that provided habitat for blue jays. Like others in the family, blue jays are essentially an "edge species," which suggests they thrive at the intersection of woody cover and open space. This is just the living space that small town parks and farm shelterbelts provide.

These sorts of areas occurred on the Great Plains before European settlement, but they were isolated to places that were safe from fire, such as stream sides, deep ravines and occasional woodlands sustained by local water sources.

Blue jays quickly took advantage of expanding habitat, expanding their existing range in the eastern half of North America. Although the blue jay is still considered an eastern species, it is now fairly common from central Montana to eastern New Mexico, and in a kind of finger-like extension across the Canadian prairie provinces as far west as British Columbia.

That's pretty good evidence of resourcefulness.

The case is proven by the blue jay's habit of storing food. They are not hoarders exactly; that word implies piles of provender. Instead, blue jays stash individual food items, usually on the ground. The birds remember where they've stashed stuff, but not every hidden morsel is recovered.

In this way, blue jays may have created their own habitat. "This tendency may account for the rapid postglacial dispersal of oaks," which has been suggested by pollen analysis, according to the monograph on blue jays, No.469 in "The Birds of North America," published by The American Ornithologists' Union.

This would make blue jays a kind of Johnny Appleseed of the bird world.

There are no oak trees at our place west of Gilby N.D., but blue jays are frequent visitors. I feed them peanuts, so many that the checkout staff at Hugo's ask, "Who eats all the peanuts?"

These are unsalted peanuts, please.

I spread them on the deck and marvel at how quickly the blue jays clear the daily serving away. Do they hear the peanuts hit the deck? Do they see them when they land? Are they conditioned to expect the appearance of peanuts at the same time every morning?

I've tried tricking them by putting the peanuts in a different place at a different time. The blue jays always find them.

At least some of these are stashed in the garden, where I find them during spring planting.

By that time, the blue jays themselves have disappeared.

They have not gone away, however. This species, so conspicuous in winter, is hard to find during the nesting season ā€” another mark of resourcefulness.

The blue jay is indeed a beautiful bird, with brilliant and distinctive plumage.

I can't agree with the suggestion that the blue jay is annoying, however. Although it is often loud and sometimes aggressive, it is always welcome on my deck.