Slings and Arrows: Why Birders Love to Hate Blue Jays
They’re smart, spectacular, and vocally versatile, so is the species really so bad?
A classic cinema moment: Gregory Peck, in his Academy Award–winning role as lawyer Atticus Finch in a Depression-worn Alabama town, kills a rabid dog stumbling down a dusty street. At supper that night, his children ask how old he was when he got his first gun.
“Thirteen or fourteen,” he answers. “I remember when my daddy gave me that gun. He told me that I should never point it at anything in the house; and that he’d rather I’d shoot at tin cans in the backyard. But he said that sooner or later he supposed the temptation to go after birds would be too much, and that I could shoot all the blue jays I wanted—if I could hit ’em; but to remember it was a sin to kill a mockingbird.”
Mockingbirds, Peck-Finch explains, “don’t eat people’s gardens. Don’t nest in the corncrib, they don’t do one thing but just sing their hearts out for us.”
“I’ve been there,” said Curtis Adkisson, a retired Virginia Tech biology professor, when I read him this discourse from Hollywood’s adaptation of Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize–winning novel. Adkisson became a huge admirer of blue jays when, in 1980, he and his colleagues investigated the species’ role—an essential one, they discovered—in dispersing acorns and beechnuts from North American forests. “But when I was 10 or 11,” he told me, “I had a Benjamin pump-up pellet rifle, and my grandmother in Arkansas paid me a nickel for every blue jay I shot on her farm. I was on a mission, even shooting into nests in trees.”
These days you could get in a lot of trouble for plinking a blue jay, which, like all songbirds, is protected by the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Yet our most splendidly attired songbird is still widely loathed, even by some ardent bird lovers. Years ago, when as Audubon’s editor I commissioned an Arthur Singer painting showing a Cooper’s hawk plucking the feathers from a freshly killed jay, letter-writing readers cheered the raptor. And “bully,” “thief,” and “murderer” are among the nicer names for blue jays you might hear in boutiques that cater to backyarders, selling feeders that supposedly fend off jays and other large birds like grackles (as well as squirrels). The idea, of course, is to save expensive seed offerings for favored chickadees, titmice, cardinals, and finches.
Blue jays, however, are fast learners. One Michigan winter, when I was a neophyte bird bander for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, I caught 44 different jays in our front yard in just a couple of weeks. None of them tripped my traps, baited with sunflower seeds, a second time. As for jay- and squirrel-proof bird feeders, it usually doesn’t take long for either bird or arboreal rodent to conquer these gadgets, albeit with considerable contortion. (One feeder that really does work is the Yankee Whipper—designed by the Droll folks up in Connecticut)—with its collapsing, weight-sensitive perches. Boing goes the jay or fluffy-tail.)
But I love blue jays. In fall and winter, I wear a baseball cap with a Toronto Blue Jays logo to celebrate the azure-garbed visitors at my feeding station, which I liberally sprinkle with cracked corn for their special delight. Of course, seldom a week goes by without someone asking why a New Yorker roots for a Canadian team instead of the Yankees or Mets. My alternate cap has a Baltimore Orioles logo. That’s my favorite spring and summer bird. Same question. “Are you an Orioles fan?” “No, I just like orioles.” Heads are shaken in puzzlement. (Truth is, I’ve been following the Chicago Cubs since they last made it into the World Series, in 1945. Needless to say, they lost.)
Looking far back, I blame the patron saint of birdwatchers, John James Audubon, for the blue jay’s image problem. “Who could imagine,” the great artist effused in his Ornithological Biography, “that selfishness, duplicity, and malice should form the moral accompaniments of so much physical perfection!” His stunning plate of three glorious specimens sucking eggs “pilfered from the nest of some innocent dove or harmless partridge” was widely reproduced on calendars handed out by insurance companies in the mid-20th century, helping to foment blue jay hatred. (I had that page framed.) The blue jay has even been compared to the character Hotspur from Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 1. “He gives us the impression of being independent, lawless, haughty, even impudent,” the prominent ornithologist Winsor Marrett Tyler wrote in a 1940s essay about the species.
Yes, small birds may scatter to the four winds when a flamboyant blue jay with its erect crest, broad wings, and fanned tail swoops in, shouting Jay! Jay! Jay! They quickly get over it. With a big snowstorm looming early last spring, a host of anxious jays, cardinals, juncos, downy woodpeckers, tree sparrows, white-throated sparrows, and newly arrived song sparrows foraged in total harmony on seeds tossed or spilled beneath my hanging feeders.
And yes, blue jays on occasion do plunder other birds’ nests. A memorable photograph I featured in Audubon captured a jay yanking nestlings from a Baltimore oriole’s hanging nursery. But an oft-cited study in the early 1900s found traces of eggs and young in only six of 530 blue jay stomachs, even though, as the researcher noted, “special search was made for every possible trace of such material.” Mainly, the omnivorous blue jays feast on insects, nuts, berries, seeds, and now and then small animals like deer mice, bats, lizards, and tree frogs.
In short, there is no valid reason to hold them in contempt. Instead, we should be celebrating the beauty of a bird that Henry David Thoreau, master of understatement, called “delicately ornamented.” (That blue plumage, it must be noted, is an optical illusion. Scientists remind us that blue pigment doesn’t occur in birds. The royal hue results from the scattering of light waves by tiny, prism-like melanin particles on the feather barbs.)