Bird Watcher's General Store

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Blue Jays Store Seed for the Winter

Dear Bird Folks,

Finally, most of the grackles have gone south and have stopped hogging my feeders. But now the Blue Jays have moved in and they are even piggier. They just eat and eat and eat, and never leave. Speaking of leaving, are the jays going south, too? They are scaring away all the good birds.

– Mark, Harrisburg, PA


It’s always something, Mark,

I can tell you right now that if you are waiting for the day to come when your birdfeeders will only attract the exact species of birds you want, you’ll be waiting forever, maybe longer. If it’s not the grackles and jays, then it’s the crows and starlings or the House Sparrows and pigeons. And if you somehow can get past the birds you don’t like, there’s the list of mammals (i.e. gray squirrels, red squirrels, flying squirrels, chipmunks, raccoons, bears and sometimes white-tailed deer) to look forward to. I guess things could be worse. You could live in Ohio. I read that all kinds of crazy animals run loose in that state.

As far as your pals the Blue Jays are concerned, there’s good news and there’s bad news. The bad news, for you, is that jays are here year-round. There are always going to be jays somewhere in your neighborhood. The good news is that they won’t always be as piggy as they are now. (BTW, I have to give you props for using the word “piggier.” I’ve been trying to work that word into a column for years.) In the fall jays gather as much food as they can find and squirrel it away for the winter, just like…the squirrels. That’s why we see them eating so much, except they aren’t really eating. They are hoarding. A jay is able to carry away large quantities of food in its weird expandable throat. If you look closely you can see the bird’s throat actually bulge out, looking like a spring bullfrog in love.

What do the birds do with all this extra food? Strangely enough, they usually bury it in the ground, much like a dog buries a bone. It makes sense for dogs to bury bones in the ground because they don’t have much choice. But it seems to me that jays, with their ability to fly, would stash food off the ground, where it won’t be covered up by snow. (I wonder if they’ve ever thought about that.) After burying their seeds, jays have the cute habit of always placing a stone, leaf or stick on the spot where the food is hidden. We aren’t sure if these markers help the birds remember each secret location or if the birds have a slight touch of OCD. Contrary to what you might think, most of the grub buried by jays isn’t sunflower seed. Their usual stash is made up of acorns, beechnuts and other assorted tree nuts. And while the jays are pretty good about reclaiming what they’ve buried, they aren’t perfect. Buried nuts that aren’t retrieved may eventually become trees. It is thought that Blue Jays were responsible for replanting oak forests after the last ice age. If it weren’t for the Blue Jays we wouldn’t have all these mighty oaks, or all of these acorn-loving gray squirrels, either. Once again, it’s good news, bad news.

It’s interesting you’ve noticed that the jays arrived right after the grackles left. Most folks think that jays are bold and aggressive birds, and of course some of that is true, but they rarely mess with grackles. Usually when a flock of grackles moves in, the jays back off. That’s why Blue Jays have become more conspicuous lately. The answer to your question about whether the jays will eventually migrate south is yes, no and who the heck knows. Blue Jays are one of the most prominent birds in eastern North America and have been extensively studied; yet researchers can’t figure out their migration patterns. Some years, lots of jays migrate; other years, not so many. Sometimes it’s mostly young birds that head south, while other times it’s the older birds. A jay that migrates one year may not go anywhere the following year. It’s all very confusing…and a real headache for their travel agents.

The one thing you should remember is that at no time will you not have Blue Jays. Rarely do they totally vacate an area. You might be depressed at the thought of not, not having Blue Jays, but you should keep a few things in mind. With the exception of the fall, jays aren’t as piggy at feeders as most folks think. Grackles can be much piggier. (Hey, I used it!) In the summer jays consume huge quantities of nasty insects and caterpillars. The same nasty insects and caterpillars that some people feel the need to blast with toxic spray, the birds remove for nothing. Also, because they are bright, colorful birds and relatively slow flyers, jays are easy targets for predators. As a result, Blue Jays sound the alarm anytime they spot danger, whether it is a hawk, an owl or your stupid neighbor’s stupid cat. Finally, their alarm calls will not only warn other jays, but they’ll warn the “good birds” as well. That should make you happy, Mark.

I think you should reconsider your ill feelings toward Blue Jays. They eat tons of nasty bugs, warn the good birds about predators and replant oak forests, all for free. What else do you want them to do, fix the economy? Well, in a way they actually do that, too. By eating so much birdseed they at least help fix my economy. I love piggier birds.