The Peer of the Blue Jay

The Blue Jay cocked its head to the side as if thinking deeply about something, before focusing on scarfing up some seeds.

The Blue Jay landed on the old turned-up root and then looked right at me. I felt like something of great intelligence was peering into my eyes and seeing right through me. This jay is in the crow and raven family and has the smarts. It seemed to be letting me know that she knew I was trying to hide in my photographic blind. I’d been putting food around the old stump for several days and had just zipped myself into the tent-like structure with my telephoto lens sticking through a small opening.

The jay was stiff, frozen for a second as it stared right at me, apparently knowing that I was trying to hide in a small blind.

I studied the feathers on this magnificent specimen. The blue glistened in the light, accented by white flecking on the wings and face, and she possessed the right amount of black fringe. The feathers appeared fresh, not showing any signs of wear. Blue Jays replace their feathers in late summer and early fall. Young of the year go through a partial molt while adults replace all their feathers. Energetically, it is an expensive process; growing the new plumage takes nutrients and much protein.

The wing feathers on a Blue Jay show the intricate design typical of this species.

Almost five decades ago, I did my master’s thesis on this species, a comparative study of molt in Blue Jays and Scrub Jays in central Florida. There, Scrub Jays finish nesting in June, while Blue Jays often have a second brood and go into August. The study showed that both species wait until their nesting season is over to molt, and each takes about two months to replace all their feathers.

With a flick of its head, the peanut bit flew from the front of the bill’s tip into the Blue Jay’s gullet.

The blue of this one’s feathers was intense. That color is not from a pigment but rather from how it reflects light; only the blue wavelength comes off. The feather’s structure forms the blue color in birds. Apparently, my grandfather figured this out in the 1920s and published a paper in The Auk. He was a chemistry professor at Cornell University and collaborated with his friends at the Cornel Laboratory of Ornithology. I don’t remember meeting my grandfather; he died before my second birthday. I sometimes wonder what other bird stuff fascinated him.

This movie takes 55 seconds. The Blue Jay pauses several times, and you might think the movie is over, wait for a few seconds. He flies away in the end.

The first Blue Jay flew away, and another landed on the wood. They are highly dexterous with that bill. It grabbed one peanut bit, flipping it up in the air and to the back of its mouth. A second individual began to gulp seeds, gradually filling its mouth with a nice little collection. It, too, then dashed back into the woods. Blue Jays will stash seeds for later. First, they will open a small hole in the ground, depositing the mouth full and then covering up the stash with dirt and vegetation. Eventually, they come back and dig the titbits up to eat.

Several more jays came and went over the next few minutes before they seemed to disappear as quickly as they had arrived. Other birds — chickadees, titmice, sparrows, and cardinals — began to come now that the jays had moved to some other endeavor. 

The wing feathers and back plumage on this Blue Jay were smooth, slick, and in perfect shape. The pattern of blue, white, and black made the wing and tail stand out. To me, these birds always look like they are ready for a galla, all decked out.

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