The blue jay: more sassy than blue

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-11618122987759.jpg’, ‘Photo courtesy of‘, ‘With his shrieking call of “jay, jay, jay,” the blue jay can be classified as one of our most vocal birds.’);
StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-11618123522817.jpg’, ‘Photo by Dr. Robert A. Hedeen’, ‘Blue jays take over a bird feeder and dare others to intrude.’);

The blue jay, or jaybird as it is sometimes called, in his handsome blue, gray and white uniform needs no introduction as he is one of our most conspicuous birds. He takes every opportunity to introduce himself to us with his shrieking call of “jay, jay, jay,” and can be classified as one of our most vocal birds. A naturalist once said, “he appears to be among his fellow avian musicians what the trumpeter is to a band.”

Though the blue jay is a beautiful, showy bird, it has earned a bad reputation because of its propensity to bully smaller birds and rob their nests of eggs and nestlings. Many other birds, however, are more obnoxious—the common cowbird, for example—but because the jay is so noticeable, its actions are probably exaggerated.

The blue jay is a very successful bird and enjoys a wide range from the Atlantic to the Rocky Mountains, and is a resident of the Rock River Valley throughout the year. About the only bird that may be confused with the blue jay is the belted kingfisher, which is not common in our area. Both birds are largely blue and white, and both have topknots or crests. They are about the same size, but the kingfisher is a short-tailed, short-legged, heavy-bodied bird with a jagged crest and heavy bill. The jay is a graceful, sharp-crested, long-tailed bird with medium-length legs. It is an abundant bird during all seasons in our locality.

Though the ordinary vocal note is a jeering cry, naturalist John Kieran notes, “It can produce several other sounds, including some delicate flute-like notes, the sound of a nut being cracked, and an almost perfect imitation of the whistle of an osprey or red-shouldered hawk.”

To many, the blue jay has all of the mischievous, destructive, thieving habits of the crow, but its true economic importance is a matter of debate among ornithologists. It is fond of corn, but prefers insects, nuts, and seeds, a supply of which is stored for winter.

Though the blue jay gives the impression it fears no member of the animal kingdom, it is deathly afraid of owls. Frequently, they will band together and utter harsh cries in an attempt to drive away the potential predator, even if the owl is not real but of the scare-crow variety. The jays’ vocal vilifications of the enemy may be heard for a considerable distance.

During the nesting season, blue jays seem to quiet down to attend to the business of rearing the young. But if the nest containing the young is violated, the outraged parents will attack the intruder with pugnacity. As an inquisitive youngster, I once made the mistake of attempting to peek into a blue jay nest containing young. Both of the parent jays dive-bombed my head and almost caused me to fall out of the tree I had climbed to get to the nest. It was only after I had returned to the ground and retreated to a safe spot that I noted that blood had been drawn from my scalp. Over the years, I have examined the nests of many birds that contained eggs or young, including raptors, but I was never attacked except on the one occasion I violated the sanctity of the jay’s nest.

Many poems about birds flowed from the pen of The Hoosier Poet, James Whitcomb Riley, who described the blue jay thusly: “Mr. blue jay, full of sass, in those baseball clothes of his, spiritin’ around the orchard jes’ like he owned the place.”

Some years ago when professional baseball expanded into Canada, the new Toronto team chose as its name the Blue Jays and adopted the colors of blue and white for their home game uniforms. Perhaps the owner of the team had read Riley’s poem and was given an inspiration.

Dr. Robert Hedeen is a former resident of Maryland’s eastern shore and resided in the Chicago area from 1960 to 1971. He is a retired professor emeritus of biological sciences in the University of Maryland system. He has published more than 30 scientific papers, has written numerous magazine articles, and is the author of two books on the natural history of the Chesapeake Bay.

From the Oct. 25-31, 2006, issue

Enjoy The Rock River Times? Help spread the word!