A blue jay dares the cats. Photo courtesy of Dana Wilde

The blue jays have been kicking up their usual racket. It always seems to ratchet up around this time of year, as if they have a regular destination. But whether they’re actually going somewhere, no one knows, exactly.

They swoop in from nowhere in squalls of five or 10 or more and take up positions like commandos in the spruces, shouting warnings and orders the whole time.

One after another they raid the bird feeder outside the kitchen door. The homebodies who think they own the feeder, mostly chickadees and nuthatches, keep their distance while the big, blue, crested rangers knock seeds onto the deck. Then they hop down to inspect their work, striding around and twisting their heads up, down and sideways like spirits, watching for the cat they know must be nearby. They’re so brassy they steal morsels from the cats’ dish if they think it’s safe.

After a while they disappear back into the woods. They often seem to head west, though this is probably just a quirk of our local topography. If so, maybe there’s a path through here, like an airborne deer trail. It’s hard to tell if any stay in the area, the way their corvid cousins the crows do, who stake out a territory and settle into it. In our yard at least, wave after blue wave seem to just forage on in parts unknown. They ramble in and out all winter, but not all who wander are lost — studies show some blue jays migrate. No one knows which ones or why.

It is known that blue jays (Cyanocitta cristata, in technical terms) are omnivorous. They eat insects, the occasional mouse or frog, and sometimes even an egg, though their reputation as nest raiders is overblown. At least three-quarters of their food is fruits and nuts, especially acorns, which they bury deep against the frost for later. Fifty blue jays were surveilled one autumn caching 150,000 acorns in 28 days.

They appear to have excellent memories for where they bury nuts, and in another study they seemed outright crafty about it: Their behavior was so erratic that the scientists got the feeling the blue jays knew they were being watched and deliberately scrambled their work patterns.

So much for the phrase “dumb animal.” The blue jays are tricksters who know what they’re doing, and also what they’re talking about. Their raucous screech means “Fear! Fire! Foes!” in just one of their dialects. They also have a middle-pitched jeersome laugh, a low whistling sound, and a noise that’s been described as a growl, though to me it’s more like a whine, almost catbird-like. Sometimes they whimper like a red-shouldered hawk. They’re like living panpipes, echoing sounds heard in central Maine’s woods long before people wandered through.

A blue jay on the wing can’t be mistaken for a hawk, though. Blue jays fly like overloaded freight trains. They seem to flap 10 times to get the same thrust a hawk would get in two smooth strokes. Maybe some of them give up on the idea of migrating because flying is more work than foraging.

I wonder where they’re going. In Native American stories, they sometimes fly up to the moon and take part in high-level celestial shenanigans, often acting as pathfinder or figuring out how to survive a run of bad luck. This seems plausible to me. I have literally followed them around in dreams. The blue jays seem to understand the sky trails and wherever between here, there and back again they lead to, even though we have no idea.

 

Dana Wilde lives in Troy. You can contact him at [email protected]. His book “A Backyard Book of Spiders in Maine” is available from North Country Press. Backyard Naturalist appears the second and fourth Thursdays each month.


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