egg on its face.
Of course, I am describing the Blue Jay far too anthropomorphically. They do what they do, because evolution and natural selection have shaped and defined their behavior. While some people may find some of their behavioral traits less than admirable, the blue screamers are probably among the most important songbirds in the ecology of the eastern deciduous forest. Following is a brief article I penned about jays a few years back for the Ohio Division of Wildlife's On Ohio's Wild Side series:
Blue Jays: Down But Not Out
Anyone who feeds birds is familiar with the antics of blue jays, one of our most common and easily recognized songbirds. Bold and full of bluster, jays roar into the feeding station like a ton of bricks wrapped in feathers, startling more passive birds back into the shrubs.
According to Project FeederWatch, sponsored by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, blue jays are the sixth most common species to visit Ohio feeders. Of the 373 backyard feeding stations that reported results to Cornell, jays visited over 91 percent.
So, what’s going on this winter? Many Ohioans have reported seeing few if any blue jays, especially in the extensively forested regions of southern and eastern Ohio. West Nile Virus had a detrimental impact on this species back in the early 2000s, and some fear that West Nile has reared its ugly head once again.
Fortunately, the answer to our current shortage of jays is probably much less scary than the ravages of disease. When not plundering your feeders, blue jays are highly dependent upon the nuts of oak trees – acorns. These hard, woody fruit are like vegetative M & Ms to a jay, and collectively, blue jays harvest staggering numbers of acorns in fall and winter. Fully two thirds of a jay’s diet at this time is comprised of acorns and other tree mast such as hickories and beechnuts.
A hard-working blue jay can collect several thousand nuts in one season. If the nuts are small, such as pin oak acorns or beechnuts, a skilled jay can make off with five or more at a time. They’ll quickly consume plenty of their loot, but jays are inveterate hoarders, caching far more acorns than they can immediately eat. Like a feathered pirate hiding his treasure, a jay stockpiles acorns by burying them in the ground.
While jays remember the location of many of their nut caches, they also forget about others. As a consequence, the blustery blue birds are the avian Johnny Appleseeds of the oak world, planting untold scores of oaks each year. So prolific are they in burying – and losing – acorns that some scientists think that blue jays were the primary factor in the swift northward expansion of oaks following the last glacial period.
Oaks are cyclical in their production of acorns: there are boom and bust years. In 2008, scads of acorns were produced, and jays seemed to be everywhere. Last season’s acorn crop was pretty lean, especially in southern Ohio. As a consequence, there was less food for blue jays, and thus fewer screaming bolts of blue in our woodlands. Next winter, it’ll likely be a different story.