Honk, honk! When I first heard them, I thought I was hearing bicycle horns. A brand new birder, I was checking out Denver’s Cherry Creek State Park, and there were certainly bicyclists out enjoying the brilliant fall day. I wondered why they were honking so much, since they had their own bike paths, and there really wasn’t anyone to honk at.
A couple of weeks later, I heard the honking again. This time I was strolling around Fountain Creek Nature Center, south of Colorado Springs. No one else was around, and besides, cyclists aren’t permitted in the nature area. Now I was really confused.
Then I heard the same sound at home. That tin horn honking. Realizing it had to be a bird, I started scanning the branches where the sound was coming from. Finally, I saw my noise maker.
Because I already knew what Steller’s Jays and Scrub Jays look like, I quickly realized my new bird was a jay, but I had to consult my field guide to determine which one. Then I got pretty excited. I was seeing my very first Blue Jay!
For those of you who have lived in the eastern US, Blue Jays are very familiar birds. But I grew up in California, and California doesn’t have Blue Jays. Neither did Colorado until about a decade ago. Now they’re regular visitors to my property, especially in spring and fall.
Why have the Blue Jays moved into Colorado? One explanation may be that they were reluctant to cross the treeless prairies—their relatively slow flight make them an easy target for hungry raptors. Now that humans have planted trees from the Ozarks to the Rockies, the trip is much safer. (This coast-to-coast “tree highway” may also account for the expanded range of House Finches, although they’ve moved in the opposite direction.)
Because hawks and owls are a threat, jays scream a warning when one is sighted. Other birds respond as well, diving into the foliage at the sound of the alarm. However, that doesn’t explain the “bicycle horn” calls I heard, as the jays’ “hawk in the area” warning sounds just like a Red-tailed Hawk!
Jays have a bad reputation, and to some degree they’ve earned it. Not only do they hog feeders, but they have been known to steal eggs and chicks from the nests of songbirds (although not very often). Plus, some people object to the loud noises they make. (You can hear several of their calls at Whatbird.com.)
However, Blue Jays have many good points as well. Like other Corvids (crows, ravens, and other jays), they’re highly intelligent and good at solving puzzles (such as how to open the door to a cage).
Additionally, they’re devoted spouses and parents. Couples mate for life. Each spring, the pair builds a nest together, and the male brings the female her meals while she incubates the eggs. Once the babies hatch, both parents take care of them. Even after the young birds fledge, the family sticks together for the rest of the summer.
Finally, we may well owe our eastern oak forests to these (and other) acorn eaters. While Blue Jays do consume bugs, they are primarily vegetarians, and prefer to dine on seeds, nuts, and especially acorns. Like other jays, they store surplus food for consumption later, burying it in the ground. Rather than get eaten later, many of these buried acorns sprout.
I’ve been putting peanuts out on our balcony railing every morning for several years now. While my usual customers are the plentiful Steller’s Jays, every spring and fall we’re visited by several Blue Jays as well. If I’m the slightest bit late, the birds come to the kitchen window and squawk at me until I come out with their breakfast. Then they start screaming, as if to tell all the other jays that the food is ready. Or maybe they’re just saying, “Thank you!”