Phenology: Blue Jay

The most noticeable life form in Kingsport these days is some sort of pathogenic microorganism. I’ve not learned yet whether it’s a virus or bacterial infection, but it has been going around. Most people seem to be “under the weather.” Some people are coughing. A few people, not necessarily even older people, have developed bronchitis and break out with horrific, painful-sounding coughs in public.

Last week Grandma Bonnie Peters’ near-professional-quality voice “broke” and she went around sounding like Tallulah Bankhead, or maybe even like Odetta, in between the coughs. That was bad enough but on Sunday morning, instead of coming out to meet me, she called to say she was unfit to drive. So of course I had to walk nine miles, and since I hadn’t been walking much all summer that took four hours, and for the rest of the day I didn’t have much more energy than she had.

It is actually easier to fend off infections on an empty stomach. For dinner I had a garlic clove. For breakfast this morning I had a garlic clove and saltwater. For lunch I had another garlic clove, saltwater, and an orange. I feel almost normal now.

GBP is still coughing. She has a lot of friends and a few patients in Kingsport, and sings in the choirs of two different churches. Of course she just loved missing both church services and not talking to her friends, even on the phone…NOT!

But anyway we have been back to the Cat Sanctuary and observed some birds and flowers. Flowers include out-of-season crown vetch, honeysuckle, and daisies, and more typical goldenrod, thistles, and asters. Birds include cardinals, mockingbirds, and a blue jay, Cyanocitta cristata.

Blue jays used to be very common and very easy to observe. They are often classified as songbirds, but they’re bigger than most songbirds, their squawks of “Jay! Jay!” (or perhaps “Thief! Thief!”) aren’t very musical, and in some other ways they seem more closely related to crows than to sparrows or warblers. One of the ways jays resemble crows is their susceptibility to West Nile virus. Jays and crows have not become endangered species, but there aren’t nearly as many of them as there used to be.

When they’re not bullying songbirds or raiding gardens, blue jays are attractive birds. Here’s a picture from Wikipedia, photographed by Saforrest and widely copied:

File:Blue Jay with Peanut.jpg

The blue color is an effect of the way the feathers react to light. Jays look bright blue in bright light, pale bluish grey in softer light.

Here’s a gallery of 24 different, cute pictures of blue jays. The crest feathers can stand up or smooth down behind the head depending on the bird’s mood; the body feathers can be fluffed out for warmth.

All jays have crests, but at the bottom of this page about odd-looking birds is a mutant blue jay with quite an amazing crest:

Jay called “Papa Smurf”

As shown in the picture, jays like nuts and use their long beaks to shell large nuts. They may hoard nuts in a hollow tree for future use, like squirrels. They are omnivores and also eat fruit and insects. If you don’t mind attracting jays to a bird feeder, offer peanuts and sunflower seeds. If you live near an oak tree, you will probably see blue jays, since they love acorns.

Like crows and cormorants, blue jays are curious and may pick up any kind of shiny or colorful little object they can carry, just to play with it. They have been known to steal earrings, although, for their purposes, bottle caps would be as good as jewels, or better. Though not as intelligent as crows, they seem cleverer than most songbirds; in cages, jays have been known to figure out how to use sticks or bits of paper to retrieve food, or even unlock the cage door. They also use paper, string, cloth, yarn, and ribbon to decorate their nests.

Blue jays are bold, especially in groups. They sometimes attack hawks, owls, cats, even dogs or humans, with the intention of chasing them off the jays’ territory. Successful gangs of jays have been reported to kill and eat bird-eating bats. Nevertheless, jays bully songbirds enough that songbirds seldom seem to welcome jays into flocks, even the mixed flocks that travel together in winter.

Some people claim to have taught jays to imitate human speech. I’ve never seen that in real life, but I have seen jays imitate red-tailed hawk noises to startle chickens. They can make several different noises, not all of which even sound loud and angry. If reading this on an audio-enhanced computer, you can listen to recordings of more than a dozen sounds blue jays make here:

Blue jays are found in the Eastern States. A larger, darker bird called Steller jays take their ecological place further west. Blue jays and Steller jays are usually considered two distinct species that hybridize easily.

Book Review: Our Amazing Birds

Title: Our Amazing Birds

Author:  Robert S. Lemmon


Publisher: Doubleday

ISBN: none, but click here to see it on Amazon

Length: 235 pages

Illustrations: black and white paintings by Don R. Eckelberry

Quote: “[T]his tiny creature, weighing but one tenth of an ounce, is at once the amazement and delight of everyone who knows and grows outdoor flowers, for it is the most bejeweled little living helicopter you can possibly imagine.”

Our Amazing Birds is a collection of 102 short (maximum of two pages) articles about 102 birds. There’s nothing wrong with it, as far as it goes; apart from a few belabored phrases and politically incorrect wisecracks, it’s an entertaining read. The reason why libraries are likely to have replaced it is simply that there are better bird books, with more complete facts and color pictures, on the market these days. If you want more “story” than Peterson’s, Sibley’s, or the Audubon Society field guides can offer, Janet Lembke’s Dangerous Birds is fresher than this book. Graeme Gibson’s Bedside Book of Birds mixes fact, artefact, fiction, and poetry, but it’s also a great read. Actually, Audubon’s Birds of America is still a pretty good read, as is William Dupuy’s Our Bird Friends and Foes.

Lemmon didn’t even offer readers the Latin names for the birds he selected to write about…which isn’t all bad, since some species’ names have been changed in the last fifty years. And, instead of following up on Audubon’s interesting observation about anhingas’ resemblance to loons and cormorants with some comments about their similarities to those species and also to geese, grebes, and herons, he wanders off into lame evolutionary remarks about anhingas being more like snakes…than swans are? Hello? Several species of large birds have snaky necks, but the specific evolutionary theory that found some snaky-necked birds somehow closer to snakes than others is no longer received as probable fact—if it ever was. However, apart from this lapse, Lemmon steered clear of speculation and sticks to observed facts—such as he had.

Several of my favorite birds aren’t even mentioned in Our Amazing Birds, but serious bird-nerds will probably enjoy the write-ups of the birds that are here. The pictures are worth studying. In no way is Our Amazing Birds a bad addition to a library. It’s just that there are better ones–and were, at the time.

And I’ve already sold the physical copy of this book. I wrote this review in 2009. Since nobody else seems to have reviewed Our Amazing Birds I see no reason to waste a good review. If you want some good, though not superb, bird pictures and stories, send $5 per book + $5 per package to either address in the lower left-hand corner of the page. You could fit four copies of this book into the package I last used to ship books, and if you bought them from this web site the total cost would be $25. And if anybody buys this book from me, I will indeed write to the publisher and try to find out whether Lemmon is still alive and, if so, whether he wants $1 per copy for himself or wants to send it to a charity.

(Anhinga image from Bandini at .)