July 10, 2015
By: Kathy Kinsey
Fire alarms…..car alarms….and the worst of them – the alarm clock! Mother Nature also has an alarm clock, but thankfully, it is not as rude as that last one. Though there are other birds that sound alarms, I find none of them can do it quite as good as this one – to say nothing about how loud it is!
The blue jay (Cyanocitta cristata) is native to North America and is one noisy, bold and aggressive bird. Their name is derived from its noisy, garrulous nature and is sometimes called a jaybird. Though it considers most of the eastern and central areas of the United States and southern Canada home, the more western populations are thought to be migratory. It occupies a variety of habitats within its large range from the pine woods of Florida to the spruce fir forests of northern Ontario. And as it prefers mixed woodlands with oaks and beeches, it is not easily found in forests that are dense.
There are four subspecies of blue jays. The northern blue jay – Canada and northern USA – the largest of the species, fairly dull blue plumage. The coastal blue jay – North Carolina to Texas but not southern Florida – mid-sized and plumage is vivid blue. The interior blue jay is found in the inland area of the USA- quite dark blue mid-sized bird with a very white underside. And our very own Florida blue jay, which is the smallest of the species and is similar in color to the northern blue jay.
The blue jay is a passerine, belonging to the order Passeriformes, which makes up more than half of all living birds. Passeriformes have feet that are specialized for grasping branches and similar structures with the first toe facing backward and three toes pointing forward, which facilitates perching. Often brightly colored, this group includes larks, swallows, jays, crows, wrens, thrushes, cardinals, finches, sparrows and blackbirds. I would say this covers more than half of the living birds as there are not too many left to list!
Bonding for life, mating season starts in the middle of March, peaking in April and extending into July. Together they will build an open cup nest anywhere between 9 to 32 feet off the ground and will rear the young together – but only the females brood them. Normally, two to seven bluish or light brown eggs are laid in a nest made out of twigs, small roots, bark strips, moss, cloth, paper and feathers and mud on occasion to line the nest. The young will fledge in 17-21 days after hatching reaching sexual maturity in one year. A wild blue will live approximately 7 years though one lived for 26 years in captivity. It was noted one wild blue lived 17 ½ years!
This is no small bird either! Adult blues measure in at 9-12 inches from bill to tail, weigh 2.5 – 3.5.oz, and have a wingspan of 13 – 17 inches. The male is slightly larger than the female which is the only way you can tell them apart, like the mockingbird. Plumage is lavender-blue to mid- blue in the crest, back, wings and tail. The face is white, the underside is off white and the neck is collared with black which extends to the sides of the head. The bill, legs and eyes are black. Thought to eat eggs and nestlings, these birds are vegetarians as they feed on acorns, nuts and seeds, soft fruits and caterpillars, grasshoppers and beetles. They hide nuts for later consumption just as squirrels do. True. One hid a nut in the spigot at my fall garden spot. I would have loved to have seen how it mastered that! I am sure it took me longer to get it out of the spigot than it took the bird to put it there.
They are beneficial to other bird species as well. Impersonating a hawk is a way to find out if a hawk is in their territory or it may be to let other birds know there is a hawk in the area. Blues are highly territorial, most curious and considered to be an intelligent bird. They have also been known to chase predatory birds out of their area. Young birds snatch brightly colored or reflective objects, such as bottle caps or pieces of aluminum foil and will carry them around until they lose interest in them.
Blue jays are the first in my yard to sound an alarm and it usually seems to be over a snake. Wrens will join in as well as the mockingbird. The cardinals will also come to their aid but it still seems they need assistance. If the snake is low enough for me to grab, I will move it…if not, in time, the snake will move on. The blue jay seldom cries wolf – there seems to always be something wrong if you hear them fussing. I refer to them as Mother Nature’s alarm clock – a tattle tale if you will for nothing is kept a secret if they see it.
Did you know Lego Ideas released a bird set on January 1, 2015…..It included Erithacus rubecula and Colibri thalassinus and Cyanocitta cristata…the robin, the hummingbird and our very own blue jay! It is also the provincial bird of Prince Edward Island in Canada!
They have been known to watch us as we eat – they will swoop down to grab what you may not be watching….and as you garden, they watch us plant those little seeds – they have been known to return to the garden and dig up those little seeds we worked so hard to plant…and some of them have been known to mimic us! So, we need to watch what we eat, what we plant and more importantly, what we say, for it appears a bird may be listening!
Kathy Kinsey is a Master Gardener volunteer with the UF/Leon County Cooperative Extension Office. You may also email us at Ask-A-Mastergardener@leoncountyfl.gov with any gardening questions you may have.