For the Birds: Blue jays and special memories

Photo by Chris Bosak A blue jay perches on a log and grabs a peanut in New England, October 2020.

I settled on the back porch of my brother’s house in western Pennsylvania and watched the blue jays hunt for acorns in an oak tree. 

Before I get into that, I wanted to acknowledge how exceptional the fall foliage has been this year. The conditions must have been just right. Oaks can sometimes go from green to burnt orange to brown quickly. This oak, and many others I’ve seen this fall, are a much brighter orange and the color is lingering longer before turning brown.

The blue jays would fly in from the surrounding areas and alight in this spectacular oak tree. The birds disappeared into the bright orange foliage and work at dislodging acorns. I couldn’t see the jays at work but the rustling of the leaves and branches let me know where they were.

Sometimes a stray acorn will break loose and fall to the ground. I was surprised that I did not see any of the jays go to the ground and retrieve them. Either they did that when I wasn’t watching any longer, or those nuts became fodder for red or gray squirrels.

The blue jay observations made me think of my visits to another brother who lives in southern Florida. The blue jays in his yard are noticeably smaller than the blue jays up north in Pennsylvania and New England. I noticed this years ago and every time I visit Florida, I am surprised by the dainty appearance of the blue jays in Florida. 

When I visited the northern most part of Maine last month, I observed that the blue jays there were a bit bulkier than the jays in southern New England. They would dwarf the blue jays in Florida.

This difference in size is in step with Bergmann’s rule, which states that among similar species across a broad geographical range, individuals are larger in colder climates and smaller in warmer climates. Bergmann’s rule, named after a 19th century German biologist, has some exceptions — like most rules — but it seems to hold true for blue jays.

Blue jays are one of the most reliable birds at my feeder. They prefer whole peanuts in the shell, but will take sunflower seeds, mealworms, suet or just about anything else that is offered. Blue jays are known as bullies, but from my observations, typically yield at feeders to birds such as red-bellied woodpeckers and grackles. There is also evidence that baby birds and eggs make up a tiny portion of the blue jay’s diet. 

I wanted to highlight the blue jay in this column because it is the favorite bird of my father, who passed away last month. We didn’t talk about birds regularly, but when topic did come up, the conversation usually turned to blue jays. Watching the blue jays in the oak tree as my family gathered for the mournful occasion made me think of those conversations. While I’m sad there will not be any more of those talks, I’m thankful for the ones we did have.

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