Jays

Colorful, noisy, mischievous, and aggressive are all good words to describe jays, and since they belong to the family that also includes magpies, crows, and ravens, it is not surprising that their most outstanding characteristic is their noisiness. As one unknown poet wrote: "Sometimes your piping is delicious, / And then again it's simply vicious."

Ear-splitting screams may fill the air if an intruder gets too close to the nesting territory, if a roosting owl is located, or even if nothing at all is wrong. Sometimes the jays seem to make noise just for the pleasure of hearing themselves. Henry Thoreau described the sound as being the "unrelenting steel-cold scream of a jay, unmelted, that never flows into a song, a sort of wintry trumpet, screaming cold; hard, tense, frozen music, like the winter sky itself." Although jays have an apparently endless supply of whistles and calls of their own, they can also mimic the sounds of other birds, especially the red-shouldered, red-tailed, and sparrow hawks.

Blue jay

With its stout, sharp-pointed, all-purpose bill, the jay can hammer, crack, crush, probe, split, and tear its food. No nut is too hard to crack. If the jay encounters difficulty in holding and cracking a particularly tough nut, it is not unusual for the bird to wedge the nut in a log in order to give a more effective blow with its beak. It will eat almost anything, including mice, in-sects, and carrion, but most of its diet consists of nuts and seeds. When an abundance of food is available, the bird buries its surplus nuts, then digs them up again when food is scarce. Jays have a rather tarnished reputation because they occasionally raid other bird's nests and eat the eggs and young, but the jay is not known to endanger any other bird species by this practice.

Now that you know a little about jays in general, let's take a closer look at each of the five species that are found in Texas, starting with the blue jay. Its bright blue color, black and white markings, and head crest make this bird easy to identify, and it is one of the most striking species found in the yards, gardens, and parks of East and Central Texas. Although it originally was a bird of the woods, preferring pine, oak, mixed hardwoods, and their edges, it has adapted well to humans and the urban habitat. In wilder areas it can be found in streamside wood-lands, prairie tree groves, and wooded hillsides. Predicting its behavior in different situations would be difficult; it may silently follow a person through the woods in an almost curious manner or accompany the same person with loud, raucous cries that alert every animal within hearing distance that there is an intruder in the woods.

In autumn, when most other birds are quiet, the blue jay usually displays its vocal talents. The sounds may be a bell-like tul-ull call, a soft conversational-type chatter between jays, or harsh hawklike screams. From concealment, the blue jay also may deliver a whisperlike song with barely audible, sweep lisping notes resembling those of such small birds as the chickadee. When nesting season arrives the blue jay becomes almost silent and furtive. During the courtship ceremony the male feeds his mate while they exchange low whistles. Then the pair collect twigs which they haul around until a suitable nest site is found. Both birds help build the platform of twigs, bark, grass, and paper. They also have been known to appropriate another bird's nest and remodel it to suit themselves. The four to six olive- or buff-colored eggs, marked with brown spots, hatch in about seventeen days. While the female is incubating the eggs, the male hops silently up the tree, as if following an invisible spiral staircase, to bring her food. Later he also will bring food to the young. The pair will defend their nest from all intruders, including humans.

Three-fourths of the blue jay's diet consists of vegetable matter, and the jay stores acorns and other nuts for winter use by burying them in the ground. Some of these buried seeds grow to trees when the jays forget to retrieve them. The animal portion of its menu includes spiders, snails, salamanders, tree frogs, mice, and insects. It is among the few birds that eat hairy caterpillars, and it will even rip open cocoons to get to the pupae inside.

The flight of the blue jay is steady and direct, but not particularly swift. It moves easily through the trees with full, regular, quick flaps of its wings. Except during its erratic migrations or wanderings in October, the bird seldom flies across open country. Blue jays make a habit of sunning themselves. As the bird sits with its breast facing the sun, it raises its wings to expose the under plumage to the warm rays. It also lies breast down on the ground with its wings spread to warm its back and rump.

Green jay

Blue jays also engage in an activity known as anting, in which they gather a beakful of ants and excitedly rub them over their feathers. Naturalists have watched as many as 150 different species of birds anting, but have failed to come up with any clear-cut explanations for the activity. Some have suggested that the formic acid secreted by the ants may deter lice and mites from the feathers. Others seem to think that the birds just like the feeling of the ant secretion on their bodies since they react with ecstasy to the experience, as a cat does to catnip.

Another activity they seem to enjoy is harassing predatory birds such as herons, owls, hawks, or crows. A flock of noisy jays will surround the bird, screaming and darting at it with bluff and bluster. Owls seem to trigger the jay's harassing response most often. Occasionally, the jays will tease one of these predatory birds by imitating the cry of a wounded bird, but the joke can backfire. If not all of the mischievous jays escape in time, one of them may become a meal for the predator.

Another member of the jay family, the crestless Mexican jay, is found in the foothill country along the Mexican border. It prefers the juniper-pine-oak woods of the Chisos Mountains and is common in the Big Bend National Park. Mexican jays band together in small groups and nest in loose colonies. Several members of the flock may pitch in to help a nesting pair build a platform nest of green twigs. Four or five plain green or spotted green eggs are laid by the female in May. The whole colony will help feed and guard the hatchlings. Within a month the young are able to accompany the flock as they forage for food.

The birds feed on cicadas, grasshoppers, other insects, acorns, nuts, seeds, wild fruits, and occasionally the eggs or young of small birds. In the Chisos Mountains they frequently eat the flowering parts of century plants and drink the nectar and other plant juices from the agave blossoms. Flight of the Mexican jay is strong, darting, and seldom sustained. To take advantage of the protection the trees offer, they move through them rather than fly over them.

The green jay is the tropical member of the jay family, and it also has no head crest. Found in the United States only in South Texas, its green, yellow, and blue plumage makes it the gem of the woodlands. Mexicans call it Pajaro verde, green bird. It is most numerous in willow trees and tall brush along the lower Rio Grande and its tributaries, but also can be found during the summer in mesquite woodlands some distance from water. In those areas where native evergreens have been cleared, flocks of green jays flit through citrus groves during the cooler months. In small flocks, they chase each other through the trees. Any human invasion quickly brings them out of the dense cover to investigate. They may scream at the person for a while before disappearing silently into the brush. The green jay is skillful at staying concealed when stalked, but often ironically gives itself away once the hunt is over. When the stalker turns to leave, several of the jays may scream at it and some may even come to the edge of the brush to look the intruder over.

In the spring the noisy flocks disband, and pairs locate thickets in which to breed. Like most of their relatives, green jays are quiet near their nests. On a platform of rootlets and twigs the female lays three to five brown-spotted eggs. The base color of the eggs may be gray, greenish, or buff. Like the other members of the family, green jays eat both animal and vegetable matter, and large insects are a favorite source of protein. Picnic tables and garbage cans installed along U.S. Highway 77 have become an attraction for feeding birds. They often can be seen waiting in the nearby evergreen oaks for the picnickers to leave so they can fly out and pick up any bits of hamburger, French fries, or other foods left behind. The green jay is indeed one of the most beautiful garbage collectors in the area.

The Steller's jay is the dark member of the family, with its black and blue plumage and long black crest. It makes its home in Texas in the western yellow pine and Douglas fir high in the Guadalupe Mountains. During the cooler months family groups wander down to the foothills and valleys to scout out camping areas and other human locations where they can pick up table scraps and edible trash. The Steller's jay also may raid the storehouse trees and telephone poles of the acorn woodpecker. Bounding from branch to branch, frequently moving up successive limbs in a tree in a sort of spiral, the Steller's jay feeds on insects, acorns, nuts, pine seeds, wild fruits, and an occasional egg. The bird may flick its wings and tail and whack its bill on a branch while foraging. This action probably causes insects to reveal themselves to the hungry bird.

When the breeding season rolls around, the Steller's jay builds a foundation of twigs and adds a deep cup of grass or moss. It then plasters the structure with mud and lines it with pine needles or rootlets. Into it the female lays three to five greenish white eggs specked with brown and lavender.

The final member of the jay family found in Texas is the crestless scrub jay. This shy and elusive bird is seen most often as a blue-gray streak flashing through the brush. In the Trans-Pecos hills and canyons it can be found in pinon, juniper, and oak scrub, but on the Edwards Plateau it lives in thickets of oak and junipers. Individual birds occasionally winter along willow-lined streams in the Panhandle canyons.

A typical and often observed action of the scrub jay is its swift, graceful dive from a high vantage point into a thicket. It frequently uses bushtop lookout perches, and when it descends to the ground, it feeds on insects, acorns, piņon nuts, wild fruits, and berries. It also raids the nests of small birds for eggs and young. Feeding flocks often converse in odd chuckles, as do their blue jay cousins; however, they are not as boisterous. A frequently heard sound in the Edwards Plateau is a scrub jay vocalization that sounds like the sudden ripping of a piece of canvas. Occasionally the bird also delivers the low throat rattle common to all Texas jays. A soft whispery, cooing song is made by the well-hidden scrub jay in the spring.

During the 1940s and 1950s ranchers in the central and western parts of the Edwards Plateau cleared most of the cedar from their land. Since the scrub jay prefers a habitat of scrubby juniper or cedar and oak, this brush clearing forced the bird to move its range eastward about a hundred miles to the cedar brakes west of Austin. Before 1950 the scrub jay had been unknown in the Austin area.

Jays may not be one of your favorite birds, but even with all of their faults, these colorful loudmouths add beauty and liveliness wherever they are found.


Additional Information:

Ilo Hiller
1989 – Jays: Introducing Birds to Young Naturalists. The Louise Lindsey Merrick Texas Environment Series, No. 9, pp. 57-60. Texas A&M University Press, College Station.

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