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BLANE KLEMEK COLUMN: Blue jays are true Minnesotans all year long

(Source: WikiCommons photo)

There are a handful of wild birds that make their year-round home right here in marvelous Minnesota. Birds that show up in the springtime and stay until early fall are a joy to observe and have around -- our hummers, orioles, and woodland warblers to name just a few -- but what about those resident, familiar, and so-so birds that don’t necessarily cause a great deal of excitement in birding circles?

Indeed, several resident birds that frequent our backyard birdfeeders are a “dime a dozen.” Those common black-capped chickadees, downy and hairy woodpeckers and white-breasted and red-breasted nuthatches? These birds, while never making the news, are fun to observe nonetheless. Think of a winter without them. It’d be less enjoyable, that’s for sure.

One bird that I’ve never grown weary of watching (actually, no such bird exists in my book!), is the common, yet sometimes not-so-common, blue jay. Here’s a bird as pretty as they come and as animated and interesting as they come. Related to crows, ravens, and magpies, blue jays are also among those birds “as smart as they come.”

Blue jays are a member of the avian family Corvidae. Fascinating as it is, some members of the group -- say, gray jays and Clark’s nutcrackers -- seem to tolerate we humans to a “wing’s length” degree. Our presence often evokes a mutual curiosity, thereby allowing our cautious approach and nearness to them without too much of their concern.

However, blue jays are generally quite skittish and will depart quickly upon being discovered.  That said, one can still enjoy observing the nervous acting blue jay going about its business unaware of you and I if we sit quietly in the woods or view them through our windows.

One of my favorite stories to tell about a blue jay oblivious to my whereabouts, was the time I watched for the first time many years ago a lone blue jay diligently cracking acorns. The bird collected one nut at a time from the forest floor and carried each nut inside its beak to a stout limb of a nearby oak tree. Then, carefully positioning the acorn between each of its feet, the blue jay began its work of opening the acorn’s hard shell.

At first the bird examined the acorn by cocking its head to one side and, in a surprising motion, raised up as high as it could, following through with a powerful jab with its beak to break apart the shell of the acorn. Not once did the blue jay succeed in halving the nut on the first try. Several hacks were delivered for each nut.

I recall being especially impressed with the precision of the blue jay’s blows on the acorn. The bird approached the chore as someone might size up chopping or sawing a log in half with an ax, bow-saw or chainsaw. After a minor workout, the blue jay was able to extract the soft meat of the acorn, consume it, and then fly off in search of another nut.

I’ve also observed blue jays perform a feat not unlike that of its close relative the Clark’s nutcracker. Both species possess a sub-lingual or gular pouch inside their mouths in the throat region. The pouches can also be thought of as simply a “throat pouch.” Hence, blue jays, like nutcrackers, can store nuts and seeds of various kinds inside their pouches in order to carry off foodstuffs for caching and later consumption. Sort of like carrying a grocery sack around, but inside their mouths!

Another interesting trait or behavior of blue jays (and all corvids for that matter) is their penchant for mobbing. Blue jays will readily and willfully descend upon a hapless owl or other predator, mammals included, and vocalize loudly and incessantly until either the raptor or mammalian predator manages to escape and the blue jays give up the pursuit, or they simply grow weary of the pastime and leave on their own accord. Such mob formation rings true with the old adage “safety in numbers,” as it does in serving the purpose of warning other blue jays of potential danger in the woods.

I’ve observed Steller’s jays and Clark’s nutcrackers in the Rocky Mountains mob fishers and pine martens on several occasions. An incredibly raucous ordeal, I almost feel sorry for any fisher or marten that happens to get noticed by a group of Steller’s jays or Clark’s nutcrackers. And as unnerving such commotions can be, it’s also amusing to watch fishers and martens try in vain to hide or get away. It’s generally the case that the birds simply grow tired of following the animals around and fly off after the game is over and no longer fun.

The diet of blue jays is wide and varied. Staples include nuts, seeds, berries and insects, but so do other items not necessarily considered by many people as typical “bird food.” Meat and eggs are indeed a part of the blue jay’s menu-list from time to time, too. Other birds, especially nestlings, and small rodents, amphibians, and scraps from animal carcasses help to supplement a blue jay’s diet with needed protein.

Nevertheless, the blue jay, a true Minnesotan that stays with us through thick and thin all year long, sometimes loud and obnoxious, sometimes a mobster and thief, but always a survivor and always a pretty sight as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

Blane Klemek is a Minnesota DNR wildlife manager. He can be reached at bklemek@yahoo.com.

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