2015 Fall

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Beautiful and bold

Does the Blue Jay get a bad rap?
illustration: Sherri Thompson Beautiful and bold
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It is often the voice of the Blue Jay that initially attracts our notice. With a vocal range like its cousins the crows and ravens, the Blue Jay produces loud, strident calls, bounding whistling notes, as well as imitations of the scratchy shrieks of hawks and other birds. More than once, I’ve heard calls at the edge of the woods and thought, “red-​tailed,” only to see a Blue Jay appear.

Blue Jays are year-​round residents of western Pennsylvania, though in winter they range locally in mixed flocks and some will migrate far south. In late spring, they build a twiggy nest in a tree, lined with grasses, weeds and moss, cemented sometimes with mud. Occasionally, jays have been known to decorate nests with paper, string or other ornamentation. Four or five spotted eggs, greenish, buff or pale blue, are incubated by mother and father, but mostly mother, for just over a fortnight. Featherless young quickly grow downy plumage and are ready to leave the nest after about three weeks.

Their crazy voices catch our ears in a similar way that the deep blue of their plumage, the kind of blue from a crayon, catches our eyes. Pick up a Blue Jay feather, and you’ll not mistake it for any other bird. Tail feathers are horizontally dashed blue and black, as if they had been mechanically stamped with ink as they grew out of their once-​living sheaths. The blue can be a deep indigo, a powdery blue or a white-​blue iridescence. Hold a feather up to the light, and it becomes a translucent sputter of bluish gray. Turn it away, and it’s black. The color comes from microscopic structures within the feathers, not diet or pigment.

Among the other dozen or so blue-​tinged North American birds, the Blue Jay has the most extensive range — stretching from the Atlantic into the Rockies. As familiar at our Pittsburgh feeders as chickadees or cardinals, Blue Jays have developed a reputation for aggressiveness and banditry, only somewhat undeserved. Emily Dickinson called the jay “a Neighbor and a Warrior too,” and e.e. cummings, eschewer of capitalization, called it a “thief, crook, cynic/(swimfloat drifting/​fragment of heaven)/trickstervillain/raucous rogue.”

Omnivorous but vegetarian 75 percent of the time, Blue Jays have the unfortunate distinction of being portrayed by John James Audubon as egg thieves, and prior to their recent comfort with suburban life and our well-​stocked feeders, they might have done more than their share of nest pilfering, though there is no way to be sure.

The Blue Jay is a bird that says, in its very birdiness, “to heck with you all.” It’s loud. It’s bold. It’s as graceful as any bird; quick and brash. That’s the sort of bird e.e. cummings, poet, corpsman in World War I, resident of 1920s Paris, influenced by jazz, stylist of his own syntax and punctuation, would esteem. I commend poem No. 5 of his 95 Poems to you for its homage to the jay.


David Liebmann

David Liebmann is an educator who has birded throughout the country.

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