Sycamore Grove Farm, Madison County
To Kill a Mockingbird was one of my favorite books, as well as the movie rendition. All except for that horrifying quote that Atticus Finch said to his son Jem who was just learning to shoot: “I’d rather you shot at tin cans in the backyard, but I know you’ll go after birds. Shoot all the blue jays you want - just don’t kill a mockingbird.”
Blue jays have been reviled and persecuted by many different groups over the years. In Native American lore, blue jays are portrayed as thieves and tricksters. Their behavior has definitely contributed to their reputation: blue jays are known for marauding other birds’ nests, being bullies at your backyard bird feeder, and generally having an aggressive attitude. I have seen this behavior on our farm. They are frequently grouped with European starlings as “nuisance” birds. But they play an important role in the bird world. Stan Tekiela, author of Birds of Virginia Field Guide, says jays are “known as the alarm of the forest, screaming at any intruders in the woods.” I have seen this behavior, too. Red-shouldered and Cooper’s hawks frequently come to my bird feeding station, attracted to the numerous “meals” they observe. Jays are vociferous and loud when they spot one of these predators. There is a sudden mass exodus from the ground where birds were eating seed into the trees for shelter. So I am glad that the birds I bring seed to each morning have a protector in jays.
Joan E. Strassmann tells one of the best stories about blue jays in her Slow Birding book mentioned in an earlier bird blog. She points out oak trees are beholden to jays for spreading their fruit (acorns) far and wide. These trees rely on birds to be the major distribution agent, often carrying the acorns miles away from their parent tree. Scientists studying jay behavior found that these birds collected acorns, stored them in their mouth and throat, flew to a common cache area and buried them tip-first in holes so that each hole held only one acorn. While some were eaten, many acorns grew into trees. “When I hear that the Blue Jays have found a roosting owl or have become alerted for some other reason and fly through the neighborhood with their screeching warning,” Strassman notes, “I like to remember that they have airlifted the oak trees north in tiny acorn packages as the glaciers retreated.”
Birding tip: Audubon offers a wonderful online resource: Bird Watching 101: A Guide for Beginners. Even experienced birders will glean some ideas on how to improve their birding techniques.
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