Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

October 10, 2007

Le Geai Bleu

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 10:54 pm

  O.K., quick – give me an answer.  What are the two kinds of wild critters that bury acorns in the fall?  Squirrels certainly come to mind quickly as the first response, but the second part of the question might slow you down a bit.  If I say this second critter is blue and according to the Cornell University issues a “bell like tullull call, a melodious whistled teekle, and a variety of chattering, harsh notes and growls,” a chipmunk choking on an acorn is not the correct response. Give up?  The answer is the Blue Jay.

  You will see that there is nary an October tree without a few of them in it and you will hear that presence loudly announced. It is not the blue jay way to be subtle about anything. Their loud calls, aside from the Cornell listed ones, include everything from the typical “Jay, Jay” or “Jeer, Jeer” to a very well executed imitation of the scream of a Red-shouldered Hawk.  One of their calls – the so-called tulull call- reminds me of the sound of a rotary dial on a vintage telephone (you know, the ones that didn’t take pictures).

  To date, scientists don’t know why jays scream like hawks – perhaps it’s their version of a prank call to scare the little birds.  Geesh, maybe they really are dialing a phone!  But scientists do know why they target oak trees.  Blue jays harvest the acorns and save them for spring use. They are known as “scatter hoarders” which is a frightening way to say they save their acorns all over the place rather than put them in one basket. These bold blue birds pry off a few nuts and carry them off to a forest edge or tree line.  There they push them into the ground, but not together.  Each is put into a separate location – thus the caches are scattered over a wide area.

  Jays are finicky when it comes to their acorns.  Not just any old nut will do.  Studies have shown jays prefer small acorns such as those from the Pin Oak and other members of the Black Oak group. Small acorns fit nicely in the bill and black oak acorns don’t germinate until spring. This latter fact is very important when you consider that white oak acorns have a tendency to germinate the second they are put into the ground.  It’s good to know your emergency food will still be in its package when you retrieve it in late winter/early spring. By that time, the tannic acids which render the black oak acorns bitter, will have leached out as well.  Although the squirrels won’t admit it, these jays know a thing or two about nutting.

  Of course, squirrels can’t afford to wait until spring to eat their buried acorn treasures.  This is their main winter diet.  Blue jays can afford to wait because they can, and will, eat anything from seeds to slow mice.  Early spring is when such food sources are in scarce supply, so the acorns are preserved toward that end. Many jays migrate south and skip the toughest part of winter, but not all of them. 

 In keeping with their complicated persona, Blue Jays exhibit some odd migration patterns as a way to further baffle those scientists trying to figure them out.  Some individuals (the jays, not the scientists) remain resident all year long while others chose to fly south.  Certain birds have proven to fly south one year and elect to stay north the next.  Young birds tend to migrate more, but otherwise there really is no clear cut answer to this riddle.  Taxes don’t seem to make any difference.

 So, I offer a few jay tidbits here to give you something to think about upon spotting the next Blue Jay.  There’s obviously much more hidden within that crested little head than meets the eye – although what meets the eye is very pleasing. I believe most people could pick one out from any bird line-up, but I offer this neat old engraving as an illustration of the bird (see here).  The brash behavior and stunning cerulean hues of these loudmouths made them one of the first North American birds to become well known in Europe. The early naturalists included them in their natural histories as early as the 16th century and they were scientifically described by 1758.

  This illustration dates from around 1790. Even though it was drawn from a London museum specimen, the character of the bird stands out.  I have also included the text that accompanied this figure (look here) and will give a few minutes to read it.  You’ll see that the early works are rather slight on information.  I do appreciate the French name for the blue jay, as listed about mid page: “ Le Geai bleu de  d’Amerique Septentrionale.”   Now that’s name befitting this plucky little Napoleon of a bird.



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