By David Cronenwett
The ashes and cottonwoods around Choteau are rapidly de-leafing. Although there is still some good color here, when the autumn winds begins in earnest, our broadleaf trees will become bare. This fall transition is one I remember fondly from my childhood, growing up around the deciduous woods of the East. Not only is the color-show breathtaking, but the openness of naked trees reveals more to birders. Because my community on the prairie is dominated by cottonwood, I occasionally get autumnal flashbacks to my youth, wandering through woodlots and easily spotting common birds like Northern Cardinals, Black Capped Chickadees and Blue Jays. Imagine my surprise one October about four years ago, when I spotted a Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata) perched in a clump of chokecherries here, in northern Montana.
On some range maps, the species does not even appear this far to the northwest. But today, my yard was a tumult of Blue Jay activity. Several of the showy, unmistakable birds were flitting about, squawking to each other, gathering food and caching it in my trees. Blues are one of two “crested” jays in North America, the other being the Stellar Jay of our coniferous forests. Where the two species share habitat, hybridization is possible. Both species use their crests for communication; erect, it demonstrates aggression and alertness while a flattened crest indicates a calm, relaxed bird. Blue Jays are members of the family Corvidae, (crows, magpies, ravens) and as such, are astonishingly intelligent. Their broad, relatively short wing structure indicates a species evolved for forested habitats, where maneuverability is of greater importance than speed. They are a highly social bird, tend to mate for life and demonstrate strong family bonds.
Blues are omnivorous and adaptable creatures. Most of their diet consists of berries, nuts and grain seed followed by insects and occasionally vertebrates such as the eggs and hatchlings of other bird species. Unfortunately, Blue Jays have received a bad reputation in some quarters for this infrequent habit of preying upon young birds; it is curious why we don’t demonstrate the same hostility to Shrikes, Goshawks and other avian predators. Blues, like their corvid cousins, possess a huge range of vocalizations and are known as excellent mimics; they sometimes imitate the calls of hawks and raptors, alerting others of their own kind to danger. However, the jay will often do the same thing to scare competitors of any species from their own territories, thereby improving its chances for food and potential mates.
Most corvids seem able to comfortably live in and around human settlement and this explains the dramatic Westward expansion of Blue Jays. Backyard feeders, the availability of food garbage and the creation of edge habitat across large swaths of the country have established favorable conditions where they can now thrive. Interestingly, some populations demonstrate seasonal migration patterns, making it the only New World jay to do so. Some individual birds head south one year but not the next. Large flocks of Blues are observed along migration routes at times, but significant populations overwinter in northern habitats. Despite being one of the most common and gaudy backyard birds in some areas, there are still many behavioral unknowns concerning Blue Jays.
I’m sitting on my doorstep now, looking at a bird species that probably migrated to this region of Montana just a few years ago. The conservationist in me quickly considers it from an ecological perspective; here we have a relatively aggressive, highly adaptable, non-native species that has brazenly set up shop in the country. What are the potential impacts? In this instance, we need to make the distinction between invasive and non-native; Blue Jays, a native to Eastern North America, are filling a niche mainly in areas dominated by human beings and our works. They do not appear to be negatively affecting native bird populations in any meaningful way. Nature of course, is in constant flux and we need to look at each introduced species individually and ask, does this creature reduce biodiversity or increase it? Certainly there are plenty of harmful, introduced birds we could do without (starlings anyone?), but in the case of Blue Jays it seems they are an innocuous, beautiful addition to our pantheon of natives.
The calls of the Jay and the striking color of its feathers transports me back to another time. It seems like an old friend has finally found me after an absence of many years, and it gladdens the heart.