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Blue Jays and the Great American Backyard Bird Count

Updated on April 19, 2016
Patty Inglish, MS profile image

Ms. Inglish has 30 years of successful experience in medicine, psychology, STEM courses, and aerospace education (CAP).

The Blue Jay loves peanuts in the shell, but so does his closest relative, Stellar's Jay.
The Blue Jay loves peanuts in the shell, but so does his closest relative, Stellar's Jay. | Source

Changes In Bird Populations and Habitats

The Great American Backyard Bird Count is one of the events included on my Unique February Holidays Calendar. It causes me to remember that I have not seen a Blue Jay in several years, although the bird is historically a resident of Ohio.

Ohio bird watchers report seeing Blue Jays in our large metro parks that include sizable forests within our city and county limits. This year, for the February bird count sponsored by the Audubon Society, participants will likely become excited by any of these jays seen on their own properties.

A bird watcher is defined as a person that travels at least a mile away from home to view birds but this requirement in not necessary for the backyard bird count. Pull out some binoculars and a camera and collect photos of as many different birds as possible. You might want to send some of them as entries into the photo contest connected with the bird counting event.

Source

Personality Of the Jay

In elementary school I learned that Blue Jays are loud-mouths and very rude bullies. Having never seen one, I had no frame of reference. Cardinals I knew; Jays, I did not.

In To Kill a Mockingbird, attorney Attitcus Finch tells his son Jem:

Shoot all the blue jays you want, if you can hit 'em, but remember it's a sin to kill a mockingbird.

Miss Maudie explains the statement to Jem's sister, Scout:

Mockingbirds don't do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don't eat up people's gardens, don't nest in corncribs, they don't do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That's why it's a sin to kill a mockingbird.

So why would it be acceptable to kill the jay? They must to much more than sing and what they do must make people angry - unless their songs are just loud and ugly and disrupt life.

Blue Jay Characteristics

Certain old superstitions hold that this bird is a servant of the devil. Some of the first naturalists' drawings of the bird in the 1750s featured an emphasis on the strong black beak, open in a squawking attitude. Overall, the Blue Jay did not seem very friendly to its discoverers.

The bird is territorial, aggressive, and imitates the calls of larger predatory birds to scare off competition for food and potential invaders of its nests. It can be very loud, although I have never heard one make so much as a small peep. As a child, I thought the species was a mute blue cardinal.

Stellar Jays have almost identical characteristics. There appear to be no visual recordings of the hybrid of the two species, so we do not yet know whether the hybrid is more or less aggressive than the parent species. In the case of the polar bear-grizzley bear hybrid, the offspring has been so aggressive in encounters with humans that local government policies are to shoot any of these hybrids on sight.

Estmated Habitat Of Blue Jays

The green portion of the map now extends to the west at least one state's width, north to south, to the Rocky Mountains.
The green portion of the map now extends to the west at least one state's width, north to south, to the Rocky Mountains. | Source

Stellar's Jay

Discovered west of the Rocky Mountains in 1741.
Discovered west of the Rocky Mountains in 1741. | Source

The Stellar Jay looks much like the other species in its genus, with the blue and white scrubbed off. I wonder if one is not a subspecies of the other.

Habitat Range

  • Yellow -- Breeding range
  • Green -- Year-long range (see * below in text)
  • Blue -- Winter range (Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming; perhaps Colorado as of 2011 or 2012)

Changes:

In the 2010s, the Blue Jay has been counted in the northern states of America and at the Pacific Northwest Coast in southern Canada a British Columbia. The *green* area on the map above now extends at least one state to the west along its western boundary and over the Rocky Mountains which previously stopped further migration. A need for additional food and mates may have caused this change.

The bird is may have expanded its territory to Colorado as well, since scientists feel that they have see hybrids of the Blue Jay and Stellar's Jay in that state. Another possibility is that the Blue Jay mates with Stellar's in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming, and the young hybrids evenutally migrate into Colorado.

This bird previously gave way territorially to Stellar's Jay in the Western US, but naturalists and ornithologists believe that the two species are now cross-breeding to from a hybrid bird. They are the only two species in the genus Cyanocitta.

Both species can imitate other bird calls and both can mimic the call of the Red-shouldered Hawk (so can the Northern Mockingbird). Both jay species eat plant and animal materials and they are both highly attracted to unshelled peanuts.

Habitat of Stellar's Jay: Entire Band of Land from A to F

A
Alaska:
Alaska, USA

get directions

B
British Columbia:
British Columbia, Canada

get directions

C
Washington State, USA:
Washington, USA

get directions

D
California:
California, USA

get directions

E
Mexico:
Mexico

get directions

F
NIcaraugua:
Nicaragua

get directions

G
British Columbia:
British Columbia, Canada

get directions

Mockingbirds

Northern Mockingbirds live and breed from about Lattitude 42° North in the USA all the way southward through Mexico and most of Central America. Some have been seen outside these boundaries as well.

Mockingbirds can imitate human, animal, and inanimate-object sounds with ease. They can sound like another bird species, a cat, a gathering of chittering insects, a washing machine, or a car alarm.

The North American species of Mockingbird is the Mimus polyglottos, whose Latin name meams many-tongued mimic. In fact, any one of these birds can learn 200 songs and a variety of noises.

Blue Jays, Jabberjays, and Mockingjays

To date, no one has formalized a concrete migratory pattern for the Blue Jay. They seem to go where they want, when they need to do so.

As of this writing, no one has reported evidence of a Blue Jay - Mockingbird hybrid that is the Mockingjay in the Hunger Games books and films. It is an eerie coincidence that Blue-Stellar Jay hybrids were discovered about the time that the first Hunger Games film was released. Audubon maps and others revealed Blue Jays habitats touching Stellar Jay areas (USGS Map, Pautuxent Wildlife Research Center; National Geographic; Audubon; all as early as 2011).

The idea for the Mockingjay is a food one for the fictional accounts, my opinion based on the Blue-Stellar hybrid.

Mockingbird Aggression

Click thumbnail to view full-size
The Northern Mockingbird can easily attack a red-shouldered hawk and imitate its call as well.Northern Mockingbirds attacking a rattlesnake. Plate 21 of Birds of America by John James Audubon.
The Northern Mockingbird can easily attack a red-shouldered hawk and imitate its call as well.
The Northern Mockingbird can easily attack a red-shouldered hawk and imitate its call as well. | Source
Northern Mockingbirds attacking a rattlesnake. Plate 21 of Birds of America by John James Audubon.
Northern Mockingbirds attacking a rattlesnake. Plate 21 of Birds of America by John James Audubon. | Source
Mockingjay from The Hunger Games.
Mockingjay from The Hunger Games. | Source

What Is a Mockingjay?

The Mockingjay is not only a good dea for a storyline, but it is also a believable concept.

This bird resulted from a failed government experiment. The Panem Capitol chiefs bred jabberjays to spy on citizens in the districts. The birds were stool pigeons - they memorized and repeated whole verbal transactions.

As the citizen rebels caught on this, they sent back false information via the birds, which were then abandoned by the government. Next, male jabberjays mated with female mockingbirds and hatched Mockingjays. The latter mimicked both bird calls and human voices and were uncontroallble by the government. This is eerie, since some US residents feel that the government is spying on the population via cameras, email, and other means.

Overlapping Jay Habitats

The strip of US States to the west on the map below touch the states in the triangle of letters to the east, and Blue Jays now cross the Rockies.

The Northern Mockingbird is most often seen in the southern US States, so hybridizing these birds into a Mockingjay may a long shot, because of usual geographic distance between species and the various genetic obstacles that might be operating.

Another case of habitat overlap cioncided with the extinction of the Carolina Parakeet. The similar Monk Parakeet moved into the Carolina's former habitat after the last Carolina Parakeet died at the Cincinnati Zoo in the early 1900s.

Jays Meeting In the Lower 48 States

A
BC:
British Columbia, Canada

get directions

B
Washington State:
Washington, USA

get directions

C
Oregon:
Oregon, USA

get directions

D
California:
California, USA

get directions

E
Idaho:
Idaho, USA

get directions

F
Montana:
Montana, USA

get directions

G
Wyoming:
Wyoming, USA

get directions

Counting Birds for the Great Backyard Bird Count

As you count birds for the Great Backyard Bird Count and any time you watch for birds, take notice of any Blue and Stellar Jays and Northern Mockingbirds (we have 17 different species of mockingbirds altogether).

Take pictures if you can, enter the photo contest, and if you ever think you really see an actual Mockingjay, be sure to take pictures and document the bird. Then notify the local branch of the Audubon Society.

© 2014 Patty Inglish MS

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    • Deborah Minter profile image

      Deborah Minter 

      9 months ago from U.S, California

      Now, that you mention it... I used to see blue Jays all the time in California, now it's only once in a while.

    • Kristen Howe profile image

      Kristen Howe 

      3 years ago from Northeast Ohio

      Patty, this was an interesting hub on blue jays (I saw all the time in New Jersey and not so much here in Ohio) and mockingjays. Thanks for sharing. Voted up!

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile imageAUTHOR

      Patty Inglish MS 

      4 years ago from USA. Member of Asgardia, the first space nation, since October 2016

      @TurtleDog & MsDora -- And I don't think I want to tangle with a cross between a Blue Jay and Stellar Jay's baby and a Mockingbird. Whew!

      Thanks for comments and votes - Happy bird counting! -- It turns out that Ohio has an amazingly large influx of Snowy Owls this year. They are beautiful and often look like they are laughing.

    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Weithers 

      4 years ago from The Caribbean

      Thank you for this article, full of bird beauty. The fact that there are still things not figured out about them, makes them mysterious and heavenly. Great pictures too!

    • TurtleDog profile image

      TurtleDog 

      4 years ago

      Wow great post. Loved the part about Jays and Mocking birds. A lot of fun to read and some cool facts I can impress friends and loved ones with... Thanks. Voted up AND awesome

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile imageAUTHOR

      Patty Inglish MS 

      4 years ago from USA. Member of Asgardia, the first space nation, since October 2016

      That is quite a memorable sight, the planting of a peanut by a jay. I wish I'd seen this myself!

      A neighbor a few years ago was fortunate to see a group of about two dozen Blue Jays fly through her yard at once. It must have looked like a movie.

    • Room of My Own profile image

      Sadie Holloway 

      4 years ago

      This is a very thorough and detailed hub, with great graphics and resources. I remember the first time I saw a Blue Jay land in our backyard and plant a peanut in the dirt. I was about 5 at the time and I remember being quite fascinated by the bird's behaviour.

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile imageAUTHOR

      Patty Inglish MS 

      4 years ago from USA. Member of Asgardia, the first space nation, since October 2016

      @DeborahNeyens - I will need to go on a group hike in one of the local parks soon and look for those jays! I miss seeing them and their peanuts.

    • DeborahNeyens profile image

      Deborah Neyens 

      4 years ago from Iowa

      I've never heard of a mockingjay (I haven't seen or read the Hunger Games) but I have about 4 blue jays at my bird feeder right now. I love having them around; they are very entertaining.

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