Nature News: Blue jays intelligent, striking, not feeder-hogs

published Nov 30 in the Portsmouth Herald/the York Weekly and other print newspapers as well as online at seacoastonline.com

I have been participating in some great citizen science – Cornell Laboratories “Project FeederWatch” – excitedly logging in all of the birds I see at my feeder.  It is a whirlwind of activity and color. My newest, most exciting, most colorful additions, have been a red-bellied woodpecker and a flock of beautiful golden-yellow evening grosbeaks.

Blue jays can seem annoying as they raid bird feeders this time of year, but they’re fun to have, they are striking and intelligent and great to watch! photo by steve morello www.stevemorello.com

My most annoying visitors, in my mind, have been the blue jays. I don’t remember so many last year. Now, we have a good-sized group of five or six that visit every morning, scaring away the other birds, sitting at the feeder and stuffing themselves with expensive black oil sunflower seeds, hogging the feeders while everyone else (tiny chickadees, titmice, and nuthatches) hangs out in the wings, waiting for an opportunity to grab one seed.

Two things dawned on me this past week as I watched. The chickadees were taking single seeds, carrying them up to a safe roost, hammering them open and extracting the seed from the shell. I realized that the blue jays weren’t actually gorging on all those seeds, they were instead filling something, I assumed their crop, and then carrying the seeds off.

Gular pouches vs crops vs gizzards

I consulted my go-to resource for everything about birds – www. allaboutbirds.com from Cornell Lab: “Blue Jays carry food in their throat and upper esophagus — an area often called a “gular pouch.” They may store two to three acorns in the pouch, another one in their mouth, and one more in the tip of the bill. In this way they can carry off five acorns at a time to store for later feeding.”

I’m curious how many sunflower seeds they can carry – I’ve read upward of 100 – I, personally, have observed blue jays picking up 20 to 25 sunflower seeds before flying off.  

Learning about the gular pouch (not the same as a crop or a gizzard) shed new light on blue jay anatomy and behavior for me. The gular pouch (or sac) is different from the crop. The gular pouch is an area of stretchy throat skin, attached to the lower mandible of the beak, that can be used for storage. One of the most famous gular pouches is that found on pelicans – that obvious expandable throat sac where they comically store all those fish. 

In comparison, the crop is a thin-walled sac located between the esophagus and the stomach, part of a bird’s digestive system, that is sometimes used to store partially digested food before regurgitation or further digestion. Blue jays, like all members of the corvid family (crows and ravens, etc.) do not have true crops. Then there’s the gizzard, which I always thought was in the throat, but actually comes after the stomach.  Gizzards often contain grit to help grind up tough grains. 

Why store all those seeds in their gular pouch if they aren’t eating them? So they can carry them off into the woods to cache them for the winter. When jays find a ready supply of food, it makes sense to eat enough to satisfy their caloric demands and then store leftovers for the winter. 

Why store all those seeds in their gular pouch if they aren’t eating them? So they can carry them off into the woods to cache them for the winter. When jays find a ready supply of food, it makes sense to eat enough to satisfy their caloric demands and then store leftovers for the winter. 

Just like those chickadees, when a jay wants to eat a sunflower seed, it has to do it one at a time, holding the seed between its toes and cracking it open.

I’ve learned to examine my biases about birds before judging

The second thing that dawned on me was that I take blue jays for granted, and, in fact, my preconceived notions about their behavior made me see them as bullies and aggressive feeder-hogs when they really aren’t. They aren’t feeder hogs any more than the evening grosbeaks who descend en masse and drain the feeders. And, while they will do tricky things like imitate predatory birds to scare other birds from the feeder and do attempt to dominate the feeder, if you watch long enough you’ll see that all those other birds generally get a chance at the food. You’ll see that “mild-mannered” birds like mourning doves, cardinals and red-bellied woodpeckers scare them off, you’ll see those “timid” chickadees and titmice (they aren’t timid) swoop in and take seeds after blue jays have noisily and flamboyantly arrived at the feeder as often as they do when there are no blue jays.

What’s more, blue jays are one of the most intelligent and striking birds to grace our woodlands. This is why it’s worth getting the back stories on local wildlife, knowing just a little bit more about a wild neighbor can completely transform your perspective.