On a recent bird walk at Beverly Lake in Spring Creek Forest Preserve, our group stood for several minutes in the parking lot, transfixed by a river of blue jays passing overhead. They just kept coming and coming and we continued to see bands of them in flight throughout the walk.
September is a month for blue jays. It’s not that they are absent other months of the year in the Barrington area; many are year-round residents. But September activates their movement and noise. Almost any time I step outside these days, I hear the sharp “Jay! Jay! Jay! cry of the species and look up to see a largish bird silhouette in straight, unwavering flight. The streams of jays we observed at Beverly Lake most likely were this year’s youngsters heading farther south for the winter, as they often do, while mature birds tend to remain behind.
The blue jay (Cyanocitta cristata) belongs to a large family. There are nearly 50 species of jays around the world, all closely related to crows, but only one can be found in our region. With its loud calls and conspicuous blue, black, and white plumage (males and females look identical), it becomes familiar even to youngsters not paying much attention to birds.
Visually the jay is striking – not just for the color of its feathers but also for its prominent crest, its erect bearing, and no-nonsense behavior. Never shy or understated, blue jays burst from tree tops in raucous bands, giving the impression that they know exactly where they’re headed and why.
The birds are well known for their marauding ways. John James Audubon’s painting of blue jays depicts a trio of them piercing songbird eggs and devouring the contents. But while jays may occasionally raid the nests of other birds, their diet consists mostly of acorns, nuts, fruits, and grains.
They fearlessly defend their own nests against potential predators such as squirrels and cats. When their loud cries become shrieks, they likely are “mobbing” a hawk or owl that has entered the neighborhood. A few weeks ago I watched two jays persistently fly at a perched passage merlin, a type of falcon migrating through, until the merlin finally left to escaped their pestering.
Jays typically cry their familiar “Jay! Jay!” but they have an impressive repertoire of other vocalizations, many very un-jaylike. In the spring they utter a strange “Toolool!” as they bob up and down on branches. They can make sounds like a clanky ratchet, a soft whir, and a screeching red-tailed hawk. It’s easy to be fooled by their noises this time of year.
While you can expect to see blue jays streaming overhead for the next couple weeks, you can also look forward to their company for the coming months. They are especially fond of acorns and spend a lot of time in the tops of oaks these days, both eating the nuts and carrying them away to secret caches for winter. Jays will readily visit bird feeders, too. Their vivid colors and bold ways make them an avian neighbor to appreciate in the coming winter months.
About the Author
Wendy Paulson has lived in Barrington Hills since 1975, and has led bird walks in the area for many years. She re-established the Nature Lady program in the Barrington 220 school district and St. Anne’s in the late 70s, under the auspices of The Garden Club and Little Garden Club of Barrington. Wendy developed the education program for Citizens for Conservation, initiated and edited its newsletter, and has been an active volunteer with CFC for over 30 years.
During interludes in New York City and Washington, DC, Wendy taught classes about birds in the public schools and is helping to develop a similar program in Chicago public schools with Openlands. She is chairman of The Bobolink Foundation, serves on the board or advisory committee of multiple conservation and bird-related organizations, both domestic and international, and is former chairman of IL and NY chapters of The Nature Conservancy. Wendy and her husband Hank have two grown children and are avid hikers, cyclists, and kayakers.
If you’d like to learn from Wendy Paulson in person, join her upcoming bird hike scheduled for 8 a.m. on Friday, October 28th. Cosponsored by Audubon Chicago Region and Citizens for Conservation, Wendy’s Barrington Area Bird Hikes are a great way to get out and enjoy the fall migration. Walks are free and open to the public though spaces are limited and RSVPs are required. Good walking shoes are strongly recommended for these walks and don’t forget your binoculars!
Bird Hike with Wendy Paulson – October 28, 8:00 a.m.
Beese Park (meet at Beese Park, east end of Cornell Ave.)
Please RSVP to: Daniel Jacobson (312) 453-0230, Extension 2002 or firstname.lastname@example.org and let us know how best to contact you should that be necessary.