Having spent many hours in the woods in Iowa, I have a clear recollection of the unmistakable call of the eastern blue jay.
While somewhat irritating due to its constant raspy tone, it is an iconic sound of the hardwood forest of the Midwest and the Eastern U.S. Being a westerner all my life, I would often find myself correcting people when they referred to a scrub or a Steller’s jay as a blue jay.
“Blue jays are found in the east," I would say. If I had someone locally tell me they saw a blue jay, I probably would have once again attempted to correct them, however, a recent blue jay sighting at Teller has convinced me otherwise. We do have blue jays!
It was a brisk fall day out on Teller, and as I marveled at the fall colors of the cottonwood gallery I had to pause at what I heard. It sounded like an eastern blue jay. That repeating irritating squawk was none other than the real thing. I quickly located the bird and confirmed it was a true blue jay.
While blue jay are recognized visitors in Montana, I have not observed this species in the Bitterroot for the 13 years that I have called this place home.
In fact, according to data from the Hamilton Christmas Bird Count this species has only been observed 12 times in the last 32 years with one or two being sighted. I recently learned that regular sightings at backyard bird feeders are occurring in Stevensville and Missoula. I had one visit my bird feeder in north Hamilton in mid-October.
Apparently, this year, this striking jay species is here and will likely spend the winter. While the species has occupied habitats in eastern Montana and southern Alberta the recent movement might be a result of blue jays migrating from Alberta south into Montana and eventually to the Bitterroot. Or perhaps they occasionally expand their range west moving from eastern Montana into the Bitterroot.
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Eastern blue jays belong to a family of perching birds which include crows and magpies, all thought to be quite intelligent bird species. They are skilled at mimicking the calls of other birds.
One call they are known for mimicking is that of a red-tailed hawk. Some scientists believe they reproduce this sound to frighten off other birds especially from a rich food source such as abundant acorns on the ground.
They possess a hooded crest on their head similar to the all blue Steller’s jay, but the true blue jay has white cheek feathers with a blue crown and black streak outlining the throat area. The back and wings are largely blue with a grey to white underbelly and white and black streaks on its head. In fact, scientists believe the variability in location and width of the black streaks among blue jays may assist with identification amongst the species.
Blue jays have strong pair bonds and are thought to stay with their mate year after year. While they will both assist with nest building, only the female will incubate the eggs which hatch in about 18 days after incubation begins. The young jays are hatched out featherless and totally dependent upon parental care.
According to the North American Breeding Bird Survey, blue jays have declined 28% from 1966 to 2015, with an estimated breeding population of 13 million birds. Since they are a relatively long-lived species, perhaps we will begin to see more of this species in the Bitterroot. I know one thing for sure, I won’t be so fast to question the next person that says, “Hey, I saw a blue jay!” They probably did!
Sam Lawry, Teller Wildlife Refuge Executive Director has 35 plus years in the wildlife conservation profession. His contributions to the Ravalli Republic are intended to share some of that knowledge of wildlife in the Bitterroot with the community. If you would like more information about Teller Wildlife Refuge please visit our website at www.tellerwildlife.org.