By Kenneth Turner Blackshaw
Imagine a sound that raises the hair on the back of your neck! I was in the State Forest recently and heard the scream of a Red-tailed Hawk. Peterson describes this as an "asthmatic squeal, keeer-r-r, (slurring downward)". The best reference I could give you might be from the sound track of the recent "Northern Exposure" series. They used it to represent the voice of the northern wilderness -- perhaps the wildest sound you can imagine.
I turned and looked toward the sound and realized I had been fooled by a Blue Jay. Jays are great mimics and for some reason, the Red-tailed Hawk cry is one of their favorites. In the spring, there is a Red-tailed Hawk nest in this area, so the resident Blue Jays hear this scream frequently enough to make it part of their repertoire.
When I was growing up here on the island in the '50s, Blue Jays were a rare sight. One had to go out Almanack Pond Road to the Hidden Forest area to find them. You'd read about them in bird books and see pictures of their shining blue colors, but for some reason, they avoided Nantucket. The Christmas Bird Count in 1956 found only three of them, but they have gradually increased, peaking for the 1993 count with 263. Now it is taken for granted when one goes birding, you will encounter some Blue Jays.
The fact that they are now mundane makes them no less special. Jays are members of the crow family, which also includes ravens, magpies and nutcrackers. People seem to either love them or hate them. Those of us (me included) who love them, enjoy their bright colors, brash behavior, exuberance, and joie de vivre, which they seem to project on the landscape. They boldly arrive at our feeders, perhaps call, Jay -- Jay, a few times and then proceed to easily displace any bird in their way to grab a sunflower seed and then fly off again. Their detractors look at them as bullies, nest robbers, and general noisy nuisances. These comments are probably true, but no species, man included, is without its flaws.
Blue Jays are roughly 12 inches from beak to tail. The upper side is varying shades of blue, most brilliant on the wings and tail. When the sun hits a Blue Jay as it flies away from you, it illuminates this blue beautifully and provides a wonderful flash against our often-dour winter landscape. Blue Jays have crests on the back of their heads, which they can elevate or drop, depending on their mood. I've often wished for this feature myself. They also wear a black necklace that falls just below their white throat, providing separation from the equally white breast and belly. In flight, you see white flashes mixed with the blue.
Jays' behavior makes them very easy to observe. Often when they land, they perch at the tiptop of a tree, and frequently punctuate that landing with their strident alarm call. They also engage in a behavior known as mobbing. When they spot a hawk, or another predator, often they will cluster around and all start screaming -- Jay -- Jay -- Jay. This in turn will attract other birds to the area that will also start to proclaim the presence of this dangerous inhabitant. They will continue doing this until they force the hawk to take flight and then follow it out of the area. Bird watchers listen for this mobbing behavior because often it is our first indication that a hawk or an owl is around. My best look at a Long-eared Owl was delivered to me by the antics of a flock of Blue Jays.
Blue Jays are year-round residents here on our island. Their numbers swell particularly at this time of the year as the northern part of the population from Quebec and Newfoundland pass through. These daytime migrants typically don't fly in big flocks as others do. More usually, you see them, one or two at a time, perhaps 100 yards apart, flying above the trees. Years ago, I remember the migration being quite noticeable around the eastern end of Lake Ontario. We would see four or five hundred Blue Jays per day when we were up there watching the hawk migration at Derby Hill.
Our winter Blue Jays are pretty much the same group we have in the summer. They provide a colorful part of the bird feeding scene. If you put out sunflower seeds, you will undoubtedly have Blue Jays around and you will notice something a bit perplexing. Even though they are twice the size of our finches and sparrows, they are still unable to crack open a sunflower seed with their beaks. They have to carry the seed off and wedge it into the bark of a tree and flail away at it in order to open it, just like the chickadees do.
So, if you are out on the moors and hear a rather frightening scream from on high, it is most likely a Red-tail. But if you are in the woods and it seems to be coming from the middle of a pine tree, it's probably one of our Blue Jays fooling with your mind.
If you enjoy social birding, every Sunday a group meets in the parking lot in front of the Nantucket High School at 8 a.m.
To hear about rare birds, or to leave a bird report call the Massachusetts Audubon hot line at 888-224-6444.