belongs to a family of birds that has been found in fossils more than 25 million years old
appears to have vivid blue feathers—but the colour is actually a trick of the light
sometimes applies ants to the undersides of its wings
has a reputation for stealing eggs from other birds’ nests but in fact eats mainly vegetable materials
The Blue Jay’s scientific name is derived from Greek and Latin words and means, in reverse order, “crested, blue chattering bird,” an apt designation. The Blue Jay belongs to the crow family, or Corvidae, a group of 100 related species including ravens, rooks, jackdaws, crows, magpies, and jays. Some of these species are the largest members of the order Passeriformes, or perching songbirds. The family, which appears around the world, is best represented in the northern hemisphere. These birds are of ancient lineage; fossil remains of corvids have been identified from Miocene deposits 25 million years old.
The Blue Jay’s vivid cobalt or azure-blue tail and wing feathers make an exotic contrast against brown leaves or green grass. However, these feathers are not truly blue. Blue pigment is unknown in birds. The Blue Jay’s feather colour results from refraction, or distortion, of light by a peculiar inner structure of the feather substance. If the feather is crushed, the blue colour disappears. Shed feathers may often be seen in late summer, since adults go through a complete change of plumage between June and September.
During this moulting, or feather-shedding, period Blue Jays may be seen anting, a term referring to a bird using ants or materials that the ants expel from their bodies for preening, or tidying their feathers. Excited anting birds often trip over their own tails in frantic efforts to apply ants with their bill to the underside of their wings. A recent theory suggests that this peculiar behaviour results from skin irritation caused by new feather growth. Possibly ant excretions have a soothing effect on the bird’s skin. Birds have been known to use a wide variety of substitute materials such as fruits, tobacco, mustard, and vinegar for anting. One observer who kept tame Blue Jays had a bird that anted with “various bitter, sour fruit juices and hair tonic”; a second jay anointed itself only with the hair tonic. Another person had a captive Blue Jay that applied burning cigarettes to its feathers! This strange behaviour requires further study. Observations of anting in any bird species are worth reporting to a local natural history journal or magazine.
The fact that the Blue Jay sometimes preys on the young of other birds is no cause for its condemnation, for this bird plays a role in keeping bird populations, as well as some insect pests, under control. As well, Blue Jays are an attractive addition to our forests, towns, and cities. In Audubon’s words: “Their movements on the wing are exceedingly graceful. As they pass from one tree to another, their expanded wings and tail—so beautiful in tint and form—never fail to delight the observer.”
Hinterland Who’s Who
Kenora, Ontario, Canada.