(Transcript of For the Birds for September 20, 2011)
One of the most puzzling animal migrations is that of Blue Jays, the only jay in all the Americas that exhibits north-south migration. Every aspect of their migratory flights is poorly understood. We know that some individuals are present year-round throughout the Blue Jay’s entire range, and that some individuals depart during spring throughout the entire range except from peninsular Florida and the Gulf Coast.
Individual jays who leave an area in autumn may be replaced by individuals migrating from farther north, but the distance traveled by migrants is variable. In most areas, many jays are resident year-round. The proportion that migrates is probably barely 20% of the population even in the northernmost parts of their range, yet thousands are seen migrating in flocks along Lake Superior every fall. Individual Blue Jays can vary in their own migratory movements, heading south one year and not another, or migrating different distances from year to year.
Scientists once believed that young birds made up the bulk of migrating Blue Jays, but more recent studies of banded jays indicate that there is no age difference. I love that this spunky, intelligent bird taxes our own intelligence as we try to figure out what is abundantly clear and simple to them.
The one constant with regard to Blue Jay migration is their big flight along the North Shore of Lake Superior every September.
Right now Blue Jays are filling my yard. From first light, every feeder that doesn’t hold a squirrel is holding four or five of them. Blue Jays are drinking from my birdbath, filling my trees, squawking at passing raptors, and making my yard a happenin’ place.
I feel rich beyond measure to have them visiting. The jays themselves are rich beyond measure, too. Blue Jays have no interest in money—such an artificial construct of worthless paper is beyond their comprehension. Blue Jays understand that real wealth, and security in the real world, come from an abundance of family and friends, and a healthy supply of oak trees. Jays know how to secure both their immediate future and their descendents’ long-term futures by collecting and hiding acorns, hickory nuts, beechnuts, and other mast. Each jay can carry 2–3 acorns inside its throat pouch, another in its mouth, and one in the tip of its open bill. It finds a good spot and spits the acorns into a little pile and then pokes them individually into the ground and covers each with a dead leaf or a pebble. Six Blue Jays bearing radio transmitters each cached 3,000–5,000 acorns in a single autumn.
Blue Jays have excellent spatial memory and can easily find the acorns they have cached. When having trouble finding food, they may also take acorns cached by others, but none of them seem to mind sharing, so there are no fights over food stores. Most years, each jay plants far more acorns than it needs anyway.
Caching acorns is fundamentally different from hoarding money, because excess money doesn’t sprout into anything as usable as oak trees—it sits there, accruing even more worthless paper to hoard away. We ridicule people who fill their houses with too many possessions and people who feel a weird compunction to take in far more cats than they can provide for, yet these people hurt only themselves, their families, and those poor uncared for cats. People and banks hoarding excess money hurt the entire country and our economy, but Americans for some unfathomable reason hold money hoarders in high esteem, even when their wealth is far greater than they could use in several lifetimes.
The super-rich can't buy the respect of Blue Jays. Blue Jays enjoy genuine freedom—the freedom to provide for and trust in the future without fear, without false complacency, and without robbing their fellow jays. Even as territorial birds, they share too liberally to understand the concept of theft.
For Blue Jays, freedom means living life to its fullest without damaging the world around them. No way would Blue Jays pay off congressmen to let them squander natural resources or pollute their own air, water, and soil, and no way would jays ever force other jays to work for menial compensation. There they are at my feeders, pigging out side by side, feasting on the seasonal abundance even as they provide for the future of all Blue Jays. When strange Blue Jays enter the scene, these convivial birds make room for them. Blue Jays know what being super rich is really all about. Would that we humans were so intelligent.