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Blue jays brighten our yards

On a recent day at Wildwoods a baby blue jay, its eyes still closed, seemed to reach for the sky with its bright yellow beak opening, anxious to be fed. An intern carefully used a tiny syringe to place formula into the bird's crop, a fraction of ...

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Nestling birds, like this blue jay brought to Wildwoods this summer, are featherless and unable to stand. (Photos by Trudy Vrieze)

On a recent day at Wildwoods a baby blue jay, its eyes still closed, seemed to reach for the sky with its bright yellow beak opening, anxious to be fed. An intern carefully used a tiny syringe to place formula into the bird's crop, a fraction of a milliliter at a time. This bird was a nestling, unable to stand on its own, without feathers, just naked skin and fuzzy spikes covering its body.

A few weeks later at Wildwoods, that nestling was joined by another baby blue jay orphaned from another nest. It was about the same size and age as the first bird. Both were past the nestling stage and were fledglings. Their eyes were open.

They could stand and hop a bit on their own in their warmed enclosure. Bright blue feathers had replaced their fuzz and most of their fluff. It was easy to see that they were blue jays by the colorful blue, black and white patterns emerging. One fledgling gave the familiar call of the blue jay, crying its own name, "Jay!" They eagerly reached for mealworms offered by their caregiver.

The blue jay is one of the most colorful birds in Duluth. Their white or light gray belly contrasts with bright blue, black and white feathers above. They have a blue crest atop their head which lays flat when they are relaxed or stands up if they are startled or on alert.

The color in blue jay feathers comes from melanin, which is brown. We see blue because the surface of their feathers breaks up the light and reflects blue. If a blue jay feather is crushed, it loses its blue color.

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The nestling and fledgling blue jays described and pictured here were rescued and brought to Wildwoods this summer. In one case, there were other dead nestlings and no parent birds to be found. It appeared that a predator had raided the nest and our nestling was the lone survivor. In the case of the other fledgling at Wildwoods, the reason its parent birds were missing is uncertain.

If you find a baby bird out of its nest and without parent birds, give Wildwoods a call for advice. Nestlings with parents still around can do well if replaced into their nest. The older fledglings may not need our help at all. Fledglings may spend several days on the ground near their nest, gaining strength to fly. Normally their parents are nearby watching. Adult blue jays in particular may "dive-bomb" anyone who gets too close to their offspring.

Blue jays are common in the Eastern and Midwestern states. They range from southern Canada to Florida and are becoming more common in the Northwest. Most blue jays in the north migrate south each year, but for unknown reasons, some do not. To make it more puzzling, a blue jay may migrate one year but not the next.

Blue jays could use a better public relations program. They have a reputation of being bullies. Blue jays are bigger and more aggressive than many songbirds and they may chase others away from feeders in order to get the sunflower seeds they love.

Another common idea about blue jays is that one of their main foods is the eggs and nestlings of other songbirds. This does sometimes occur, but but it is a huge exaggeration. Blue jays are mostly vegetarian. Only about one percent of their diet is eggs or bird remains. 22 percent consists of insects.

Blue jays eat acorns, nuts, seeds and fruits. They like grasshoppers, beetles and caterpillars. They hide nuts for eating later, but don't always retrieve their cache. This is believed to be the start of many oak forests.

Here's a tip. If you are concerned about blue jays dominating other birds at your feeders, put up a stationary tray on a post for the jays. Stock it with sunflower seeds, peanuts and suet. Place a hanging feeder for the other birds with smaller seeds that jays are not so interested in eating. Can't we all just get along?

John Jordan is a volunteer at Wildwoods. He is also a registered nurse who lives in Duluth with photographer Trudy Vrieze and a clowder of rescue cats.

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Wildwoods is a 501(c)(3) wildlife rehabilitation organization in Duluth. For information on how you can help wildlife, including volunteer opportunities, visit wildwoodsrehab.org or call (218) 491-3604.

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Fledglings such as these blue jays are a few weeks older than nestlings. Fledglings can hop about and are learning to feed themselves.

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