Like many in the Northland, I maintain bird feeders in winter. Sitting back and looking out on chilly mornings at activities of the feathered neighbors as they eat a breakfast of sunflower seeds and suet is a morning delight.

Typically, birds are the same kinds each day. Abundant black-capped chickadees mix with white-breasted and red-breasted nuthatches as they dine on seeds. The three (sometimes four) species of woodpeckers — downy, hairy and red-bellied, with an occasional pileated — select the suet. Together, they reveal small, medium and large sizes.

Nearly every day, a group of about a dozen turkeys comes walking from the woods to the feeders. They seem to prefer a diet of sunflower seeds and corn. These large birds are often joined by a flock of rather big songbirds feeding with them: blue jays. The turkeys and jays have been the most numerous so far this winter.

A surprise is what I have not seen at the feeders: finches.

Recently, I participated in the local Christmas Bird Count to find out what else has been seen in the region. Teaming with several others, we searched woods, waterways, fields, yards and feeders for a day. Compiling the results later, we noted that about 30 kinds of birds had been observed by the counters. This number is nearly average for this site.

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It included a bald eagle, barred owl, wild turkey, ruffed grouse, a duck (common goldeneye in open water on the St. Louis River) and many kinds of songbirds. Some were represented by only one or two individuals: junco, shrike, mourning dove, brown creeper and cardinal. Most were in numbers beyond this, but not so numerous.

What about the finches? We did see three kinds of finches: goldfinch, purple finch and pine siskin, and none in large flocks. But I was glad that they did appear.

A few birds did show up in good amounts; most notable were blue jays. They outnumbered their larger cousins, the crows and ravens. They were behind only the abundant black-capped chickadees in how many were present. Apparently, my seeing a dozen blue jays at the feeder each day was being noted by others as well. We have a long way to go, but with fewer finches, this could be the winter of blue jays.

Blue jays can be migratory or permanent in the winter. (Photo by Larry Weber)
Blue jays can be migratory or permanent in the winter. (Photo by Larry Weber)

Blue jays are well-known in the region. They are a type of corvid, related to crows and ravens (and further north and west — gray jays and magpies). Being nearly a foot long, they are larger than most feeder or yard birds.

Back and tail appear blue with black bars and white patches; they are quite easy to discern. Above the head is a stately crest, while a black necklace blends with a white underside.

Like other corvids, blue jays are adaptable, with diverse diets and homes. They have done well in the region and have learned to live and breed among people. Their loud “jay, jay” calls are well-known. And later in the year, we’ll hear their more musical “weedle-eedle” sounds.

Blue jays may be migratory or permanent in winter. Flocks of migrants are seen passing through spring and fall. But others decide to stay. These wintering birds maybe from further north or ones that live here. They may be adults or young of the year. But each winter, some blue jays remain during the cold.

This year, jays’ numbers may be up. With fewer finches at feeders now (this could change), I’m glad to watch these crested birds in what may be the winter of blue jays.

Larry Weber
Larry Weber