Migrating Bluejays Disrupt the Best-Planned Turkey Hunt
The Department of Natural Resources questions a random sampling of turkey hunters each summer to learn important stuff like how often they hunted that spring, and whether they shot a yearling “jake” or mature “tom.”
Toward the survey’s end, the DNR asks them to rate the quality of their hunt, based on a five-option scale of “very low” to “very high.” Next it asks which factors most influenced their “quality” rating. Those factors could include weather, shot opportunities, turkey sightings, gobbles heard, gobblers shot, time spent with friends and family, and conflicts with other hunters or morel thieves.
What about getting harassed by noisy, foul-mouthed bluejays? How can we hear distant gobbling when a scold of bluejays is forever arguing, squawking, and hurling insults like football fans ranting at referees?
Well, at least that’s what I thought May 2 while hunting turkeys on my cousins’ farm in Richland County. Never before have I spent a morning under relentless verbal assault from such raucous, hotheaded birds in the spring woods.
Hmm. Maybe that’s why the DNR questionnaire doesn’t ask if a heckle of bluejays hurt the quality of your turkey hunt. I’ve been hunting wild turkeys over 30 years, and that was the first time I suffered such abuse from the blue-and-white feathered hoard.
So maybe it was just a fluke. But if so, what triggered such an unrepentant squawk? Yes, I know bluejays can be surly and ill-mannered. As Mark Twain wrote:
“A jay’s gifts, and instincts, and feelings, and interests, cover the whole ground. A jay hasn’t got any more principle than a congressman. A jay will lie, a jay will steal, a jay will deceive, a jay will betray; and four times out of five, a jay will go back on his solemnest promise. The sacredness of an obligation is such a thing which you can’t cram into no bluejay’s head.
“Now, on top of all this, there’s another thing: A jay can out-swear any gentleman in the mines. You think a cat can swear? Well, a cat can; but you give a bluejay a subject that calls for his reserve-powers, and where is your cat? … In the one little particular of scolding — just good, clean, out-and-out scolding — a bluejay can lay over anything, human or divine.
“A jay can also cry, a jay can laugh, a jay can feel shame, a jay can reason and plan and discuss, a jay likes gossip and scandal; a jay has got a sense of humor.”
Twain was right about all that, of course, but that still doesn’t explain the massed gathering that heaped its collective abuse on me. What got into those specific bluejays?
Stumped, I called Ryan Brady, a DNR ornithologist and researcher. Brady blamed Canada. Well, sort of. Brady said I had likely been sharing the woods with a large flock of bluejays migrating to their summer haunts in the boreal forests north of Lake Superior.
“Bluejays are very much migratory, especially those that nest in Canada each summer,” Brady said. “Wisconsin’s bluejays will stay home all winter if they have good food sources, especially in years with good acorn crops. Most Canadian bluejays migrate south each winter, and leapfrog past the bluejays that stay year-round in Wisconsin. Spring has been lagging this year, so it wouldn’t surprise me that Canadian bluejays bunched up in southern Wisconsin, waiting for warmer weather before finishing their migration home.”
Brady said birdwatchers in late September often count tens of thousands of Canada-based bluejays migrating southwesterly along Minnesota’s Lake Superior shoreline. Likewise, when the flocks return north in spring, birdwatchers will see bluejays by the thousands bunching up along Lake Superior’s southern shoreline from Cornucopia, Bark Point and Herbster to Superior and Duluth, before turning northeasterly on their trip’s final leg home.
“Mid-May is often the peak for spring migrations,” Brady said. “In fact, May is the premier month for anyone who likes birds. You’ll have maximum bird diversity, and see everything from waterbirds, to forest birds to grassland birds. Plus, most birds are in their best-dressed phase this time of year. Their plumage is at its peak beauty. They’re not molting, and it’s not ratty or worn out by hot summer temperatures.”
Still, Brady agreed that bluejays — however pretty — can be the bird world’s grumpy old men, whether that's the opinion of people or fellow birds. Bluejays routinely chase all others from backyard birdfeeders, and spend more time at the trough themselves.
“They’re known for stuffing themselves with food and then caching it nearby,” Brady said. “That’s common for birds in the corvid family, whether it’s ravens, crows, gray jays or bluejays.”
In addition, bluejays are never at a loss for words, as Twain wrote: “Whatever a bluejay feels, he can put into language. And no mere commonplace language, either, but rattling, out-and-out book-talk, and bristling with metaphor, too. Just bristling! And as for command of language, you never see a bluejay get stuck for a word. … They just boil out of him! And another thing: There’s no bird, or cow, or anything that uses as good grammar as a bluejay. … I’ve never heard a jay use bad grammar but very seldom. When they do, they’re as ashamed as a human. They shut right down and leave.”
Brady won’t dispute all that, noting that bluejays also expertly mimic other bird calls, especially raptors. “They’ll often imitate red-winged hawks, broad-winged hawks and red-shouldered hawks,” he said. “If you’ve heard a raptor call deep in the woods and wondered what a red-tailed hawk was doing back there, it was likely a bluejay imitating a redtail. They’ve got a variety of things going on.”
Twain agreed, writing: “There’s more to a bluejay than any other animal. … A bluejay is human; he has got all a man’s faculties and a man’s weaknesses. He knows when he is an ass as well as you do; maybe better.”
Squawking bluejays can drown out all other sounds in the spring turkey woods, but then go quiet and perfectly imitate the calls of red-tailed hawks. — Patrick Durkin photo