Thursday, February 21, 2008

Blue Jays: Squat & Gobble

Thursday, February 21, 2008

February is National Bird Feeding Month in North America and it's with good reason. For those parts of the continent that have cold, nasty weather February is perhaps the most difficult month for wild birds to survive. It's still as cold as certain parts of a brass monkey on an iceberg and the natural food crop (berries, fruits, nuts, etc.) may be mostly depleted. Warmer weather food sources such as insects, tender buds of trees, and plant nectar will not be available until later in the spring. Or if the weather is not cold and icy or snowy, it's wet and the wind is blowing. Tough conditions.

We've had yet another snow in SE Ohio so the feeders are hopping even more than usual. The food our birds go after most ravenously is the suet dough that Julie makes (although I do help out on the large-batch stirring duties).

Our blue jays are particularly hoglike with the suet dough. They use their food-stashing ability to carry off large throat-fulls of the dough. We've learned to crumble the dough into small pieces to keep the jays from taking golf-ball-sized chunks away to the woods to cache. But every now and then (and don't tell Zick) I put out some wads of dough just to see how excited this makes the jays.

Blue jays (and several other jay species) play an important role in the vitality of our forests. They cache (or hide) food for later consumption as a hedge against food shortages. Most of the food they cache is in the form of nuts such as acorns from oak trees, hickory nuts, pecans, and beech nuts which the jays bury under leaf litter or pine needles or in loose soil. Only a percentage of these cached nuts are ever recovered by the jays that buried them. Many of the un-recovered nuts germinate and become saplings and eventually full-grown trees, often growing far from their 'parent' tree. In this way jays help to keep our hardwood forests diverse and healthy.

When I lived in the East, I used to see this diner—and I can't even remember where—called Squat & Gobble. I loved that name and it's a perfect description of how our jays take in the suet dough from our bird feeders.

It would surely be nice if the suet dough the jays cache would sprout into a suet dough tree from which we could harvest ready-made suet dough. It would save a lot of lard melting and two-handed mixing.

Here's a series of images of a blue jay at the suet dough.

The jays stab hungrily at the suet chunks looking like they've just been rescued off of Tom Hank's desert island volleyball camp.

A tilt of the head and the dough drops into the throat pouch, now bulging.

Isn't there a rule about never swallowing anything bigger than your eye?

I LOVE the eyebrows on this one.

This jay stared me down until I realized there were no more big suet chunks—only scraps and crumbs.


On February 21, 2008 at 8:53 AM Alan said...

That jay looks fat and happy to me!
Also, in addition to keeping the forest healthy, many of the cached nuts that go un-recovered from the jays are recovered by other birds and mammals that may need them during the “rough” periods - it’s kind of like the jays are spreading the wealth. Nice pics!


On February 21, 2008 at 9:03 AM Mary said...

I'd love to watch the jays do that here. They haven't found me or the suet yet. For the mocker and the starlings, I'd love to make a snowball-sized wad of Zick dough and see what happens. Knock down free-for-all! Great series of photos, Bill. I always laugh here.

On February 21, 2008 at 1:39 PM KatDoc said...

Love the Blue Jays! I don't care if they are greedy and take away more than their share of the goodies, their beautiful blue is payment enough.

Until I started offering peanuts-in-the-shell, I never saw a jay here. Now, once the peanuts or suet dough goes out, I can count on 5 or 6 to show up immediately. They take away all the peanuts, then vanish until the next day.

Great action shots - do you find Blue jays notoriously hard to photograph? I can never get even one photo in focus and composed; they move around too much.


On February 21, 2008 at 6:25 PM Anonymous said...

Awesome images, Bill. And a neat bit of info about jays. Thanks! You've got a great blog here!

On February 21, 2008 at 6:55 PM Julie Zickefoose said...

We're so lucky to have such a beautiful bird coming to our deck rail, aren't we? We must never take jays for granted.

On February 21, 2008 at 8:40 PM wrjones said...

He is a beauty.

On February 22, 2008 at 6:51 AM Jayne said...

I'll have the occasional Bluejay, but always only one at a time, so I haven't seen them eating the Zick dough yet. Great shots!

On February 22, 2008 at 12:48 PM avienne said...

Squat and gobble is right! Love your blog. Hope you don't mind that I've added it to my blogroll. I've been a lurker for quite some time.

On February 22, 2008 at 10:04 PM Onedia Hayes Sylvest said...

The jays are just wonderful...our jays seem to be a bit more polite,but I have pileated woodpeckers who get first place at the suet and of course my greedy silly squirrels.