Sunday, February 20, 2011

Steel cold and blue

An usually cold late February day, - 28C when I left the house with camera, binoculars and coffee. The aim was to meander the range roads of Strathcona County, checking to see if the Hawk Owl was still around (it was) and looking for the Snowie Owls that have been seen there (none found). I did see a Goshawk, and the other usuals, Magpies, Chickadees, Ravens, Snow Buntings, and a few Redpolls. When I stopped in a layabout near an aspen stand I was almost immediately approached by 4 Bluejays. Although quite approachable in the city, they tend to be shy in the country. But these guys were both curious and evidently hungry and must have had some memory of humans as sugar daddies. Fortunately I had a handful of peanuts in my pocket and fed them to the jays one by one, enjoying their noisy fight over each peanut I threw at them. In return they sat around for a while, puffed up against the cold.

The Blue Jay, which occurs from southern Canada south to Texas and Florida, breeds in the mixed-wood forests of central Alberta, Saskatchewan, and southern Manitoba, and from there east through central and southern Ontario to southern Quebec, Newfoundland, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Nova Scotia. It is rarely found on the western side of the Rocky Mountains.

The Blue Jay’s scientific name (Cyanocitta cristata) is derived from Greek and Latin words and means, "crested, blue chattering bird," an apt designation. The Blue Jay belongs to the crow family, or Corvidae, a group of 100 related species including ravens, rooks, jackdaws, crows, magpies, and jays. Some of these species are the largest members of the order Passeriformes, or perching songbirds. These birds are ancient in evolutionary terms; fossil remains of corvids have been identified from Miocene deposits 25 million years old. Perhaps no wonder that Corvids are the most intelligent birds.

This Jay is a truly noisy creature; cries to warn other birds and mammals of an approaching predator, to announce a find of food, and often, for no apparent reason. The 19th-century writer Henry David Thoreau described the Blue Jay’s most characteristic sound as an "unrelenting steel-cold scream,” that is particularly grating on a steel-cold day. Actually, they do have a wide variety of other calls, particularly a mellow whistle, kloo-loo-loo, quite musical in form, and also a softly delivered courtship song, a continuous sweet warbling heard in spring.

The most attractive visual feature of the Blue Jay is its vivid cobalt or azure-blue tail and wing feathers that make an exotic contrast against brown leaves or green grass or white snow. However, these feathers are not truly blue. Blue pigment is unknown in birds. The Blue Jay’s feather colour results from refraction, or distortion, of light by a peculiar inner structure of the feather substance. If the feather is crushed, the blue colour disappears. A cool fact!

On the way home a coyote, hunting for rodents in the stubble fields, warily stopped to give me a dirty look!

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