Words On Birds by Steve Grinley
Where Are the Blue Jays?
January 20, 2023
By Steve Grinley
Folks have been commenting on the lack of blue jays at their feeders this season. This decline has been particularly noticeable in New Hampshire and a thread of “where are the blue jays” has been running for the past week on the New Hampshire Birds listserve. Most comments described dramatic declines and many total absences of the jays.
Dr. Pamela Hunt is NH Audubon’s Senior Biologist for Avian Conservation Pamela Hunt offered the following explanation:
“Blue Jays cleared out of much of NH this fall because there was a poor acorn crop. Despite the fact that we see them all year, Blue Jays DO migrate, and the ones we have in winter might not be the ones we have in the summer. However, the extent of their movements is strongly tied to mast crops like beech and oak, and more move out when nuts are scarce. I recall seeing some quite large flocks this fall while birding here in Concord, and in many cases these migrating birds were earlier than the usual earl/mid-October schedule. Somewhere to our south birders are seeing more jays then usual as we’re seeing fewer.”
The same sort of thread concerning the decline of blue jays in Massachusetts also appeared on the Massbird listserve. Many people had fewer numbers of jays but there were fewer complaints of a total absence. One extreme case was voiced by Karen Idoine:
“Last year we had well over a dozen Bluejays coming to our feeders almost every day – occasionally more than twenty! This year, zero. Not a single one. Our house sits in a meadow of several acres surrounded by woods, and the largest Audubon sanctuary in Massachusetts, plus state forest and wildlife management areas are contiguous with our conserved land.
“Needless to say this feels disconcerting.
“Mostly, we have the other regulars: juncos, chickadees, woodpeckers, titmice, nuthatches – and squirrels, although numbers of these birds seem decreased as well. Could we be witnessing the results of avian flu? Or, have our resident pair of Red-shouldered Hawks put a dent in the population? Could the warmer than usual weather play a role? The dearth of acorns? Perhaps all of the above?”
Paul Roberts of Medford offered the following explanation:
“I think the answer to your question is “yes!” All of those might be factors. but I would tend to put the most emphasis on the absence of acorns. The failure of the mast crop this year, a cyclical issue. The oak forest in which I walk almost daily has NO acorns. (My wife walks in a patch a mile plus away and has lots of acorns, but anecdotal reports from Connecticut, New York, and other parts of Massachusetts suggest we’ve had a terrible year for mast, which sustains Blue Jays, squirrels, and many small rodents that are fed on by Red-tailed Hawks,and other hawks and owls, as well as foxes and coyotes.
“In the past I have routinely seen dozens of squirrels daily, often several dozen within 100 yards, going to my walks. And I would see road-killed squirrels everywhere, as they cross roads looking for buried acorns. That decreased about two years ago, as the population had apparently reached a peak with a significant “die off” over the past two years and reduced breeding success this year (and possibly last.) I’ve seen far fewer Red-tailed Hawks this year, and especially this winter…
“Talking with several Saw-whet owl banders recently, they had a decent migration this fall but have found very few wintering birds in their areas in western New England yet. And few signs of deer mice. Where I walk, a pair of resident Bald Eagles love roadkilled squirrel (with mild Chipotle sauce) and routinely look for the easy meal in winter, to my chagrin. (They can easily be hit by speeding cars, as Barred Owls and Saw-whets often are.) I’m less worried this winter.
“A decade ago we had tremendous acorn crops, and an explosion of small mammals and of the predators that prey on them. I think we hit record levels of Gray Squirrel and Red-tailed Hawks (and likely Chipmunks and Cooper’s hawks) in the metro-Boston area. Acorn production was high again several years ago, but the past two years have not been good, especially this year with the widespread, prolonged, and severe drought in much of eastern New England, and especially within 100 miles of Boston.”
I do admit that I see fewer blue jays flying over Routes 1 and 1A from Essex to Newburyport. However there seems to be no decline in our backyard. We have a consistant four to ten blue jays visiting daily. That might be because of the line of peanuts along the deck railing that Margo provides each morning!