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Aw Nuts: Blue Jays Hunt For Acorns, Local Fall Ritual Begins

Blue Jays bury acorns in the ground. Photo Credit: William Haffey
This large oak tree may have began life as a buried acorn forgotten by a blue jay. Photo Credit: William Haffey
A blue jay's favorite fall food. Photo Credit: William Haffey

With the onset of pumpkin displays and playoff baseball, it's obvious Fall is in the air. Soon, leaves will begin to turn colors in earnest, and many local birds begin the arduous preparation for the upcoming winter.

Perhaps there is no bird more indicative of this season than the much-maligned blue jay, whose bold behavior and loud calls draw the ire of many birders. Nonetheless, these remarkably attractive and intelligent birds are fascinating for their ability to store large caches of acorns for later consumption.

Large, loose associations of individual blue jays can be seen gathering their prize high in oak trees, plucking acorns directly from the branch. A walk through any woodland this time of year usually reveals noisy groups darting back and forth amongst the treetops, collecting as many nuts as possible.

Due to an expanding region in the throat, the crop, jays can carry several acorns at once. Usually first depositing them in a “drop zone,” the jays then bury the acorns in the surrounding area.

As food becomes scarce in the winter months, jays will begin to rely on these hidden acorns as a valuable source of protein. Despite the relative intelligence of blue jays, many buried acorns are never retrieved, prompting new oak trees to grow from the forgotten nuts.

Furthermore, because the acorns are often buried quite a distance from their parent tree (up to five miles according to one study), blue jays likely play an important role in the colonization of oak trees in a particular area.

Some researchers have even hypothesized that blue jays facilitated the re-growth of eastern woodlands after the most recent ice age! Therefore, the next time you're upset with obnoxious blue jays terrorizing the other birds at your feeder, don’t forget the valuable role they play in keeping our forests full of oak trees.

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