Thom Smith: Blue jays are occasional nest raiders
Q: In the two trees in our front yard we had three nests. Yesterday, we watched in horror as a blue jay came back again and again, snatching the babies and flying away with them until all were gone. The parent birds were small, probably finches, and they could do nothing to keep him away. Is this type of "massacre" common? -- Cheryl
A: What you term "massacre" is more common than one would expect, although blue jays are not primarily nest raiders. Many species prey opportunistically upon small creatures, from grasshoppers to earthworms to baby birds to even adults, including blue jays. In the bird's world, there is no difference between a robin redbreast devouring earthworms, or a sharp-shinned hawk devouring blue jays. The blue jay does not primarily search out eggs and baby birds, but when it comes to raising their own young, anything goes.
They are mostly insect and seed eaters. They feed on nuts and when encountering bird feeders will gorge on suet and peanut butter when available. They are known to raid nests for eggs and nestlings, but studies show the rate is not very high. In one study, of 530 blue jay stomachs examined, traces of bird eggs and nestlings were found in only six. Fruits and acorns are far more commonly eaten than baby birds. And the jay is noted for its distribution and consumption of acorns, being able to store two or three acorns in its neck pouch and another in the mouth, transporting them to hidden locations as a reserve for leaner times. Some individuals have been reported storing 3,000 to 5,000 acorns in a hidden cache. Sometimes, they unintentionally drop an acorn, which is lost to the carrier, allowing it to germinate and grow into a stately oak.
While on the subject of blue jays, blue isn't its true pigment color. It is brown, the color of melanin. The blue we see is caused by scattering light through certain cells on the surface of the feather barbs. Strange, but true.
Q: On my daily walk at lunchtime, I occasionally see a solitary honey bee on the sidewalk. It looks physically unharmed and can move, but seems lethargic and pivots around in a circle, as if disoriented. I usually assume it was struck by a passing motor vehicle, and is momentarily stunned or perhaps mortally injured. Rarely will I see more than one or two on my walk, but several times a year I will see a dozen or more in the same stretch of sidewalk, each of them a couple feet apart. Whenever I see that many, it is always when the purple loosestrife, an invasive species, is in bloom along the sidewalk. Such was the case today. This makes me wonder if the large number of disoriented bees is related to the loosestrife blooms. What do you think? -- Jimbo
A: Not having an answer for you, I put your question out to two friends, Lisa Proventure a local entomologist and teacher, and Peter Mirick, a biologist who is editor of Mass Wildlife Magazine.
Proventure writes, "I am guessing it is poison. Someone is spraying insecticides in that area for mosquitoes because of West Nile virus. Loosestrife grows near water, mosquitoes reproduce in water and can carry West Nile, so the spraying. Unfortunately, it kills more than mosquitoes. I've had reports of butterflies doing the same thing."
(A later email from this writer, said "The Town of Lenox is not part of the Berkshire County Mosquito Project.)
And Mirick thinks it may be natural.
"I know that several kinds of flowers can intoxicate bees to the point that they behave as if drunk. When I was hiking up Clingman's Dome in North Carolina, I noted many bumble bees that were simply sitting in the flowers and could be touched without flying away. Angelica is what I think they called this flower, and it was noted on park signage that people often noticed the intoxicated bees. I think a web search will give you many more flowers that are (or can be) intoxicating to bees, but I have not heard of it being associated with purple loosestrife. Of course, in this case it may simply be, as the author asserts, that these bees are simply attracted to the flowers, and because the flowers are next to a busy road, there are many collisions with vehicles resulting in stunned or mortally wounded bees."
There may be other ideas as to the cause. We welcome them.
As Summer wanes, get out and enjoy the change of seasons.
The Berkshire Natural Resources Council will offer a 3-mile North Yokun Ridge Hike on Wednesday, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. with moderate elevation changes from Olivia's Overlook in Lenox, along the Burbank Trail, passing views, cellar holes and Monks Pond. To get there from the center of Lenox, take Rt. 183S, bear right on Richmond Mountain Road. Richmond Mountain Road becomes Lenox Road. Olivia's Overlook is on your left, look for the BNRC sign. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information about this free hike.
Another free trip, this one for bird watchers to explore Lanesborough, will be held Saturday, Sept. 9, beginning at 7:30 a.m. to watch for migrating songbirds and raptors on a walk around a pond and former cross-country ski trails. Meet at the old Brodie Ski Touring Center, 770 Route 7, Lanesborough. The leader will be Matt Kelly and you can email him at email@example.com for more information and directions for this Hoffmann Bird Club outing.
Questions and comments for Thom Smith: Email Naturewatch@live.com
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