White Jay seen in Bremen (Photo by Don Reimer)
White Jay seen in Bremen (Photo by Don Reimer)
Opinions on Blue Jays seem to have no middle-ground position — either folks appreciate them for their bold beauty and lively behavior or they rate them as loud, voracious bullies at their bird feeders.

Blue Jays nest across our entire region but their annual winter numbers fluctuate somewhat here in Maine. Towards the end of the summer nesting season, jays typically form large roving flocks with the mixed potential to migrate farther south or just stay put. Jay migration habits are quirky though, with some individual birds venturing south in certain years and not in others.

Mid-coastal jay figures were generally robust on recent Christmas Bird Counts — a hefty combined total of 1,103 jays recorded on our three local counts. Last fall, Canadian biologist Ron Pittaway had predicted sizeable winter incursions of jays into northern New England due to limited acorn and nuts crops farther north.

Early taxonomists named the Blue Jay Cyanocitta cristata, meaning “crested blue chattering bird.” What they wouldn’t have known at the time, however, is that jay feathers are actually black in color. Yes, except for the vibrant blue tones, all remaining colors are refracted and obscured from our spectrum of visual field. How so? The bright cobalt blue we perceive is really an optical illusion, caused by light reflecting off the unique inner structure of the jays’ feather barbs. Feather barbs are a series of miniscule feather branches that are anchored to the central shafts of feathers. On an ever smaller scale, interconnecting feather barbules form zipper-like cross attachments that hold feather elements in a state of alignment. Basically, when birds preen their feathers they are restoring order to the myriad zipper arrangements within their feathers.

 


In Bremen, a rather unusual jay has visited feeders since Thanksgiving. This ghostly white individual is among a group of 30-plus jays that roams the neighborhood on a daily basis. This unique white jay has a genetic mutation called leucism that prevents melanin and other dark pigments from being deposited normally on feathers.

In the case of leucistic birds, the individual extent of patterning and the quantity of whitish feathers differ in unpredictable ways. Sometimes the white feathers are restricted to the head, back or tail area of a bird. Through the years, I’ve witnessed partially white chickadees, juncos, house finches, robins and a nearly pure white Semipalmated Sandpiper. Typically the bare parts on a leucistic bird (bill, legs and eyes) are of normal coloration for that particular species. True albinos in nature are rarer still. Albino birds are totally white, with pink legs and reddish eyes. The iris of the albino eye is unpigmented, but appears pink or red as we see the background blood vessels on the retina.

Being a standout specimen in nature can compromise the long-term odds for survival. It is much safer to blend in with natural surroundings to avoid becoming a chosen target for predators. A birder once told of watching a Peregrine Falcon pursuing a flock of 20 pigeons across a high patch of open sky. With no prospect of retreat, there was nowhere for the flock to seek refuge. Most members of the fleeing flock were of the common gray-blue color phase. One bird, a brick-red individual, was culled out and carried away by the swift, stooping falcon. The sharp-eyed raptor had selected the most obvious member of the flock.