Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Gwen Steege: Battle with Blue Jays

We love birds — really we do. We have several feeders around our house in the Berkshires in northwestern Massachusetts. We keep them filled all winter, undaunted until spring, when inevitably the bears turn up and remind us that it’s time to stow them away until next fall. Last March a bear bent down a 3” diameter steel pole to reach our big, new wooden feeder, which it lifted off its perch and carried away into the woods. We found it several weeks later, undamaged except for a few claw marks, several hundred yards away from where it originally stood.

As I said, we love birds, with one big exception: blue jays. The gang of a dozen or so first shows up, quite reliably, Thanksgiving weekend, and they continue to appear daily, always just after the crack of dawn. Lately, that’s been at 7:14 a.m., very promptly and predictably. Not only do they damage the house, but their surprisingly loud pecking and tapping destroys any thought of sleeping in. All research we’ve been able to find suggests that the birds are interested in the calcium in our paint and that this behavior is especially common on south-facing homes in the Northeast — unfortunately, that’s us!

This year we declared war. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, jays prefer eggshells to paint, so we began offering them a pile of shells (washed). They do like the shells — we’ve watched them fly away with them. But we can never provide enough to satisfy them. Further, if we put them out at the end of the day, overnight snows cover them up, and the birds turn to the alternative: our house.

Our next strategy was to tie CDs to posts, on the theory that the light flashing off the CDs would scare the jays away. That actually seemed to work for a week or so, until a series of blizzards hit New England. As the snow piled up, the birds ignored the CDs and hit the house once again.

Our next idea was to decorate the house with Mylar garlands, the gold ones with a “Happy Birthday” message, along with strings of shiny, bright red valentine hearts. Those looked quite festive but were a total failure as bird repellents: the birds perched right on them.

Our most recent weapons are helium-filled balloons. I hesitate to test our luck by swearing that we’ve finally won, but the first morning all was quiet — well, at least, almost quiet. At 7:14 I heard some scrabbling on the trellis under the bedroom window that signaled a jay was trying to get a foothold, but there was not a single peck. A few minutes later I heard more scratching, sounding even closer, and there was the jay, standing on the sill looking in at me with what I imagined was a combination of puzzlement and indignation. He waved no white flag, but I think we won a skirmish, if not the war itself.

We’re gracious in victory, however; we just ask, “Take our suet and our seed (and our shells), but leave our paint alone!” We’d welcome any comments from readers who’ve been plagued by this problem!

Directions for how to make the bird feeder pictured above are in Storey's The Vegetable Gardener's Book of Building Projects. Information and advice for dealing with blue jays is in Laura Erikson’s The Bird Watching Answer Book.

— Gwen Steege, author and editor of Garden and Crafts at Storey for over 20 years


Gardeningbren said...

Oh Gwen, I was just fascinated by this post...have never heard of blue jays going after paint for the calcium...and wow..that would be annoying. Glad to read the balloons seem to be working. Further, I will offer our jays eggshells which I usually compost but maybe crushed and put out with the seeds on occasion.

Storey's great! Love their bulletins especially.

Anonymous said...

Blue Jays seem to have a higher calcium requirement than other birds. In the Northeast US, they commonly peel paint off houses and eat it when the ground is covered by snow. Most people have had success leaving egg shells out for the blue jays. They should be sterilized(boil for 10 min. or 250 degree oven for 20 Min.) and broken into pieces smaller than a dime.

Anonymous said...

Try placing plastic snakes where they will not be covered with snow. Sparlings were drinking from our pool and leaving droppings all around the deck. The only thing that seemed to work was rubber snakes. Daily we moved them to different locations so the birds would not realize they were fake. It is they only thing that worked.