Like red-bellied woodpeckers, blue jays also cram their cheeks with large quantities of seed. I've often watched them carry off mouthfuls of sunflower seeds, shelled nuts, and even in-shell peanuts. Then they bury their stash just like squirrels. They fly to the edge of the yard and tug at tufts of dried grass. Then they deposit their treasure in the shallow hole. Who knows who finds more of these food caches, the jays or the squirrels? In the long run, however, it probably evens out when jays find nuts buried by squirrels.
Jays are probably responsible for more missing food than other birds because they visit feeders in flocks. A group of a dozen hungry jays can empty a feeder in a hurry. Nuthatches and woodpeckers visit feeders individually or in pairs.
Seed-eating birds are not the only species that caches food for future use. Shrikes, and a variety of hawks and owls kill surplus prey when it's available. Good times allow predators to make it through times when prey is less abundant.
Of course, storing food for future use would be futile if birds could not remember where they hid the food. If that were so, other species would be just as likely to find hidden food. To be adaptive, hoarding behavior must confer an advantage upon the hoarder. That advantage is that the hoarder knows where the food cache is and other birds and mammals do not. But to use that advantage, hoarders must be able to relocate their hidden food supplies.
Not surprisingly, experiments with both wild and captive birds demonstrate that hoarders do remember where they hide food, and they use a variety of cues to relocate it days, and sometimes months, later.
So if food seems to mysteriously disappear from bird feeders, don't assume squirrels or night visitors are responsible. It may simply be seed-hoarding nuthatches, woodpeckers and jays.
Send questions and comments to Dr. Scott Shalaway, 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, WV 26033 or via email to sshala...@aol.com.