Eric is an amateur birder and photographer who is amazed by the natural world just about every day.
The Beautiful Blue Jay
The blue jay is a bird you’ll come to either love or hate. They’re loud, aggressive, boisterous bullies who threaten smaller birds. They’re also beautiful and highly intelligent, and their complicated behaviors may actually save other birds from predators.
They are loving mates and devoted parents, but they may rob the nests of other birds for a meal. They will work together with those of their kind for a common cause, while birds that are not like them are driven away or even killed.
When they come to your backyard feeder you’ll know it. They make an incredible ruckus and intimidate most other birds from coming anywhere near. They are large birds, and aside from squirrels or chipmunks, there isn’t much that will drive them away.
But there are ways of dealing with these noisy tyrants, and if you learn to accept them for what they are the blue jays can be welcome visitors to your backyard bird habitat.
The blue jay (Cyanocitta cristata) is of the order Passeriformes, which is what we call a perching bird or a songbird. Most of the birds you see around your backyard are passerine birds, such as cardinals, sparrows and chickadees. Indeed more than half of all bird species fall into this order.
From there we can further divide them into the family Corvidae, which is commonly known as the crow family. Corvids are highly intelligent birds. They have a body-to-brain ratio only slightly less than humans and are adept at problem-solving.
Because the blue jay is such a smart bird it has somewhat of an advantage over its feathered peers. It can be an intimidator and an aggressor, but as we’ll see it can also serve to help other species. There is definitely more to this pretty blue bird than meets the eye.
Range and Habitat
The blue jay is found all throughout the Eastern and Central United States, and north into South-central and Southeast Canada. It is an abundant species and thrives in a variety of habitats and settings. The species is divided into four subspecies:
- Northern blue jay: Found in the Northeastern United States and Canada.
- Coastal blue jay: Found from North Carolina to Texas.
- Interior blue jay: Found in the middle United States.
- Florida blue jay: Found in southern Florida.
The different subspecies are classified by color, which is a reflection of their habitat. Their ranges overlap, and natural interbreeding occurs.
Most subspecies remain in their range year-round, even in the North and Northeast. However, some of the northernmost birds may migrate south on occasion, though the mechanism that triggers this move is unknown.
Blue jays do very well in the presence of humans, and the patchwork of yards (some stocked with bird feeders), fields and woodlands found in rural areas makes for fantastic habitat.
Breeding and Nesting
One of the interesting things about the blue jay is that males and females pair up for life. Since they are (usually) not migratory they remain in their range year-round, and for the most part, they are not territorial with other jays. (They are, however, highly territorial with other bird species)
Both sexes participate in the building of the nest in the springtime and the male will bring food to the female as she incubates them. Six or eight chicks will hatch out after a few weeks, and follow the parents around as they learn the ways of the jay.
These birds and their babies face a wide variety of predators during the nesting period. Because they are not very particular in their nesting location, they are often easy pickings for predators such as snakes, hawks and raccoons. Their nests may be infiltrated by brood parasites such as brown-headed cowbirds. However, in most cases, the blue jay’s intelligence gives it the edge needed to recognize and reject the alien eggs.
The parents themselves are not immune to predators. With their bright colors, large size and slow flying speed can be the victims of raptors, leaving the eggs defenseless.
Despite these dangers, the blue jay remains an abundant species with a strong population in most areas.
Blue Jay-Proof Bird Feeders
Blue jays are definitely bullies at the feeder, and the only thing that might chase them away is a squirrel or chipmunk. Occasionally they’ll give way to a bigger bird such as a grackle or crow, but usually, they’ll take the place over, and where there is one there is usually more. They love sunflower seeds, but they’ll also take shelled and whole peanuts, pieces of fruit, bread, and just about anything else you put out there.
They are certainly pretty birds, and many backyard birders enjoy having them around, but they can get a bit annoying when it seems like they don’t let any other birds near the feeder.
One trick that might solve this problem is putting up a smaller tube feeder. Blue jays will struggle to perch on small tube feeders, so this provides a place for the smaller birds to feed without being pushed around.
Some squirrel-proof bird feeders can be adjusted so that heavier birds are denied access to the seed. This would take some experimenting and fine-tuning, but it can keep larger birds away.
However, be aware that both of these ideas limit the feeding of larger birds you may want to come around, such as the northern cardinal. Because of this, you may wish to put up two bird feeders: one for larger birds, and another where the bigger birds can't perch. This allows you to watch the blue jay and the cardinals and still gives the small goldfinches, titmice, and chickadees a safe place to eat.
Blue Jay Behaviors
When it comes to interaction with other birds, the blue jay has a bit of an image problem. Because of their high levels of intelligence, they are able to manipulate situations to their advantage, particularly when working in a group. Some of their behaviors have led researchers to see them as an undesirable species in some areas.
Here’s a look at some of the issues. You be the judge!
The blue jay may chase other birds away from food sources, either by sheer aggression or by employing a mob assault with a group of birds. This may seem like a mean streak in their personality, but it is, in fact, a solid survival strategy used by many intelligent wild animals.
While it may not be appreciated by the average sparrow, this “mob mentality” comes in handy when fending off predators. Blue jays are known to mob hawks, owls, cats, and even humans in order to drive them away. In some cases, this behavior may actually be beneficial to other bird species.
Communication and Mimicking
If you listen to blue jays for any amount of time you may be amazed by the range of vocalizations they employ. Some are meant as communication between birds, but they are also able to mimic hawks in order to drive off other animals.
Again, there may be a positive side to this boisterous personality. They are often the first bird to sound the alarm when predators arrive on the scene. This not only alerts other blue jays but other bird species as well, possibly saving them from becoming lunch.
This is probably the biggest strike against the blue jay. While they will love the seed you put out at your bird feeder, they are omnivores that will also dine on insects, fruit, nuts and even small animals. Baby birds of other species may be attacked and consumed in their nests, as well as eggs. Some see this as a good argument against birdfeeders.
Naturally, this makes the blue jay one of the bad guys of your backyard. But some researchers contend that, while nest predation definitely can and does occur, the frequency is extremely low. It’s also important to remember that all wild animals are opportunists, and with its high level of intelligence certain jays learn to use this technique of finding food more than others.
More Interesting Facts
Can't get enough of this interesting blue bird? Here are a few more facts:
- Blue jays cache their food like a squirrel and hide it for another time. They carry food off for storage packed in their throat in what's called a gular pouch.
- They can bury acorns, seeds, and nuts, and then remember where they are later on. But not every seed is recovered, and some of them grow into trees. In other words, this is one case where the blue jay is a very important part of the ecosystem, assisting in regenerating the forests.
- You may occasionally see a bald-headed blue jay at your feeder. It’s a little alarming, but probably nothing to worry about. The birds molt in the late summer, and sometimes all of the head feathers fall off around the same time. It may also be caused by mites or lice, but in either case, the feathers should grow back in a few weeks.
Learn to Love the Blue Jay
The tale of the blue jay is one of the more interesting stories in the backyard birding world. This bird is considered among the most intelligent species out there, shown to solve problems in captivity and even use tools in some cases. They can hide their food and find it when they need it, and sound the first alarm to save themselves and other birds from predators.
But they also have a dark side. They threaten smaller birds and use their numbers and intelligence to get their way. They are bullies who may attack the nests of other birds and prey on the young.
With its incredible intelligence, it’s hard to imagine why the blue jay resorts to such nasty tactics. But in many ways maybe it is a bit like us. We humans certainly have our own mixed history consisting of incredible highs and dark lows.
The facts surrounding this bird are interesting, to say the least, and may remind us more of ourselves than we might like.
Blue Jay Poll
phil alvirez on August 23, 2020:
today i decided to fix a small detail on my car. good weather was also encouraging, so i started early. i gathered my tools and paints and began working on it. at some point i was sanding the surface and was using paper towels to clean the surface and placed them on the top as i was using them.
then i noticed a blue jay that was following my movements very close. i smiled at it and talked friendly, and he got closer and closer. to the point that landed on the top on the car (it is a coupe).
then he picked one of the towels that i discarded nearby on the top (all wet) and tried to take off with it but was too heavy and looked at me. tried again and looked at me again. so i told he to wait a minute (i did so) and got another that was dry and cut a small piece and handled it to him and he got it with his beak and flew away (i guess he was building a nest). shortly after, came back, and landed close to me and looked intensely at me. so i got another piece of towel and gave it to him and he picked it with its beak and away he went. he did it again for the 3rd time and afterwards didnt see him again.
the neighbors across the street that watched the whole episode were in wonder, just like me. i wish i had a camera to show this to you folks. (and there is more to come)
perhaps he liked the crossie just as i do (dont we all?), or who knows why, but that was the way it happened.
Eric Dockett (author) from USA on June 02, 2020:
@Rose - The solution is simple: Stop letting your cat wander around outside. Stray and wandering cats kill billions of songbirds every year. While the Blue Jays likely haven't read about this statistic, they know your cat is a predator and are mobbing him. They will do the same with hawks and owls or other animals they consider threats. Keep the cat indoors and both he and the birds will be safe.
Rose on May 31, 2020:
So for 2 years now the same blue jay attacks and torments my cat when ever he is outside but the blue jay waits till my cats back is turned and then swoops down and pecks at him, this morning my cat was in my window inside and the blue jay was sitting on the deck 1 foot away and was squeaking and the cat was meowing it was unbelievable then this afternoon my husband was on deck petting the cat and both there backs were turned and the blue jay swooped down at my husband to get to the cat my husband heard the wings flapping towards him he was that close ,it doesn’t matter wait door my cat goes out the blue jay finds him and squares and attacks can you tell me why the blue jay is doing this ,I am thinking now they are friends having a chat but it could be the blue jay is bullying him
Wayne Lloyd Gardiner on May 22, 2020:
I live in Whitby,Ontario & noticed that these blue jay's love almonds ..... my wife buys them from Costco & these birds will wait patiently each day for me to give them some. I told my son because I found it quite nice to have this bird recognize these particular nuts .
He googled the migration path of this bird & found that the route is in line with almond farms that are in the United States. So give some almonds to your blue jays & always be for the birds!
TxSue on May 21, 2020:
I have a baby bluejay in the yard trying to learn to fly. We have been watching for several days and the parents are nearby and feed him every so often...there is a sibling that cuddles with him at night.
Eric Dockett (author) from USA on March 03, 2020:
@JoAnn - Yikes! Some birds aren't messing around when it comes to protecting their nest.
JoAnn on March 02, 2020:
I found a blue jay nest in my fir tree a few years back. The nest had the plastic 6 pack holder woven into the nest. When I say the plastic sticking out I went to take it out of the tree and cut it up and throw it out. The Mom jay was sitting on the nest and made a ruckus. I looked at her and talked with her and told her everything was ok. The nest was eye level and every day when I got out of my car, I would check on mom and nest. I held my 2 kids up to see the mom and nest. One day mom was gone and I could hear the chicks in the nest. I looked in the nest and showed my kids the baby birds. Mom and Dad stayed on the telephone lines above us and made lots of noise. They never were aggressive with me or my kids. I came home one day and my very bald husband was on the couch with an ice pack on his head. He said that after hearing us talk about the birds, he decided to see them for himself. One of the birds dive bombed him and hit him in the head so hard, he fell to his knees. He was missing about 2 inches of skin from his head. My kids and I continued to check on the baby birds until they left the nest and never had a problem. Those birds recognized us and knew we meant no harm. They knew stranger danger and protected their young.
Josie Weiss on January 15, 2020:
I think that blue jays are beautiful, smart, and amazing animals.
Gloria on August 24, 2019:
Blue Jays are very sweet reguardless of what anyone says, my jays follow me everywhere accompamied by cardinals❤❤❤
Eric Dockett (author) from USA on July 25, 2019:
@Jaime - Blue Jays are pretty smart. They definitely get used to human activity, and if you were to plan it out correctly you could probably encourage them to interact in basic ways. However, if by "tame" you mean as a pet I would say that is a bad idea. Blue Jays are big, loud rambunctious birds and would not make a good pet.
Blue Jays tolerate other birds most of the time, but not always. I wouldn't exactly call them friendly.
jaime lee on July 24, 2019:
can blue jays be tamed? and if so how do you tame it.how do blue jays sound?are blue jays friendly to other types of birds/
besides questions you did well on this site.
Sara on June 22, 2019:
There is a blue jay nest in my yard; I watched both parents building it, and they have been sitting patiently on it for what seems like several weeks. It seems to be taking a long time for the eggs to hatch. The last couple of days I haven't seen or heard anything from the nest. I think they are gone; I don't know what happened to the babies. Is it possible that sometimes they just don't hatch? There are a lot of squirrels in the area, and large threatening flocks of grackles hang around sometimes. It's sad that they're gone, I was looking forward to seeing the babies.
Gale Marrs on June 19, 2019:
The blue jays in my yard are so well fed, as are the other birds, that none of them show aggression unless grackles are intruding in large numbers. I feed mockingbirds and jays together on a flat table and they are often joined by sparrows or even a tit mouse that manages to take away whole peanuts. They share meal worms and larger seeds with no altercations generally. I have especially loved watching the "baby" jays learning to eat unshelled peanuts and dried worms. They were all fed live meal worms when they were nesting. I have other feeders for other kinds of birds and find that they enjoy knowing where their kind find the right food. The crossover has never presented a problem, except for the white wing doves, who eat anything and everything it seems.
APNJ on June 13, 2019:
I don't find Blue Jays to have a bullying behavior at all!! I see Bullying behavior in female Finches, male and female Sparrows, male and female Catbirds, male and female Black birds with the exception of European Starlings. FROM my own personal back yard birding experience, I find European Starlings, black-and-white warblers, Carolina Wrens, all Cardinals and male house finches to be patient ,giving and forgiving. Blue Jays are one of my favorite because they are protectors and they get very close to humans. Just like the squirrels when they want nuts they let me know . Blue Jays land on my balcony sounding alarms letting me know they want peanuts. when I put in seeds, nuts and suet out they land on the branch above me watching graciously just like the squirrels.
Eric Dockett (author) from USA on June 01, 2019:
@Tabitha - I have no first-hand knowledge of how to care for an injured bird, but there are several sources on the web that might help. I also suggest checking with your local vet or Audubon chapter. Here is a resource that might help: https://www.audubon.org/about/audubon-near-you
Tabitha on May 31, 2019:
I just found an injured BlueJay. He’s young, never got to leave the nest because netting from sod wrapped around his foot/leg and trapped him there. I freed him but he doesn’t seem to be doing well. The leg is almost completely broken off. I can take him outside and mama will still bring a meal but he’s too vulnerable to leave completely. What can I do to nurture him until he can learn to hop on one leg and eventually fly? Do they need water from a dropper? What do I feed him when mama won’t?
Thomas Troxel on May 12, 2019:
I watched a pair of blue jays building a nest in a white pine in our backyard, wasn't to long before some Robin's came in and chased them off, haven't seen them since, but have plenty of robins
Ken on April 29, 2019:
Nice article, Eric. Your poll shows that the majority of your audience loves the blue jay, and for very good reason: they are amazing! My family and I rescued a very special baby blue Jay in the spring of 2015. Just days old, his eyes were barely open for more than a few seconds at a time. Named Gracie by my daughter, we helped him become strong to prepare for his release 4 Weeks Later.. Today, 4 years after Gracie's rescue, he is in the midst of his seventh brood of babies and we have been by his side every step of the way. Gracie is such a huge part of our family and we love him with all our heart. I have written two books about our life with Gracie, the first of which Gracie's Wild Adventures is available on Amazon and is a fun read for all to enjoy. I also share pictures and videos on our Instagram page:Gracie the blue jay and our Facebook page: Gracie's Wild Adventures, if you would like to stop by. Just for reference, we are with Gracie everyday, throughout the day for the past 4 years and have learned that there is a good bit of misinformation about Blue Jays in general that I will be sharing in my upcoming book. I absolutely love talking about our life with Gracie and have received amazing feedback from readers of my book and those who have seen our story on media Outlets such as People magazine, the dodo, The Daily Mail and others.
Tony on April 23, 2019:
We have 3 or 4 blue jays visiting our bacyard feeder. I usually put peanuts out which they seem to enjoy. I have not seen any of their negative behavior. The doves pay no mind to the Bluejays and vice versa...maybe because there is no competion for food.
Eric Dockett (author) from USA on November 16, 2017:
That's really interesting, BrotherChristope. Blue Jays eating egg shells - maybe I'll put some out and see what happens. They sure are clever birds. Thanks for sharing this!
BrotherChristophe on November 15, 2017:
I eat a hard boiled egg virtually everyday, and drop the shells into a pile outside, to be used as compost later. I started wondering why a blue jays was constantly visiting, and then noticed...he was flying off with a shell! So I watched more attentively, and not only would he take a shell but he started munching on it! I've since watched him many times eat the shells. I did some research and it turns out that blue jays require more calcium than most other birds throughout the year, and love egg shells. However, it's recommended to sterilize the shells of raw eggs in boiling water before serving.
Eric Dockett (author) from USA on August 10, 2017:
@Nancy: That's certainly very strange, and nothing I've ever seen before. Blue Jays are highly intelligent. I suppose it is possible they have become so used to humans (or you in particular) that they don't have a heightened fear any longer. Maybe one of your neighbors has been attempting to feel them by hand. I'd be interested to hear if this happens again.
Nancy on August 09, 2017:
It is not unusual to see 17+ bluejays at my feeder & many other birds too. I'm very familiar with their habits. Today, several were perched stock still. I approached & could have touched them. I spoke to them - nothing. I have never seen this before. They blinked and otherwise looked healthy but did not even twitch when I was right beside them. No exaggeration when I say I could have petted them. It was only when I dumped a jug of seeds beside them that they seem to have "come to" and flew off. The feeder should be crowded right now and there is not a bird to be seen or heard. What gives?
Eric Dockett (author) from USA on May 03, 2017:
That's an amazing story, Patricia. Hope the newborn blue jay is okay!