Blue Jay Facts, Pictures, and Behavior
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 coming 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 birdfeeder, 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.
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.