The colorful blue jay (Cyanocitta cristata) is mostly bright blue above and white/gray below, with black and white bars on the wings and tail. It also sports a regal blue crest atop its head, and a black necklace on its throat. Relatively large, blue jays measure between 9-12 inches long. Males and females are identical in appearance. Black markings on the face and throat vary considerably between individuals; such variations may help blue jays recognize each other. These beautiful birds are so striking that they are often portrayed on greeting cards and other art.
Habitat and Range
Originally a native of oak forests in southern Canada and in the eastern half of the U.S., today blue jays are common in a wide variety of habitats including forest edges, parks and back yards, although they still prefer a habitat with oak trees. Seen throughout the year, this species is migratory, with northern populations moving south in the winter. They have a distinctive swooping, roller-coaster like flight that makes them easy to spot as they fly.
Omnivorous, blue jays eat fruits, acorn, grain and insects. They may even occasionally eat eggs or young birds. Among their favorite foods are acorns and beechnuts. The blue jay’s habit of storing acorns in caches in the ground plays an important role in the sprouting of new trees. Blue Jays are especially happy with raw peanuts, raisins, bits of raw apple and other fruits when offered in backyard bird feeders. These foods are similar to what they would forage in the wild, so if you want to attract them to your property, make sure these types of foods are on the menu.
Blue jays often mate for life. The male offers the female morsels of food during courtship, and continues to feed her when she sits on her eggs. Both the male and female build the nest, a bulky, loose collection of twigs, branches and grass located on a limb or in the crotch of a tree, about 10 to 15 feet above the ground. During nesting, the pair become uncharacteristically quiet and remain so until the young have fledged. Both adults feed the babies, and zealously protect their nest by dive bombing any intruders. They are especially aggressive toward wandering cats and will often chase one relentlessly. I had a jay that would wait in the crape myrtle by my back door for the cat, who liked to spend his days outdoors. The jay had the cat so intimidated that he decided to remain indoors the rest of the summer. The jays were fearless. actually swooping so low that they could peck the cat on the top of his head. Actually, that is a good thing, because domestic cats are probably one of the biggest dangers to our songbird population.
Anyone who’s ever watched a blue jay chasing another birds away from a feeder know that this species is aggressive and highly territorial. Like its relative the crow, the blue jay is known for demonstrating considerable intelligence and having a complex social system. They tend to congregate in loose flocks of up to a dozen birds in the winter and when they descend on feeders in those numbers, more timid birds are often frightened away. There's not much you can do but offer feeding stations in different parts of your property, out of sight of each other. This can give the shyer birds the confidence to return.
Best known for their raucous “Jay! Jay!” call, blue jays have many different vocalizations. Their loud voices can be heard over long distances. This bird is a gifted mimic, capable of reproducing the calls of other birds. It’s also common to hear a posse of jays create quite a ruckus together, sounding an alarm when they spy an owl, cat or other potential enemy. In addition to a wide variety of squeaks, clicks and rattles, blue jays can also communicate through body language, with the height of their crests serving as an indicator of aggression levels. Up when confronting a rival or threat, the birds’ crests go down when they’re caring for babies or congregating with flockmates. You can hear blue jay sounds here: http://birds.audubon.org/birds/blue-jay
Attracting to Your Property
Sumacs, viburnum, blackberries, blueberries, grapes, wild cherries, mulberries and hollies offer fruit and shelter for blue jays. Besides oak trees which bear their favorite nut, the acorn, these birds are also drawn to beech, pecan and walnut trees.
Blue jays can be attracted by feeders filled with sunflower seeds, peanuts, corn, bread and chopped suet. They tend to prefer feeders on posts rather than hanging feeders. Platform feeders are an excellent choice, just make sure that there is adequate drainage so that the food does not spoil.
Images courtesy of BirdFiles