Blue Jay: A New Look At a Common Feeder Bird

This week, I glanced at local Idaho birding sites, primarily looking to see if anyone was seeing interesting owls. Last winter, we had a great gray owl roosting nearby, and we’ve also spotted snowy owls and northern hawk owls in the area.

But the excitement this year wasn’t about owl; instead, most reports focused on sightings of blue jays. Yes, blue jays.

Blue jays (Cyanocitta cristata) are showing up more regularly in Idaho and other northwestern states, so they’re still a novelty. I grew up in Pennsylvania, where blue jays were an everyday occurrence. Many backyard bird watchers there actually disliked them. This was not merely a case of “familiarity breeds contempt.” After all, northern cardinals are similarly common, and everyone remains all warm and fuzzy about them. But blue jays? They’re aggressive, loud and dominant.

But do they deserve the bad rap? I admit I’ve always loved blue jays. Take a fresh look, and you may see that they’re one of the most interesting (and beautiful) birds that will visit you this winter.

blue bird in snow
Blue Jay in the snow at Cheesequake State Park in Matawan, New Jersey. Photo © Jessica Kirste

Who Rules the Feeder?

People often don’t like blue jays at their feeders because they believe they are too aggressive. This seems at least a bit hypocritical, given our own species’ record on the aggression front. But nonetheless, backyard bird enthusiasts seem to prefer a large number of “peaceful” species that coexist together. A raucous blue jay scaring everything off wrecks the idyll.

Or so they imagine.

Undoubtedly, blue jays are intelligent and adaptable birds. They’re corvids, in the same family as crows and ravens, both also renowned for their intelligence. Blue jays possess a number of habits that draw attention from humans (and other birds). Take a walk around the eastern woodlands and their loud, often-alarming calls are unmistakable. The blue jay uses a wide range of vocalizations, and is well known for imitating the calls of two raptor species, red-tailed and red-shouldered hawks.

The reasons for these calls, like much about the blue jay, attracts no shortage of theories while the actual science remains somewhat unsettled. Some posit that blue jays do this as an alarm call, alerting other blue jays to danger. Others believe blue jays do this to scare off other birds from food sources.

If you have a bird feeder, you’ve probably noticed times when all the birds clear out, and suddenly a couple of blue jays swoop in to hog the spoils. It’s an effective but apparently short-lived tactic; most birds return to the feeder quickly.

However, many backyard birders also consider the blue jay a bit of a bully. But is this reputation deserved?

two fighting bluejays
Blue jays squabbling. Photo © Terry Nelson / Flickr

Some oft-repeated claims about blue jays appear to be based on anecdotes that are then applied to the entire species (much in the same way that people blame magpies for all kinds of crimes). For instance, blue jays are well known as nest robbers, gobbling up songbird eggs and hatchlings. And yet, studies conducted since 1897 have found that eggs and birds make up only 1 percent of the blue jay’s diet.

You can find lots of YouTube videos and accounts of blue jays gobbling up eggs, but the reality is they are not major nest raiders. Most of their diet consists of insects, seeds and nuts. They stash lots of acorns and don’t return for many of them, making them significant shapers of the eastern forest. They should be celebrated as a vital part of the woodland rather than derided as being “destructive.”

It turns out that blue jay interactions at the bird feeder are more complex and fascinating, too. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology references a Florida study that found blue jays were not the rulers of the feeders: “Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Red-headed Woodpeckers, Florida Scrub-Jays, Common Grackles, and gray squirrels strongly dominate Blue Jays at feeders, often preventing them from obtaining food.”

The citizen science program Project FeederWatch has obtained extensive data on the interactions of birds at feeders. It’s fascinating stuff. It looked at how “peaceful” or “feisty” birds were, and the results were often surprising.

bird with seeds
A blue jay feeding on sunflower seeds. Photo © John Flannery /Flickr

In short, there’s a lot of maneuvering and competing going on at any given feeder. And yes, blue jays can scare off other birds, but they’re hardly alone in this behavior. Research has found that a lot of dominance at feeders is related to size. Simply put, big birds will push away small birds. The most dominant bird? Probably not surprisingly, it’s the wild turkey. No matter how aggressive a blue jay is, it’s not going to scare off a turkey.

Blue jays may be very loud, which earns them their bully reputation. But birds like the beloved chickadees will also harass other birds until they leave. As a side note, if you love observing backyard birds, look at the summary of this study. It found some intriguing results: For instance:

European Starlings are dominant to Red-headed Woodpeckers, Red-headed Woodpeckers are dominant to Red-bellied Woodpeckers, and Red-bellied Woodpeckers are dominant to European Starlings (see diagram at right). This rare non-linear hierarchy may help balance continental patterns of abundance. Each species competes with another for nest cavities, but no species is always the winner.

Your observations at feeders or city parks may reveal similar interactions. Recording what you see can help us better understand bird behavior.

blue bird in branch in snow
A blue jay (Cyanocitta cristata) perched on a branch after an early spring snowfall, Nebraska, United States. Photo © Dietrich Huebert / TNC Photo Contest 2018

Blue Jay Mysteries

And there is a lot we don’t understand about blue jays. Take their migration, or lack thereof.

Most blue jays don’t migrate. Throughout their range, you will find plentiful blue jays during the winter. But many bird observatories report large flocks of blue jays migrating in the fall, particularly in the Great Lakes and along the Atlantic Coast.

Why blue jays migrate remains a mystery. Cornell estimates that fewer than 20 percent of blue jays migrate annually. And even among the migratory jays, not all make the journey every year. Some researchers believed that migration consisted of young birds dispersing, but others claimed it was old birds. The most recent studies found it’s both.

Blue jays, like many corvids, have complex social lives. They often mate for life and stay with their mate throughout the year. They live in loose flocks in the winter, and have some form of social hierarchy. But again, there is still a lot to learn about this common backyard bird.

blue feather on the ground
A blue jay feather. Photo © Tony Alter / Flickr

The Spread of Blue Jays

One thing we do know about blue jays: They are thriving and expanding their range. Recent news coverage has reported on the massive declines in North American bird populations over the past few decades. But blue jays are a rare positive story: Their numbers increased 28 percent between 1966 and 2015.

Blue jays have been year-round residents from the eastern United States and Canada to the Great Plains. They are increasingly showing up in the winter in the northwestern United States, where they were rare to non-existent prior to 1972.

While they still cause excitement when spotted at Idaho bird feeders, there are a few reported every year. The same is true for Washington, Utah, Montana and other western states.

Blue jays are adaptable birds, and they thrive in the edge habitats created by suburbia and small woodlands. And yes, they love bird feeders.

Conservationists theorize that, as blue jay populations grow, some jays spread out to new territory. Historically, if they moved to the Northwest, they would have found big wilderness already occupied by Steller’s jays and other species. But now, they find plenty of human habitation, creating ideal blue jay habitat.

blue bird eating seeds
Another jay at a feeder. Photo © Roland Fortier / Flickr

Most of the blue jay sightings in my region are in Idaho cities and towns like Boise, Spokane and Moscow, all places with plenty of parks, edge habitat and feeders.

The excitement caused by a blue jay sighting in the Northwest is understandable. Seen for the first time, the blue jay is a striking bird. But you don’t have to live in Washington to appreciate the jay. As nature photographer Andrew Thompson writes, “If they were not so common, blue jays – with their unique color and markings – would almost certainly be considered among the most beautifully adorned birds.”

So, even if blue jays are the most common and conspicuous birds at your feeder, take another look. Seen with fresh eyes, you might gain a new appreciation for this raucous bird. And your observations of their fascinating behavior can help us better understand what’s happening at our feeders, and assist in bird conservation across the continent.

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  1. Chris Bohn says:

    Blue Jays are my FAVORITE bird. I’m in North Central Florida. I love their calls and noises. They love to bathe – but don’t like to share the bird bath. They line up to take a bath one at a time. They love the seed I put out for them, called Tree Nutty from Wild Birds store. Yes, I spoil all the birds we have, but blue jays are my favorite. I just wish I could tell the difference between male/female. I don’t see them as bullies. If anything, the cardinals here are the feeder-hogs.

  2. Rhetta Jack says:

    Here in Illinois both Crows and Blue Jays were hit hard with West Nile virus in the first few years. Crows lost so many family members they made new families with other survivors. First year was 2019 I remember all the Blue Jays in our neighborhood dropped dead. On our 4 CBCs we saw lots of Crows and Blue Jays, made me happy.

  3. Grace Bentley-Scheck says:

    My husband and I noticed an interesting phenomenon this year. We have a fairly large flock of BlueJays who seem to live in row of evergreens on our property. They seem to prefer to eat seeds on the ground under the feeder and the peanuts my husband puts out for them. This year, the daring young Jays seemed to copy the squirrel’s technique of climbing up the feeder pole and descending down head first to where they can make the leap to the feeder. The first time I saw this behavior, I thought the bird would end up with his beak in the dirt. He practiced, however, until he could reach his destination with ease. Then his relatives copied him.

  4. Don Vergara says:

    I’ve seen Blue Jays kill mourning dove chicks and throw them from the nest, my guess is they want to dominate that space/territory. These birds are far more aggressive than any others in my CT backyard.

  5. Cynthia Greene says:

    Blue Jays dominate in our yard! They don’t like the Cardinals. Guess that makes sense! They wait until I fill the bird bath with fresh water, then call to the other jays who swoop down onto the tree limbs and into the bird bath. Very smart.

    We are in Florida and these birds have always been prevalent but I’ve noticed lately not as many, which is sad.

  6. Terry L Peck says:

    Years ago I lived on 5 acres in the country. Our driveway was long and lined with large trees that, in the fall, would drop their leaves, mostly yellow and brown, and carpet the grass. One morning I looked out to see a large flock of Blue Jays on the ground searching for acorns. Their striking blue color among the color of the leaves was so beautiful!

  7. Brian Page says:

    The news that the jays are thriving and expanding their range is very interesting. I live in the suburbs around Atlanta and blue jays, like mockingbirds, were, a few decades ago, very, very, common. Stepping out into the yard on most any day one would be able to look around for a jay. However, in recent years they’ve become so rare that seeing one in a month is a cause for special note. I also wonder how much “Jim Baker’s Blue Jay Yarn,” by Mark Twain contributed to their reputation.

  8. Ruth Utech says:

    At my Wisconsin feeders I can watch the blue jays for hours.. their phenomenal plumage especially against the snow.. their intelligence and their many vocalizations make them my favorite.. I love the “squeaky gate”

  9. J Hendricks says:

    I love blue jays and always have. They’re a bit brash, but they have a lot of personality. And what surprised me as I’ve been watching my new platform feeder is what seems to be a cooperative scavenging dynamic amongst them. One inquisitive jay will find the peanuts I put out, but rather than plunder the hoard himself, he’ll stridently call for other jays. It almost seems like he’s guarding the “find” from squirrels and woodpeckers until the blue jay posse makes an appearance. Only after three or four more jays have shown up in response to his call will he grab one (one two!) whole, unshelled peanuts, and take off. At that point there begins an airlift rotation until the peanuts are gone. I’ve seen as many as ten birds swooping in, one after the other, to clean out the coveted nuts. (I’ve also seen some of the birds dallying in their nut selection, lifting up the peanuts one by one as though testing their weight. Their pickiness often wins them a harsh scolding, but they do seem to make deliberate choices.)

  10. Peter Robinson says:

    Blue Jays are like a lot of flashy things – best in moderation. Last winter we had a noticeable population boom of Jays in Central Maryland. We’d often see a dozen or more at and around our feeders simultaneously. That made it much harder on the smaller birds I favor, such as Chickadees, Titmouses, Nuthatches, and Carolina Wrens. We’re seeing a much more reasonable population of Blue Jays this winter and consequently more frequent visits by the smaller birds. Even 2-3 Jays can be quite disruptive, though, and they are piggies at the feeders. Almost as bad as Starlings, IMO. On the upside – their bathroom habits are far better than the Starlings that poop on everything, including food in fhe dome tray feeders.