Birds & Birding

Blue Jay: A New Look At a Common Feeder Bird

blue bird in tree
Misunderstood, or a bird-feeder bully? Photo © Dave Doe / Flickr

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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26 comments

  1. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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.

  11. Years ago I helped to band birds caught in nets. Bluejays were intelligent enough to understand to not struggle thru the netting, weighing and banding procedure. My next encounter was during a walk in the woods when I innocently paused under a nest. A pair of robins made a fuss over my head; within 3 minutes several species including bluejays came to help shoo me away. Last summer there was a bluejay squabble in the lower branches of trees on the edge of my yard. I went to investigate but the cause was not apparent. Just a minute later they continued in the neighbor’s open yard. Must have been a snake in the tree. Yes, as a child, I saw bluejays eating hatchling cardinals in the nest. As far as I can see, bluejays are intelligent community members who no not deserve any maligning. Perhaps they understand better than we do how to balance their neighborhood ecosystem.

  12. I was startled last spring to see a Blue Jay at the feeder in my backyard here in Sunburst, MT. I took a picture to prove that I had seen it, since we had not seen it before. Since then there seen to be more and more around, and I love it! I grew up in the northern California mountains and was used to the flash of blue and their loud voiced, it is wonderful to see them again!

  13. I live in Austin, TX and have blue jays at my feeders, more, it seems this year than ever before. But people should be aware that there are other jays. I grew up in Arizona where there are Scrub Jays in stead of blue jays. When I took a birdwatching class in the 1980s, I was told that Blue Jays live in central and east Austin, and scrub jays in west Austin – on the west side of the fault known as the Balcones Escarpment. Here is what I found today about our scrub jays:
    Three species of Scrub-Jay can be found in the United States, but only one, Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jay, resides in Texas. Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jay prefer the montane pine forests of the American Southwest and far west Texas, but their range extends into the eastern Edwards Plateau and central Texas, where they live in juniper-oak woodlands. They resemble their eastern cousin, the Blue Jay, but are more muted in color and lack the Blue Jay’s distinctive crest. One trait that Scrub-Jays share with Blue Jay is their resourcefulness and intelligence–in fact, jays have a brain-to-body mass ratio almost as high as that of humans. They have excellent memories, and can recall the locations of dozens of food caches. Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jay is also a very recent addition to most birders’ checklists: until 2016, they were Western Scrub-Jays.

    Compiled by Owen Moorhead. Sources include the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Audubon Society.

  14. I am from California, have lived in Minnesota, Illinois, North Carolina, and now in central Florida. Thoroughly enjoy Blue Jays, don’t remember them from Minnesota, but they were in Illinois and NC. I’ve never found them a problem at my bird feeders, they fly in, choose a seed and fly off again. Have more time to watch the bird feeder here in Florida, so see more interactions with other birds. The real bullies in my feeder ground blocks are pigeons who arrive in mobs of 30 plus and drive everything else away. The blue jays share the hanging feeders with Red Headed woodpeckers and smaller birds and the ground feeders with cardinals, squirrels, towhees, and occasionally in the winter with starlings, grackels, and, this year, Red Wing Blackbirds. We are near the beach so sometimes there comes an osprey to scare everyone else away.

  15. I live in South Florida on a dead golf course and we have many blue jays here. I think they are beautiful. I give them peanuts. I used to have a feeder but the squirrels kept outsmarting me! They are friendly with others of their species as the first blue jays to find the peanuts scream out loudly to their friends and the next thing I know, there are 30 squawking blue jays in the backyard. But, they are competitive and I have seen some of them trying to stuff 2 or 3 peanuts in their beak! I also have cardinals that are smaller than the Northern cardinals, not sure why there is size difference.

  16. Blue jays are a constant sight and sound in my yard early morning and mid afternoon when I give squirrels nuts and feed birds. They are so loud until my resident red headed woodpecker comes down the tree to grab a nut or two usually followed by the jays taking off however they return shortly after noisy as ever. But I admit they are a beautiful bird.

  17. We watched a blue jay mimic a merlin’s call. The call cleared out the bird bath so the jay could take a leisurely bath. When finished, flew to a nearby shrub, gave a few more “merlin” calls allowing for uninterrupted feather preening. The jay employed the “merlin” call frequently last summer and fall.

  18. Many years ago I heard blue Jays squawking at something. I went to to find my dog, a Gordon Setter, flat on his belly on the deck, with 3 Jays swooping down on him and screeching at him.he was totally intimidated!
    This was a dog that ran into the river to go after a swan, so he wasn’t a wimp! I had to scare off the Jays before he would get up- he ran for the door!

  19. I have watched a Blue Jay rescue a Morning Dove from the talons of a Red-Tailed Hawk. The Dove was being squeezed to death by the Hawk with one Blue Jay flew in close and personal attacking the Hawk repeatedly until it finally released its grip and flew away. The Dove survived with the talon maks on its neck the rest of the time I observed it in our area. I was so moved in witnessing the brave Blue Jay saving this Dove I’ve told this story to whomever will listen.
    I’ve also witnessed the Blue Jay always sounding the alarm to gather other backyard Jays in our area to chase off Crows and Hawks.
    Lastly, one spring morning I stood between 2 trees in which the Blue Jays seemed evenly spaced. The ”cooing” and other delicate and ”sweet” sounds the Jays were exchanging made me wonder if these were courtship calls. They were beautiful and tender, and I stood sometime listening amazed that Blue Jays made such sounds.
    I appreciate all their calls and behaviors as a consequence of these and other observations. Blue Jays are our backyard and neighborhood ”watch birds” and I am happy to feed them.
    Here in Dallas, Texas, Blue Jays delight us all seasons. Fortunate are we.

  20. Seems to be the winter of the Blue Jay here in northwest Wisconsin. In recent winters a few Jays would visit my feeders, but not every day. This winter Blue Jays show up every day, with 10-12 at a time being common. In the last few weeks several friends have asked me what I’m seeing for this species since they have also observed an abundance of them at their feeders. After a presentation on Wildlife Winter Survival at our local nature center last week I had people ask why all the Blue Jays this winter. I could not give them a definite answer, just a few guesses.
    I have observed the local Cardinal and Red-bellied Woodpecker hold off the Blue Jay on the platform feeder if they were there first. There are often half a dozen species at the feeders the same time the Jays are around, so not always that much of a bully. Love watching their behavior when there is a ‘flock’ in the back yard.

  21. We are near San Francisco and have very aggressive Steller’s Jays. I have feeders designed for the smaller birds, otherwise they would clean me out daily. The Stellers leave when I go to the window, but they try and often succeed at the suet feeder, even if I’m in garden. They will take all the suet they can get away with until I see them. We also have Scrub Jays, which I don’t mind because they take a bite and leave.

    LesleytheBirdNerd has a wonderful You Tube channel, check out the Blue Jays on video.
    https://www.youtube.com/user/LesleytheBirdNerd/playlists

    Saving Jemima: Life and Love with a Hard-Luck Jay by Julie Zickefoose is a good read, too.

  22. Thank you for speaking up for Blue Jays! They are one of my favorite birds and not only a joy to see at our feeders every day, but they protect our squirrels and songbirds from our neighborhood hawks. They co-exist quite nicely with our other visitors. The only time they’re noisy (aside from hawk sightings) is when I don’t give them their peanuts in a timely fashion! I’m glad there are other pro-Jay people out there! 🙂

  23. Greetings! I live in North Texas. I have been an avid gardener for the 23 years that we have lived in our home near corps property surrounding Lake Grapevine. We have a wooded lot that we do not use any pesticide or rodent control on. We are naturalists in a big way. Since my retirement a number of years back, I have had the privilege of spending long hours, even full days, maintaining trees and brush and flowers and foliage. We have copperheads and rat snakes in abundance. I have learned to heed the Blue Jays’ warnings. Often, their squawks have alerted me to a snake coming through the woods and garden or through the thick laurels that have grown into a sanctuary/habitat for the birds. I have observed rat snakes scale the trees and bushes, and even our house. When I discover that a bird’s nest goes empty overnight, I can conjecture that a snake may be a likely suspect. Last summer, I found a sizable, thick copperhead coming through my gardening spot just after the constant squawks and fly thru’s of a Jay. So, for myself, I have experienced the Blue Jay’s squawk as a warning, most certainly.

  24. i find them facinating birds passing by bushes in my complex two followed me with warning crys to stay away as soon as i was out of range they went back. yhey must be very territorial. but cool birds

  25. I live in the suburbs of central Connecticut i’ve noticed a decline of Blue Jays in this area for sometime this is the first year that I spotted a Bluejay at my feeder I was so Thrilled and excited to see this beautiful bird back again

  26. The urban – wildland difference in Eastern vs. Stellar Blue Jay habitat checks with my north central Washington experience. Eastern Blue Jays have been seen in Wenatchee, but not up here in the Methow, where Stellars are common. I’m wondering if there’s latitude difference as well ? Or maybe it’s just less urban up near Canada ?