The Blue Jay is one of the most captivating wild, backyard birds to be entertained by, and if you watch long enough you’ll realize there is so much more to this intelligent bird than just his striking beauty.
Blue Jays are monomorphic, meaning the males and females are nearly identical and very difficult for laymen to tell apart. Birds that look very different from male to female, such as Northern Cardinals, are called dimorphic. If you see two Blue Jays peacefully hanging out at your feeder together, there’s a good chance they’re a mated pair, and the slightly larger one will be the male. They are largely monogamous, choosing to remain with their mate for their lifespan, which is usually around several years but in one case it was known to be up to 26 years and 11 months in a banded wild Blue Jay near Newfoundland.
In the spring when Blue Jays are choosing a mate, you can sometimes identify a female by the fact that she is surrounded by many males vying for her attention. It’s a bit like an episode of “The Bachelorette” as one by one the males realize they are out of the running and leave the group. Eventually, someone will stand out in the crowd and she’ll accept him as her life partner.
The male and female Blue Jay build a nest together, with him gathering materials and her constructing the open-cup-shaped nest around seven inches in diameter. It seems like that would be a snug fit for the family since they each are about nine to twelve inches in size and can have anywhere from two to seven eggs in their annual brood which is laid in May or June. But they take turns incubating the eggs for about two and a half weeks, and their nestlings will live there — anywhere from eight to 30 feet up in a coniferous or deciduous tree — for about three weeks.
If you start to think your Blue Jays have left during the early summer, it’s usually because they fall nearly silent to protect the nest and nestlings. They may even stay away from the feeder since other food sources are abundant. They do what’s necessary to keep from revealing the nest’s location to predators.
If you believe in signs, seeing a Blue Jay is supposed to be a good omen. They represent hope and peace or even that you may be about to embark on some kind of spiritual journey. If you see two Blue Jays together, it is said to mean what you’re wishing for will come true.
In early Native American folklore, the Blue Jay was known as a trickster, in league with the reputation of foxes and coyotes. This may be because they do tend to fool people – and other animals – both visually and vocally.
For example, the Blue Jay is, in fact, not blue. It has no blue pigmentation at all. Its feathers are pigmented brown, but due to their barbed shape, when light hits them it bends through a process called refraction and we see the color blue, much the same way we see the illusion of colors called a rainbow.
Blue Jay are often referred to as a “songbird without a song” or at least one that has a “whisper song” made up of a series of clicks and clucks and whirrs and other sounds. They are a handy mimic, however, and most notably can make a sound almost identical to a Red-shouldered Hawk. This could help them warn other birds of a nearby predator … but it could also help them scare the competition away from a preferred food source! In fact, some Blue Jays have been observed to mimic the sound of a kitten in what appears to be an attempt to discourage other birds from approaching their favorite feeder.
In captivity, Blue Jays will attempt to mimic the sound of humans speaking, but they have nowhere near the success at it that a parrot does.
Blue Jays are omnivores, meaning they have a diet of plants and animals. They show a preference for peanuts, sunflower seeds and suet, but they’ll also eat insects and small rodents. It’s not a huge part of their diet, but they have been known to attack another bird’s nest for the eggs or nestlings. It’s just a part of the sometimes unpleasant “circle of life.”
A Blue Jay’s very favorite food, however, is acorns, and they’ve even been credited with helping spread the growth of oak trees after the last Ice Age. They sometimes hide them so well that they can’t find them, which leads to new oak trees. If your yard has no oaks and you want to give your Blue Jays a special treat, you could go to some nearby oaks and gather acorns to place in a platform or tray-style feeder, which is where they prefer to eat. Netvue Birdfy Feeder
could just meet this need and provide birds with a free and comfortable foraging environment.
Their diet also needs some calcium. If deficient, they will steal paint chips from houses, so putting out a bowl of oyster shells can help them store some calcium in their secret caches for winter. If you go through a lot of chicken eggs, you may also want to save those shells, rinse them off, spread them onto a baking sheet, and bake at 250 for 10 minutes. After cooling you can place them outside for your birds as a ready source of calcium.
When you see a Blue Jay taking bite after bite at your feeder, notice the bulge in their neck getting bigger and bigger. They are filling up their gular pouch – not unlike a pelican’s – and then flying off to hide that food in literally thousands of locations. They have a great memory and a good plan. Even if another bird or a squirrel finds one of their hiding spots, they know they’ll have plenty of others and won’t go hungry when it turns cold.
The question of whether or not Blue Jays migrate seasonally is a difficult one. Simply put, they do if they feel like it, and their choices seem erratic. Sometimes they’ll join a flock – either a small one consisting of a few “families” or a large one of up to 250 – and take off for the winter. Sometimes they’ll go individually. Sometimes they’ll leave one winter and then stay the next winter. The one pattern scientists have noticed is that the younger birds tend to migrate more often, and the older ones tend to stay put. Maybe they’re just too tired to make the trip, or maybe they feel secure in their food sources and ability to find adequate shelter
As members of the Corvidae class, Blue Jays are related to crows, and they have similar behavior. They are fascinated by shiny, reflective objects and will often pick them up and fly around with them. Also, like crows, they seem to be able to recognize the faces of humans. Over time, they can become accustomed to the human that brings them food and seems willing to wait patiently nearby instead of flying off immediately.
A group of Blue Jays is called a band or a party, and sometimes a scold, which makes sense because they sure can make a lot of racket when they have something to say. One of the ways they recognize each other within the group is by their “faces.” Although they may all look mostly alike to us, the black bands on their face, neck and nape, which are called bridles, are very distinct to each bird.
When they communicate with one another, it’s not just through their calls. The same way we use facial expressions and hand gestures, you can watch them exhibit a series of head tilts, “pump handles” or bobbing body motions and the raising and lowering of the crest of feathers seems the top of their head. When stressed, showing dominance, or seeking a mate, that proud crest shoots right up. But when they are calmly eating alongside a mate, family member, or flock member, the crest, which is controlled by muscles underlying the feathers, will relax and lower.
If you see a Blue Jay rubbing ants on its feathers and then eating the ants, this is a behavior called “anting” that is practiced by a number of birds, such as crows, owls, turkeys and pheasants. There is much speculation around anting, but those studying the practice believe it has something to do with a chemical on ants called formic acid. It could be that rubbing the ants on the feathers removes the acid and makes them easier to digest. But it’s also possible the formic acid serves as a fungicide or bactericide to clean the bird. Some scientists also think anting can make birds intoxicated, because they will often shake and have difficulty walking afterward.
Just when you think the Blue Jay has no more surprises in store, here’s a very strange one. Of course, they can fly, but they can also swim, although I doubt they will do it intentionally. Blue Jays who have fallen into water have been shown to have the ability to move their wings in a swimming motion and travel short distances across the water, even with their heads sometimes going underwater.