Blue Jay

Cyanocitta cristata

Blue Jay
Photo © Larry Hennessy/Flickr/Used With Permission

The blue jay, with its bold coloration and even bolder personality, is one of the most common and familiar backyard birds in the eastern United States. Its intelligence and willingness to visit feeders make it a welcome guest for many birders, and it's easy to find blue jays in your yard.

Common Name: Blue Jay, Jay
Scientific Name: Cyanocitta cristata
Scientific Family: Corvidae

Appearance:

  • Bill: Long, thick and black, stout
  • Size: 11 inches long with 16-inch wingspan, long tail and prominent crest
  • Colors: Blue, purple, white, black, gray
  • Markings: Male and female blue jays look alike. These birds have a white face, throat and chin bordered by a prominent black necklace that extends from the nape to the breast. A thin back eye stripe marks the face. The head, crest and back are bluish purple, while the wings and tail are a bright blue with white spots and distinct black bars. The chest, abdomen and undertail coverts are white or grayish-white, and the legs and feet are black. The eyes are dark brown-black.
    Juveniles are similar to adults, but have less distinct markings, particularly on the face and head. The crest and tail are noticeably shorter, and the plumage in the upper body is often more grayish and fluffier than on adult birds
    During the seasonal molt, blue jays may go temporarily bald, losing all the feathers on their heads and necks, showing the gray-black skin underneath. This can be startling but is a natural part of the molt cycle. Within a few weeks, all the head and facial feathers will regrow.

    Foods: Nuts, berries, seeds, corn, carrion, insects, eggs, small animals (See: Omnivorous)

    Habitat and Migration:

    Blue jays are common throughout the eastern and central United States and southern Canada from the Atlantic coast to the Rocky Mountains and eastern Texas. Extreme northern populations may migrate but most birds remain in the same areas year-round. These birds are highly adaptable to different habitats and can be found in different types of forests as well as cities, parks and suburban areas where mature trees are present.

    Vocalizations:

    Blue jays are loud and noisy, though they are uncharacteristically quiet during the nesting season (May-July). Their calls include loud, strident “do-it” or “jaaaay” sounds as well as warbling chirps. Some birds have been heard to imitate hawk calls. Most vocalizations are used to intimidate or threaten other birds or intruders in nesting or feeding areas.

    Behavior:

    These birds are frequently found in pairs or family flocks and they are very protective of their nests, even to the point of diving at intruders, including humans. Another threat display includes raising the head crest very prominently, typically accompanied by raucous calls or even forward lunges. They are inquisitive and intelligent birds that hide nuts and seeds for later feeding.

    At feeders, these jays can be bullies and may quickly rob feeders of select treats. To minimize that behavior, backyard birders might use dedicated peanut feeders or opt for some smaller feeders jays cannot use to be sure other species can feed without interference.

    Reproduction:

    Blue jays are monogamous birds and pair bonds may last through several nesting seasons. A mated pair will work together to build a cup-shaped nest using sticks and twigs, bark, moss, grass and even artificial materials such as paper, string or yard. The nest is positioned in a tree crotch or branch fork usually 5-20 feet above the ground, though higher nests have been recorded.

    Both male and female birds incubate the brood of 3-7 pale green-blue, darkly spotted eggs for 16-18 days. Both parents also feed and care for the nestlings for 18-20 days until the young birds are ready to leave the nest. Bird pairs may raise 1-3 broods per season depending on available food and regional climate. Even after they've left the nest, younger blue jays may stay in the same area as their parents until the next breeding season, when they will seek out their own mates and territories.

    Attracting Blue Jays:

    Blue jays easily visit backyards that feature suet, sunflower seeds, whole or shelled peanuts, bread scraps and corn. With patience, birders may be able to hand-feed regular guests. Blue jays are also attracted to water and will frequently visit bird baths. Planting oak trees will also help provide a natural nut source to attract blue jays.

    Conservation:

    These jays are not considered threatened or endangered in any way, and their adaptability serves them well for adjusting to new habitats or habitat changes. Outdoor and feral cats can be a threat in urban and suburban areas, however, and steps should be taken to protect backyard birds from cats at all times.

    Similar Birds:

    • Steller’s Jay (Cyanocitta stelleri)
    • California Scrub-Jay (Aphelocoma californica)
    • Woodhouse's Scrub-Jay (Aphelocoma woodhouseii)
    • Florida Scrub-Jay (Aphelocoma coerulescens)