Jays are colorful, intelligent birds that can be entertaining in the yard, and backyard birders who take steps to meet these birds' needs can enjoy their antics year round. But what jays can you expect in your yard and how can you attract them?
Why We Love Jays
Jays are members of the Corvidae family, and these corvids are some of the most distinct and intelligent birds in the world. They are curious, and even demonstrate problem-solving skills as they work out how to get the best food sources and protect their caches from raiders. They play, even chasing or taunting cats and other predators, and many jays are decent mimics, often simulating hawk calls to distract other birds so they can take advantage of the confusion.
In addition to their amusing behavior, jays' colorful plumage makes them welcome additions to many backyards. Blue, green, white, brown and black colors are the most common, and many jays have distinct crests, plumes or markings that make them easy to identify even by novice birders. Because these birds stay in most of their ranges year-round, it is easy to enjoy them in every season, if the yard itself meets their basic needs.
Different jays are popular in different geographical regions – in eastern North America, blue jays are the most common species, while western birders enjoy western scrub-jays, with Steller's jays being popular guests at higher elevations. Florida birders might enjoy the endemic Florida scrub-jay, while the green jay is a popular target bird for birders visiting Texas or tropical regions in Mexico. South American birders have the choice of many large and colorful jays, while birders in Europe most commonly see the Eurasian jay.
How to Attract Jays
It is essential to provide jays with food, water, shelter and nesting sites to make them feel welcome in the backyard.
- Food: Food is the way to win any bird's loyalty, and jays enjoy a range of treats. Nuts are a particular favorite, including peanuts offered whole or already shelled. Suet, mealworms, cracked corn and sunflower seeds are other great options to attract jays, and natural food sources such as small fruits and berries – elderberries, cherries, wild grapes, blackberries, etc. –keep jays coming back for more. Oak and beech trees provide a ready source of nuts, as will pinyon pine trees and other large conifers. Because jays are sizeable songbirds, large tray or platform feeders are best for offering different foods, and spring or mesh feeders are ideal for offering nuts.
- Water: Jays are not shy about visiting feeders, but they also need to drink. Bird baths should be wide and relatively deep to accommodate these large birds, and moving, splashing or dripping water can arouse their curiosity with splashing noises and reflecting drips. Because these birds stay year-round in their ranges, even in northern areas, a heated bird bath is essential for the winter months. Larger baths can accommodate multiple birds at once, which is useful when jay families visit the backyard together.
- Shelter: Birds need secure, safe places to rest, and mature deciduous and coniferous trees are ideal for sheltering jays. Trees that can serve double duty as natural food sources, including beech, oak and hickory trees, are some of the best choices, and berry shrubs will provide delicious shelter as well. Thicket-like landscaping will help jays feel secure, particularly if there is a feeding station or water source available for the birds to enjoy in the sheltered niche.
- Nesting Sites: Jays are not cavity-nesting birds and will not use bird houses, but the same trees that provide good shelter can also provide good nesting sites. Providing suitable nesting material such as small twigs, sticks and grass clippings can encourage jays to take up residence, and they may take advantage of large, open nesting platforms. Ideally, the platform base should be at least eight inches square to accommodate these birds' larger nests and growing hatchlings.
More Tips for Attracting Jays
Jays are some of the easier birds to attract to backyards, but they can be shy when they first begin visiting. To encourage jays to feel right at home…
- Leave leaf litter available for birds to use for foraging and to camouflage their autumn caches, and leave the caches themselves intact for birds to revisit throughout the winter.
- Opt for roasted, unsalted nuts in bird feeders so the nuts do not sprout, but avoid nuts with spices or seasonings. If necessary, however, peppered or hot nuts can discourage squirrels.
- Avoid hanging feeders that may swing or sway and make these heavy birds uneasy, and instead choose pole-mounted or ground feeders that offer more stability.
- Use baffles and other techniques to make feeders more squirrel-resistant so the birds have ample food without competing with voracious squirrels.
- Keep feeders filled regularly so jays do not miss the food – they have good memories and may move on to different areas if a food source disappears.
Too Many Jays?
While it can be fun to see jays in the backyard, they can be bully birds and may not always be welcome when they chase away other birds or rapidly empty feeders and raucously demand more food. Jays may also kill nestlings or eat eggs, and their antics can scare away skittish species. If jays become a problem, providing a jays-only feeding area away from other feeders can be effective, and smaller birds can enjoy feeders jays cannot access. Take steps to protect bird houses from predators and use the appropriate entrance hole sizes to keep nesting birds safe from marauders, and ration peanuts to daily servings so the jays recognize the food source but do not quickly drain a complete supply. If it does become necessary to discourage jays, however, removing the food supplies for a few days can help them disperse so they do not cause as much backyard disruption.
Jays can be some of the most entertaining birds in the backyard, and with the right food, water, shelter and nesting sites, they can also be some of the easiest to attract – almost too easy. Backyard birders who understand jays' behavior and needs can enjoy them all year round without inconveniencing other backyard guests.
Photo – Steller's Jay © Steve Voght