Blue Jays

Do blue jays really deserve their bad reputation?

September 28, 2011

As far as birds go, the blue jay gets a bad rap. Bright, brash, aggressive, they stand out in a crowd, and they pay for it. Mark Twain once wrote: “A jay hasn’t got any more principle than a Congressman. A jay will lie, a jay will steal, a jay will deceive, a jay will betray; and, four times out of five, a jay will go back on his solemnest promise. Now, on top of all this, there’s another thing: a jay can out-swear any gentleman in the mines.” In the jay’s defense, while its bullying ways can clear a backyard feeder in short order, its coarse call also serves as a sharp warning to smaller neighbors when predators threaten.

Blue Jay Facts

  • Cyanocitta cristata, literally “the crested blue chattering bird,” stands nearly a foot tall, weighs less than a stick of butter, and boasts a wingspan up to 17 inches. It’s ubiquitous east of the Rockies, from southern Canada to Florida and Texas.
  • Rumor has it that these cousins of the magpie prey on eggs and fledglings. While their diet comprises insects, nuts, seeds, fruits, and small vertebrates, Cornell University ornithologists found that only 1 percent of jays had stomach contents including parts of other birds.
  • Johnny Appleseed had nothing on the jay, credited with speeding North America’s nut tree resurgence in the wake of the Pleistocene glaciers. The birds cache far more than they can eat, and their hiding spots—under leaf litter at the edges of open land—provide ideal conditions for oak saplings. Helps that these birds know how to pick ‘em. In one study, beechnuts stashed by jays had an 88 percent germination rate.

  • Look again. The jay at your bird feeder this winter may be a native, or it might be a northern neighbor, filling in during the local birds’ southern migration. No one knows why some jays stay and others go; even individual behavior varies year to year.
  • Naked as a jaybird? Etymologists dispute the origins of the phrase, first documented here during the Second World War, but it’s certain these babies don’t hatch with their parents’ good looks. Ma and Pa mate for life; he often helps incubate a clutch ranging from two to seven eggs, and both parents feed the nestlings.
  • A blue jay weighs less than a stick of butter.
  • Blue jays’ iconic vocalizations include a raucous jeer like the crow’s, as well as whistles, gurgles, rattling, and even a spot-on mimic of a red-shouldered hawk. The weirdest? A rusty pump handle.

Check out the Backyard Birdlover's Field Guide.