Blue Jay Facts
Authored by Jodi Helmer
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Authored by Jodi Helmer
Found near shorelines and around forest edges, Blue Jays are as distinctive for their appearances as their noisy calls. The colorful songbirds are favorites to spot at backyard bird feeders where they use their beaks to crack peanuts and sunflower seeds or break off bits of suet.
Here are eight interesting facts about Blue Jays.
The songbirds are known for their pretty crests and unique coloring that appears blue with white and black markings. But scientists have discovered that Blue Jays have brown, not blue, melanin.
Melanin is a pigment that gives feathers their coloring. Although Blue Jays have brown melanin, they appear blue because of the way light hits them; the blue light is refracted while light from other wave lengths is absorbed, making the birds appear blue. Without direct light, Blue Jay feathers appear brown.
The black bands that appear on their faces, napes and throats are called “bridles” and are distinct on each bird. It’s believed that the distinct patterns might help Blue Jays recognize each other. Observant birdwatchers may also be able to tell Blue Jays apart by taking close notes of their bridles.
Sure, Blue Jays eat insects, nuts, seeds and grains, but the stunning songbirds also eat small vertebrates, including other birds, that are dead or injured and raid bird nests for eggs and nestlings.
Perhaps one of their most peculiar culinary habits involves rubbing ants on their feathers before devouring them. The practice, known as anting, is believed to drain ants of their formic acid to make them more appetizing.
The large, colorful birds can be found in oak, pine and deciduous woodlands and gardens in the eastern and central United States as far south as Florida and parts of Texas. Some Blue Jays stay in their ranges all year long, but others migrate—and scientists have yet to figure out when or why their migration happens.
It appears that younger Blue Jays migrate more often than older birds (but adults do sometimes migrate) and some Blue Jays will fly south one winter but not the next. Their varying migration patterns are a mystery.
A Blue Jay’s song ranges from a “jay jay” to a “queedle queedle” but the birds can also make calls that imitate hawks. The most notable example is a scream that is almost identical to the Red-shouldered Hawk.
Blue Jays may be trying to sound like hawks to warn other jays that the birds of prey are nearby; it might also help scare off other birds like Common Grackles, Florida Scrub-Jays and Red-headed Woodpeckers that tend to dominate Blue Jays at feeders, allowing the crafty songbirds to eat in peace.
In spring and summer when Blue Jays are nesting, their songs are quieter and harder to detect. This near silence could help birds protect their nests.
Blue Jays only hatch one brood per year and protecting their clutches of two to seven eggs is top of mind for nesting Jays. Males and females work together to build nests; males gather materials and females build the nests. Once the eggs are laid, it takes 17 to 18 days (about 2 and a half weeks) for their clutch to hatch, and nestlings spend up to 21 days (about 3 weeks) in the nest.
In the fall, once their young have flown the nest and Blue Jays are back to scavenging for food, their calls become noisier.
Calcium is essential for producing strong eggs, and sometimes Blue Jays don’t get enough nutrients in their diets. A deficiency could lead the birds to use their beaks to chip the paint off houses.
Creating a cache of paint chips gives Blue Jays a source of calcium during spring nesting season. Putting out a small bowl of oyster shells is an alternate way to provide Blue Jays with calcium.
The species is known for being smart and crafty—captive Blue Jays have even turned strips of paper into tools to rake in food pellets from outside their cages—and they develop strong social networks.
Their complex behaviors may have contributed to their longevity. The oldest known wild Blue Jay was almost 27 years old. It was banded in the Newfoundland, Canada, area in 1989 and later found dead in fishing gear in the same region in 2016.
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