One of my favorite birds is the Blue Jay. I just love their deep blue color, especially when I can get picture of them with deep green grass or bright white snow in the background.
So what is a blue jay? The blue jay is a partially migratory songbird in the Corvid family, along with ravens and crows. It has black and blue plumage, a white face and a thick bill.
Those who have spent time or live in central or eastern North America tend to recognize them easily.
They are mostly often remembered for that bright blue color, as there aren’t a wealth of boldly colored birds in this part of the world.
Attracting blue jays to an area can be tough though, so read on if you want to know more about how to bring them to your area or are just curious enough to ask ‘what do blue jays eat’?
Not Actually Blue?
The appearance of blue is merely the distortion of reflected light off the unique inner structure of its feathers rather than pigment. Thus, the “blue” never fades.
Pretty as the blue jay is, it is an aggressive and noisy bird with unique eating habits. While they love peanuts in the shell and are content to eat seed and suet from the backyard bird feeder, they are industrious in their ability to get food when the pickings aren’t so easy.
What Do Blue Jays Eat?
Blue Jays are omnivores and can:
- Hold nuts and acorns in their feet.
- Use their heavy bills to crack open nuts and acorns.
- Find and extract insects from trees.
- Test the weight of seeds with their bill to deem whether they’re worthy or inedible.
- Pick up nuts, seeds and fruits in trees and shrubs, and from the ground.
- Eat and digest grains.
- Make tools to access food they can’t reach.
- Steal food from other birds.
Blue Jays will eat a variety of insects. They have a preference for beetles, grasshoppers, and caterpillars. The consumption of caterpillars is especially beneficial during seasons when there are caterpillar infestations, such as gypsy moths. The blue jay will whip the caterpillar around to remove the undesirable bristles and then swallow it down.
Along with insects, it is nuts, fruits, grains, and acorns that account for 75% of the blue jay’s diet.
In fact, their love of acorns has given them the distinction of being great procurers of oak trees. Carrying several nuts at a time in the gular pouch of its esophagus, a single blue jay can cache as many as 5,000 acorns in a 2.5-mile radius. Some of those acorns tucked under grass or leaves eventually become trees.
Blue Jays do resort to other extreme feeding measures, though. They have been known to:
- Eat snails, spiders, frogs and small rodents.
- Take dead or injured small vertebrates.
- Pick up dead or dying adult birds.
The most peculiar behavior they exhibit though is the raiding of smaller bird’s nests for their eggs and nestlings.
This behavior is not usually the result of starvation or from of a dearth of food, and no one can say for certain why some blue jays do this. It appears to be only a small percentage (1%) who do.
Unfortunately, their own eggs and nestlings may fall prey to squirrels, cats, crows, snakes, raccoons, possums, hawks, and various other animals.
Male and female blue jays are nearly identical, except that the male is larger.
Logic would seem to dictate that the larger male would be more aggressive. However, as one study observed, when it comes to feeding just before the breeding season (once per year in northern regions and twice per year in southern regions), it is the female who becomes more aggressive and the male who becomes less.
Once they have mated, the male is responsible for gathering food for the female while she attends to the incubation of the eggs. Both parents share equal responsibility for feeding their young once the eggs have hatched.
Into late summer, fall and winter, blue jays may have to search for food in other locations. They fly in large flocks; a tactic which scares off other birds and forces them to leave their feeding areas. Another tactic the blue jay incorporates is its ability to imitate the call of hawks. Doing so wards off their predators.
It’s an understatement to say that blue jays are survivors.
In the depths of winter, they’ve been observed eating paint. More specifically white latex paint that is peeling from houses and decks. Scientists believe they do this because there is calcium in the paint and they need that calcium to prepare for the breeding season which is early in the year.
While blue jays can be noisy and aggressive, they are nevertheless a colorful addition to a backyard bird feeding area. They’re also entertaining to watch.
How To Attract Blue Jays
- First, figure out your feeder. Blue Jays prefer an open nesting platform such as flat spaces on tree branches or surfaces like window sills. They certainly won’t snub a more traditional feeder, though. Be sure that whatever feeder you get, it is sizable enough to support blue jays. There are several ground feeders and larger bird feeders on the market. You can also scatter seed on the ground to attract blue jays.
- Stock the feeder with their favorites. Blue Jays like black oil and striped sunflower seeds, elderberries, cherries, and corn. Furthermore, keep the feeder stocked. Blue Jays aren’t likely to stick around and wait if the food runs empty.
- Don’t forget the peanuts! Blue Jays are also crazy for peanuts. Especially those still in the shell. So you may want to invest in a peanut feeder. A peanut feeder’s construction is such that it prevents (or at least deters) squirrels from getting the lion’s share.
- Think about where you’ll place the feeder. Blue Jays feel more comfortable being close to shrubbery or a tree where they can take cover if needed. They also like to enjoy their score while perched in these protective areas. During mating and breeding season March through July, consider keeping a pile of sticks and twigs nearby to help them with building their nest. Doing so will eliminate the hundreds of trips back and forth the blue jays are required to make bringing in the needed materials. It will also encourage them to remain in the area.
- Avoid the sun. Place the feeder in the shade, if possible. Blue Jays are diurnal, so they feed during the daylight hours. Since they take mass quantities of food at a time so that they can hide it, their visit to the feeder can be rather lengthy. That’s a lot of time in the heat of the sun. Plus, all of the energy consumed to grab that much food can cause them to overheat.
- Back off, human! For all of their pomp, blue jays are cautious birds and don’t want humans near when they’re eating. Pick a spot in the distance to watch them. Or from a window, if available.
- Don’t forget the suet. Blue Jays also enjoy eating from suet feeders, but be sure not to leave the suet for too long in the summer months as it will go rotten.
- Provide a source for hydration… and cleanliness. You’ll want to have a source of fresh water nearby for them to drink from and in which to bathe.
- Perform regular cleaning of your bird feeder(s). Otherwise, there is a possibility of spreading disease. Furthermore, food left sitting too long will begin to clump and mold and birds will be inclined to go elsewhere.
- Consider planting some oak or beech trees. This option is, of course, slow to pay off. Still, if it’s blue jays you want, you’ll find them most abundantly near oak trees and acorns. Beech trees are a reasonable alternative since they also love to feast on beech nuts. Additionally, adding more trees to your yard gives blue jays more options for places to perch, eat and even nest.
On a more specific note, if you live in Florida, it can be quite trying to attract blue jays to your feeder, no matter your efforts. The presence of Red-headed Woodpeckers, Florida Scrub-Jays, Common Grackles, and gray squirrels are obstacles as they dominate blue jays and prevent them from obtaining food.
One final word of caution:
Keep in mind all of the above-listed components of the blue jay’s diet. If you’re squeamish about seeing a small mouse get gutted, or you like the presence of frogs and other little critters in your yard, then attracting blue jays to your yard may not be in your best interest.
Worth The Effort?
With blue jays, as with anything, the good comes with the not so good.
While blue jays prove to be boisterous, noisy and aggressive at times, the trade-off comes in the ability to observe and appreciate their stunning plumage. Particularly in the north on those long gray winter days when we could all use a little more color.
For further reading, you might find it interesting to look into John James Audubon’s account of the blue jay from his book, Birds of America. Or check out the remarkable true story of a 20-year old blue jay in Vicki Formato’s book, Jayson.