Five Wild Facts About Not-So-Nice Blue Jays

Updated: Mar 3

With their bright blue feathers and their loud, piercing call, blue jays are one of our most easily identifiable birds. If you keep bird feeders in your yard, you may have noticed that blue jays are kind of like the bully on the playground. They can be loud and aggressive, sometimes threatening smaller birds. This is why blue jays are not a favorite of many people.

(Photo via Shutterstock)

Blue jays live everywhere in the United States east of the Rocky Mountains and in parts of southern Canada. Their migration patterns are not yet well understood by researchers. They are migratory, but not all of these birds migrate for the winter.


Blue jays eat insects, nuts, seeds and grains. If you'd like to attract them to your yard, try putting out peanuts, suet or sunflower seed.


Read on to learn even more about these birds.


They aren’t really blue


This may come as a surprise, but blue jays aren't actually blue. The pigment in their feather is melanin, which is brown. We see them as blue because of a scientific principle called light scattering.

 

Words to know

Limestone: A hard rock composed mostly or calcium carbonate or dolomite.

Melanin: A dark brown pigment that occurs in the hair, skin and irises of people and animals.

Migration: Seasonal movement of animals from one region to another.

Suet: Animal fat used to make food for birds.

 

Light scattering is similar to how a prism works. Blue jays' wings contain small pockets made of air and keratin. When light hits these pockets, all colors of the wavelength are absorbed except blue. Instead, the blue wavelength is refracted, making it visible to us.


The same principle that makes us see blue jays as blue applies to other blue songbirds as well. That means bluebirds and indigo buntings aren't blue either.


They are quite smart


Blue jays belong to the Corvidae family of birds, which are considered to be among the most intelligent birds in the world. The Corvidae, or corvid, family includes ravens, crows, jays and magpies. Of these, ravens and crows are particularly noted for their intelligence. But blue jays are pretty smart too.


In particular, blue jays are known as highly sociable birds that form tight social bonds. It is thought that blue jays may be able to recognize other birds of their species from the black markings on their faces, heads and throats.


They are able to communicate with other blue jays using body language and vocalizations. Their crest is a useful signal to other birds. When it is lowered, it's a sign the bird's aggression level is low. The higher up the crest is, the higher the bird's aggression level. When blue jays squawk, their crests are always raised. Beyond squawking, blue jays use many other vocalizations to communicate with other birds.


They are also good mimics, particularly of hawks like the red-tailed hawk and red-shouldered hawk. Scientists aren't sure why they do this, but they believe it may be an attempt to warn other nearby jays of hawks in the area or to try to fool other bird species into thinking hawks are nearby. Captive blue jays are even better mimics and have learned to imitate a cat's meow and even human speech.


They are known to collect paint chips


This is weird, but it's well documented that blue jays sometimes chip away at light-colored paint and then keep a stockpile of the paint chips. Why? They use the paint chips as a source of calcium in the spring, when the mineral is essential for egg-laying. Paint typically includes limestone, which is a good source of calcium.


This unusual behavior seems to be most common in the northeastern United States. Researchers believe this is likely because acid rain is most prevalent in this area of the country, and the acid depletes the calcium normally found in soil.


If blue jays are making a mess of the paint on your house, you can try providing another source of calcium. Try leaving out a supply of crushed eggshells. Make sure to sterilize them first by either boiling them or baking them in a 250 degree F oven for 20 minutes.


They love acorns


Squirrels aren't the only animals with acorns at the top of their favorite foods list. Blue jays love acorns, too, so if have oak trees in or near your yard, blue jays are probably a common sight. In fact, if you want blue jays around, planting oak trees is a good way to do it.


Blue jays' love of acorns contributed to the expansion of oak forests across North America at the end of the last ice age. Like squirrels, blue jays stash away acorns for later, but they don't return for all the buried nuts. These left-behind acorns then sometimes grow into oak trees.


When blue jays stash away acorns for later, they tend to store only the healthiest of nuts. They typically fly far from where they found the acorn to stash it away in a forest opening. When those nuts go unclaimed and grow into oak trees, it helps expand forests.


They don’t get much love


Maybe because of their reputation as bullies, blue jays don't get nearly as much respect as some other well-known birds. Take the northern cardinal. It's the state bird of seven states, including Illinois. And the northern mockingbird is the state bird of five states, while the robin is the state bird of three. Meanwhile, the blue jay is the state bird of exactly zero states.


That's not to say blue jays get no respect. The Major League Baseball team in Toronto is named for the well-known blue-hued birds. To name the team, the organization held a public contest that garnered more than 30,000 submissions of more than 4,000 name suggestions. One of the most common names submitted through the contest was the Blues, but because that was similar to the name for the mascot of the University of Toronto, a panel of judges selected the name the Blue Jays instead.


Our neighbors to the north have shown other appreciation for the blue jay as well. The Canadian province of Prince Edward Island has named the blue jay its provincial bird. Here in the United States, a few colleges have adopted the blue jay as their mascot, including Creighton University, Elizabethtown College and John Hopkins University.

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