Slings and Arrows: Why Birders Love to Hate Blue Jays

Slings and Arrows: Why Birders Love to Hate Blue Jays

They're smart, spectacular, and vocally versatile, so is the species really so bad?

By Les Line/Illustration by Jason Holley
Published: September-October 2008

Indeed, as the story is told, a distinguished English bird man once visiting America was eager to see a living blue jay instead of a museum skin. He considered it to be the finest bird in the world and was surprised to find that it was quite ordinary.


While the blue jay is a year-round resident from southern Canada to the Gulf Coast and west to the far edge of the Great Plains, some of them migrate, though their numbers vary from year to year. For instance, as many as 154,000 southbound blue jays have been seen in one day from Hawk Tower at Holiday Beach Conservation Area on the north shore of Lake Erie. But as blue jay students Keith Tarvin and Glen Woolfenden note in their life history account for The Birds of North America project, "All aspects of blue jay migration [are] poorly understood."

Thoreau also portrayed the blue jay's characteristic cry as an "unrelenting steel-cold scream." Experts call it the "jeer call," and it's used for assembly and for mobbing predators (like my outdoor cats) and even human intruders. Or simply when a lonely jay wants contact with others of its kind. But blue jays have a remarkable vocal array, including what I consider one of the prettiest songs in the bird world. This is the "bell call," a series of clear, fluid whistles: kloo-loo-loo. Then we have the "whisper song," described by Tarvin and Woolfenden as a "soft, quiet conglomeration of clicks, chucks, whirrs, whines, liquid notes, and elements of other calls." Fledglings, they note, develop a full vocal repertoire by the time they are six months old. 

The blue jay is also a near-perfect mimic of the calls of red-tailed, red-shouldered, and Cooper's hawks. The "hawk call" is typically heard when a jay is in an excited state, perhaps approaching a feeding station. One unproven theory is that jays are trying to trick other birds into believing a raptor is present. (Another black mark: deceit.)

While blue jays are common in woody towns and suburbs, they are truly forest birds. All kinds of forests--deciduous, coniferous, mixed. In fact, their distant ancestors are credited for the rapid northward expansion of oak, beech, and chestnut trees once the glaciers retreated 10,000 years ago. Trees, of course, are rooted in place. But as Louis Pitelka of the University of Maryland's Appalachian Laboratory wrote in American Scientist, "Populations of plants do move, infiltrating new territory by creep of root and shower of seed." And paleoecologists mapping ancient pollen data tell us that nut-bearing trees advanced as much as 380 yards a year, much faster than trees with windblown seeds, like maples and birches. 

Simply put, blue jays airlifted the oaks, beeches, and chestnuts to new territories when the ice melted. Nut-squirreling mammals, experts point out, were of little help, since they usually hoard food close to the parent tree.

Curt Adkisson became hooked on blue jays when Carter Johnson, a plant ecologist formerly at Virginia Tech, mentioned seeing jays streaming along a woody fencerow in Wisconsin, carrying beechnuts from a patch of forest to a bog. This led to a three-year study in which the scientists calculated that resident jays made 13,000 round trips from their woodlot habitat to the swamp's vicinity over a 27-day period in September, dispersing 100,000 nuts to sites as far away as two and a half miles. The birds, they reported in American Midland Naturalist, carried anywhere from 3 to 14 beechnuts a trip. In our conversation, Adkisson, a private pilot, compared the sight of a heavily laden jay to a small plane laboring nose-high because of a weight and balance problem.

The fencerow route, the researchers noted, offered the slow-flying blue jays a place to hide from migrating hawks during the beechnut shuttle. And the birds were highly selective when collecting green nuts from burs in the tree canopy. They chose only sound, weevil-free seeds--seeds that were likely to germinate into beech seedlings if a particular bird died, forgot the location of its nut stash, or failed to empty the cache during a mild winter.

Meanwhile, back at Virginia Tech's Blacksburg campus, biologist Susan Darley-Hill was monitoring blue jay acorn dispersal from a stand of 11 pin oaks surrounded by a mosaic of residential neighborhoods, vacant lots, mature woodlands, and old fields. Jays, she related in the journal Oecologia, carried off 133,000 acorns, or 54 percent of the mast crop, while eating another 20 percent on the scene. Most of the nuts left beneath the trees were parasitized by insect larvae and worthless.

The foraging blue jays, she explained, held an acorn with their feet and hammered the nut's cap with a closed bill until it came loose. The birds then used their lower mandibles to pry the cap off and either hammered the acorn open and ate it or swallowed the nut whole for caching. The expandable throat and esophagus of a blue jay can hold up to five pin oak acorns or three larger ones from white oaks, and the bird typically collects one more nut in its bill before departing. 

Arriving at its cache site, the blue jays usually regurgitated their acorn haul in a pile, then dropped the nuts one at a time within a few yards of each other, covering them with leaf litter. Darley-Hill reported that 91 percent of the caching sites in the Blacksburg study were on suburban tracts or bare soil where colonies of pin oak seedlings were already thriving. One cached acorn, she added, would never germinate. The jay stuffed it in ivy covering a brick wall.

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Les Line

Type: Author | From: Audubon Magazine


i think jays carry food out

i think jays carry food out into the woods for other birds and critters to eat. they place seeds of whole or cracked corn or black oil sunflowers in the trees in a woods right outside my kitchen window. i see other birds feed on those seeds. doves, juncos, turkeys,even grey and red squirrels. they are the hawlers and feeders here in Clare, new york

When I was a child I observed

When I was a child I observed a blue jay take a chick right out of the nest as it's mother cried. It made quite an impression on me. I thought it was both cool and wickedly cruel and have always looked at jay's in that manor. I came here from searching for 'Blue Jay Hate' as I have been seeing them at my feeder recently. I was curious to know why there is such animosity towards them. Nature is cruel, life in general is cruel, so it goes. I enjoyed this article and I think I will start to admire the jays more, perhaps even more since I am a Blacksburg resident as my wife gets her PHD.


Yes, the lovely jays that start their boresome, repetitive non-stop screeching every day at 5:00am outside my bedroom window. This goes on for hours,...yes, they taunt the cat in the neighbor's house they can see through the window. This is not an exaggeration, there are 4 jays that make their call one after the other in quick succession. It's an unreal commotion and you can hear it from a block away. The only sound they make is the shrillest, loudest piercing JAAAYYY JAYYYYY over and over, no other. They take a short break for lunch, and then resume throughout the day, and again just before sunset. The cat of course no longer even leaves its house for fear of being dive bombed.

Funny, that no other bird has ever acted that way. Not even the territorial mockingbird that no one seems to mind and sings from 2am-5am. Although it's call does wake me up a bit, its song is at least pretty and is much easier to fall back asleep during.

Say what you will, the question of why the blue jay have few friends is not really such a ponderous question.

Blue Jays are exciting!

I enjoy seeing Blue Jays in my yard. I have so much trouble with starlings that a blue jay is a much welcomed site.

Blue Jays mix with all Birds in my feeder

Over the years I have bought expensive bird feeders, and the cost of wasted food was very expensive. So this year I built my own feeder to bring all birds to gather for a 3 Tray Gourmet feast.
Pictures of my feeder were forward to ( Mr,Zach Slavin Monday). First tray has Nut's and fruit, second tray has mixed small seed for small birds, third tray has Black Oil sunflower seed. and three bird baths with water. Now I'm proud to say I have over 100 birds feeding and more waiting in the tree's
all variety of Missouri Birds. and for the first time I have six Blue Birds, Feeder and house's on my shed. all birds eat together and get along. including 17 too 24 doves.
Back to blue Jays My wife and I love them as we put peanuts in the shall in the fir'st tray and they come in like airplanes and take off exciting to watch. Their is one large jaw and he is the boss.also they all get along with other birds feeding.
the problem i have now is starlings taking over about 150 of them. in order to stop I put all black oil sunflower seed in all trays they will not eat them. I wished I could take pictures of all the bird feeding my camera will not let me get close. Hope you enjoyed my enlightenment about feeding birds

Bluejays are beautiful birds

Bluejays are beautiful birds and for many years I have feeding birds and never had a preamble with them with other birds or otherwise. However I have seen mocking birds be aggressive with the jays and with my family of bluebirds, but never the bluejays.

the blue jay

Loved the piece. The blue jay is indeed a beautiful, compelling bird.

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