Dealing with smart and spirited Blue Jay, for better or worse

A Blue Jay calls in a backyard in Spring Hill, Florida. Photo by S. Hunter Spenceley
Blue Jay in Spring Hill, Florida, by S. Hunter Spenceley.

I love Blue Jays. They combine beauty, brains, and spirit in a sleek three-ounce package topped with a perky little crest. People who’ve watched robins steadfastly care for nestlings and then seen a jay grab them one by one, usually don’t share my feelings.

See reader photos of Blue Jay.

Blue Jays are more standoffish than our three scrub-jays and Gray Jay. Those species require more meat, which they often steal from large mammals. Depending on how complicit we are, we call the food they take from us “handouts” or “plunder.”

All jays raid nests, but unlike most birds, Blue Jays do so primarily to feed an incubating mate or growing young, rather than for their own meals. Other birds don’t seem to mind Blue Jays except when one directly approaches their nest. When a Blue Jay flies to a feeder, other birds may vanish, but as soon as they realize it’s just a jay and not a more predacious species, they quickly return.

Blue Jays eat mostly plant material, such as acorns and other mast, fruits, and seeds. They manage just fine without us, but when we offer sunflower, peanuts, or suet, or provide a birdbath, they may become regular visitors.

Knowing what makes a feeder jay friendly is useful, whether our aim is to attract them or not. Many squirrel-proof tube feeders are enclosed in a wide-mesh cage to exclude squirrels and large birds, including jays. Dangling feeders often sway and lurch when a jay alights; the birds much prefer the solid footing of a platform feeder or a suet feeder attached to a tree trunk.

Some hopper feeders with weight-activated perches, designed to shut when squirrels or large birds alight, can be calibrated to close above or below a Blue Jay’s weight, depending on whether you want them or not.

In fall, migratory flocks use my platform feeder as a banquet table, feeding side by side. My local resident jays more often use my feeders as a grocery store, stuffing food into their throat pouch to hide in caches or eat in privacy later.

One year, two tame squirrels accepted peanuts from my hand. A pair of Blue Jays took notice and started stealing the peanuts after the squirrels hid them. Soon the jays were skipping the middleman. One would take the peanuts from my hand, but the other was too skittish. I had to set the peanuts down and stand back for that one to approach.

In fall and winter, I whistle whenever I put peanuts in the window feeder by my desk. A pair of jays flies in and carries them off. Some mornings, the birds are already waiting. When they spot me, they make a jolly squawk as I crank open the window. Knowing that these spunky, intelligent birds recognize me gives my whole day a glow.

 

This article from Laura Erickson’s column “Attracting Birds” appeared in the January/February 2016 issue of BirdWatching magazine.

Read a species profile of Blue Jay by Laura Erickson.

Julie Craves describes why Blue Jays imitate hawks.

Photo gallery: Seven beautiful jays.

 

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Laura Erickson

Laura Erickson

Laura Erickson is the 2014 recipient of the American Birding Association’s highest honor, the Roger Tory Peterson Award. She has written many books about birds and hosts the long-running radio program and podcast “For the Birds.” Her column  “Attracting Birds,” about attracting, feeding, sheltering, and understanding the birds in your backyard, appears in every issue of BirdWatching. “Snow Bird,” her first article in the magazine, appeared in December 2003. It described the migration and winter habits of the American Robin.

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