Dec 20, 2017 | Featured in: Watching Backyard Birds, December 2017

Jays: At the Table and in the Trees

Most easterners recognize the blue jay, and those who feed birds enjoy their antics at the feeders. In the West, Steller's jays can dominate feeders. But there are seven other species of jay in North America—all of which are colorful and fun to watch.

When it comes to passerine panache, North America's eleven jay species take the cake. Among the most adaptable and intelligent birds, these members of the crow family provide year-round color in backyards across the continent. The secret to their success is simple: Jays, equipped with intelligence and strong, multiuse bills, can ferret out foodstuffs virtually anywhere. They hammer open nuts and seeds, but can just as easily grab a grasshopper or snatch a small nestling.

With a few exceptions (the gray jay, the brown jay, and the green jay), North America's jays are, at least in good part, blue. In all cases, the sexes are identical.

Jays also engage in colorful behavior. These birds have varied vocalizations, using different calls for different occasions, and some, such as blue and Steller's jays, are notorious for their keen imitations of hawks. Sociable birds, jays often mob owls and hawks, as well as cats and squirrels that threaten their nests. Many a birder, hunter, or hiker has been scolded by gangs of jays. However, if not molested, backyard jays can be approachable, sometimes taking handouts from the hand itself. At the feeder, jays accept a wide range of foods, including suet, peanuts, sunflower seed, meat scraps, breads, and cracked corn.

Opportunistic Hoarders

Branded as robbers of nests and killers of young birds, jays are more opportunists than predators. While blue jays do, when possible, rob eggs and sometimes young from other birds' nests, their diet consists mostly of vegetable matter, such as acorns and beechnuts. These feathered opportunists also know the importance of saving something for a rainy, or snowy, day. Many jays have a habit of stashing food for times of shortage. The gray jay is a prime example. This fluffy gray bird with a black hind neck, breeds in late winter in some of the most ferociously cold and snow-covered areas on the continent. It stores food in dozens of tree bark crannies in summer and retrieves the larder in the dead of winter. Blue, scrub, pinyon, and Mexican jays often bury acorns and nuts in the ground. Like squirrels, they do not retrieve all of these hidden treasures, and many nuts sprout as seedlings that help regenerate forests.

While most jays do not migrate, some blue jays opt to some years, but not others. The mechanics of their migration are still poorly understood. Despite seasonal movements and the shuffling of individual birds in some areas, blue jays are found through most of their range throughout the year.

To Easterners, the blue jay is one of the best-known backyard birds.

To Easterners, the blue jay is one of the best-known backyard birds. The strident Jay! Jay! call of this flashy blue, white, and black bird is one of the first wild bird vocalizations many people learn, but the bird's scientific name, Cyanocitta cristata (meaning "blue chattering bird"), hints at its other sounds. These include rattles, a call like the squeak of a rusty hinge, and a bell-like toolool. Blue jays, equally at home in deciduous and mixed forests or tree-lined city parks, spend much time in the tree canopy, traveling in small family groups after nesting, in pairs or small courting groups during breeding season, and in larger flocks in fall, when acorn crops reach their peak. Around the feeder, blue jays often swoop in suddenly, scattering other feeding birds. This sudden approach is sometimes accompanied by a loud rendition of a red-shouldered or red-tailed hawk's call.

Western jays

Westerners are getting to know the blue jay better, as its range creeps northwestward. It is now seen regularly in Idaho and Alberta, and is turning up even farther west. But the most widespread and familiar western jays are the Steller's jay, a bird of coniferous forests; and in brushy areas, two species of scrub-jays that, until 2016, were considered the same species: The California scrub-jay is found along the Pacific coast, while Woodhouse's scrub-jay is a resident of the desert Southwest. Like blue jays, western jays can be found in wild places, but also in towns and suburbs—wherever there is adequate cover and the promise of wild and offered foods.

Steller's jay is common at western bird feeders.

The Steller's jay resembles the blue jay in shape, with its prominent crest, but unlike its blue and white cousin, the Steller's is a study in dark: blackish on head, breast, and back, and dark blue on wings, belly, and tail. Often seen high in conifers, this jay's grating shaack call is a familiar sound in redwood and pine forests. The plucky western scrubjays are similar in appearance, bright blue, but with a gray back, blackish cheeks, graywhite underparts, a white throat, and a thin eye stripe. The California scrub-jay has brighter, more contrasting colors than Woodhouse's. Unlike the treetop-loving Steller's jay, both western scrub-jays species hop around in dense, low cover, often dropping to the ground.

Florida scrub-jay

The Florida scrub-jay, a bird of Florida's diminished scrub oak forests, has a whitish forehead, but otherwise resembles its western cousins.

The pinyon jay overlaps much of the Woodhouse's scrub-jay's range, but these birds can be easily distinguished: pinyons are all blue, except for their whitish striped throats. Their proportions also differ: The pinyon's long bill and shortish tail make it look more like a small blue crow than its longer-tailed relative. Pinyon jays often travel in large flocks that range across pinyon-juniper woodlands in search of heavy crops of pinyon pine seeds.

Gray jay.

The northerly gray jay, one of the boldest of the bold, lives high in the spruce forests of the Rockies and northwest ranges as well as across Canada and into Alaska. Gray jays are famed for their camp-raiding antics and are surprisingly approachable. While other jays eat carrion, gray jays especially prize roadkill and coyote and wolf kills during winter months. This bird has been nominated to become Canada's national bird, but as yet has not been so designated.

Four More Species

The Mexican jay visits bird feeders at higher elevations in the Southwest.

There are a few other jays with limited ranges in the U.S. In the mountains and canyons of west Texas, eastern Arizona, and western New Mexico, flocks of Mexican jays roam the oak forests. Somewhat similar in appearance to the scrub-jays, Mexican jays lack the white eyebrow and throat of scrub-jays, and have blue backs. The green jay is a spectacle South Texas backyard birders can easily enjoy. The brown jay, North America's largest jay, is also the continent's dullest in color. It turns up along the Rio Grande River. The island scrub-jay is similar to the California scrub-jay, but is found only on Santa Cruz Island, off the coast of Southern California.

The green jay, found in southern Texas, is North America's most colorful jay.

By and large, jays are doing well at a time when many other bird species are in decline. Whether your backyard is on a mountaintop, in a desert wash, or in a townhouse community, chances are good that jays regularly swoop by, providing splashes of color and character regardless of the weather.

About Howard Youth and Dawn Hewitt

Howard Youth is a freelance natural history writer and Bird Watcher's Digest field editor. He is the author of two BWD backyard booklets: Enjoying Cardinals More and Enjoying Squirrels More (or Less!)

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