Blue Jay

Cyanocitta cristata

  • Version: 2.0 — Published December 4, 2013
  • Kimberly G. Smith, Keith A. Tarvin, and Glen E. Woolfenden

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Figure 1. Distribution of the Blue Jay.
Blue Jay, TN, 7 January.

Perhaps one of the most recognizable birds in North America, the Blue Jay is a familiar bird of the East and North. Ages and sexes are similar after the juvenile plumage is mostly replaced during the first fall, and only in-hand examination can reveal specific age classes. The following is a link to this photographer's website:

No doubt the Blue Jay was one of the first North American birds to become well known to Europeans. In the sixteenth century, John White made a watercolor illustration of this bird (Feduccia 1989), and Linnaeus (Linnaeus 1758a) used the text and illustration of the “Blew Jay” (see Feduccia 1989) by Catesby (Catesby 1731) when he wrote what became the official description of the species. Behavior was ably if colorfully described by Alexander Wilson (Wilson and Bonaparte 1831: 134): the Blue Jay “is distinguished as a kind of beau among feathered tenants of our woods, by the brilliancy of his dress; and like most other coxcombs, makes himself still more conspicuous by his loquacity, and the oddness of his tones and gestures.”

Although often disliked because it is sometimes aggressive toward other birds, this small corvid offers excitement and fascination to those who observe it closely. Blue Jays quickly learn to take food provided by humans, and annually many are trapped and banded. As a result, many short reports exist that are based on brief observations in the field (e.g., anting, food items, parasite surveys, predation, migration) or on captives (e.g., longevity, food preferences, growth and development). More in-depth papers describing mast-harvesting and use (e.g., Darley-Hill and Johnson 1981, Johnson and Adkisson 1985, Johnson and Adkisson 1986, Scarlett and Smith 1991, Dixon et al. 1997b, Johnson et al. 1997f); self-maintenance (Weisbrod 1971); laboratory experiments on optimal foraging, search image, and prey detection (e.g., Pietrewicz and Kamil 1979, Kamil et al. 1993, Bond and Kamil 1998, Kono et al. 1998, many others); nest success (Tarvin and Smith 1995); and analyses of Christmas Bird Count and band return data (e.g., Bock and Lepthien 1976b, Smith 1978e, Smith 1986b, Smith 1986d, Smith 1986c) also exist. Although a few papers on social organization have been published (e.g., Hardy 1961b, Racine and Thompson 1983, Tarvin and Woolfenden 1997), only rarely have long-term data sets of marked birds in both breeding and nonbreeding seasons been used. Presumably, this is because it is extremely difficult to capture, mark, and observe a high percentage of Blue Jays at one locality. Consequently, our understanding of the breeding biology, demography, and sociality of Blue Jays remains poor.

Much of the information in this account comes from unpublished theses and dissertations and from Woolfenden and Travin's work with Blue Jays in south-central Florida and Smith's work in northwestern Arkansas. For more than a decade Woolfenden and Tarvin studied Blue Jays at Archbold Biological Station. They used baited traps to capture, band, and census the jays, but established no ad libitum feeding stations. Local jays, known by their color bands, only infrequently were attracted to their stations from distances greater than 1 km, and they detected no evidence of migration. They were thus able to observe many individual jays during all months of the year in areas in which nearly every individual was marked.

From the sketchy accounts in the published literature, numerous unpublished theses, and observations at Archbold, Woolfenden and Tarvin postulated several aspects of the social system of the Blue Jay. The main elements include the following: (1) the basic social unit is a monogamous pair, which remains in the same limited area throughout the year; (2) pairs do not defend territories in any classical sense, but defend the nest site from individuals that come too close; (3) they do not breed cooperatively, but conduct group social displays and mob predators and intruders, perhaps as members of a loosely organized neighborhood flock.

Recommended Citation

Smith, K. G., K. A. Tarvin, and G. E. Woolfenden (2013). Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (A. F. Poole, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.