Blue Jays in Montana—A Wake Up Call

By Kathy Ross

The piercing call of the Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata) fills the crisp winter morning landscape, startling every creature around. If you were not awake before, you will be now.

I grew up in the Midwest, and Blue Jays were a constant part of life. After many years of living in the western states with Steller’s Jays and Gray Jays, I was shocked one morning, while working on the east shore of Flathead Lake, by a familiar call. There it was, a distinctive noisy voice from the past. Not the most pleasant call, mind you, but it did take me right back to my Missouri childhood. Blue Jays in Montana, really! That was 25 years ago, and Blue Jays have become a regular in northwestern Montana, especially in urban environments. Just as other members of the Corvid family, they seem to feel comfortably at home here, visiting feeders, eating our pets’ food, and cleaning up any food items we humans leave behind.
I am asked about the presence of Blue Jays in Montana more than any other bird. Others seem as shocked as I was 25 years ago to discover that they have become a fairly common bird year-round. Records indicate that Blue Jays may have been occasional visitors in small numbers as far back as the 1970’s.             Here are some interesting facts about our handsomely marked blue, gray, white and black feathered Jays. The striking blue color, which is actually brown melanin, is caused by scattering light through modified cells on the surface of the feather barbs. The variable black markings on the face may help Blue Jays recognize each other. Their perky crest goes up when the Jay is squawking or alarmed. When the Jay is with family members or in a peaceful situation, the crest is lowered. Blue Jays, as other Corvids (Crows and Ravens), are known for their intelligence and complex social systems with tight knit family bonds. Often, but not always, they mate for life, with each partner sharing in nest building and feeding the young. In the eastern part of their range, Blue Jays cache acorns, thus aiding in the dispersal of oak seeds. They seem to recognize healthy acorns from those infested with weevils. Blue Jays have been credited with assisting in the rapid northward spread of oak trees following the last glacial period.

Blue Jays are omnivores and very adaptable when it comes to eating. Research reveals that, in their natural environment, about a quarter of their diet is composed of insects. Most of their diet is made of nuts, seeds and grains. A small percentage of the diet is composed of other invertebrates and small vertebrates – even carrion. Blue Jays store food in caches to eat later. They have been known to eat birds’ eggs and nestlings, and have gotten a bad reputation for this behavior. However, research indicates this seems to make up a very small part of their diet.

They have a huge range of vocalizations mimicking hawks and falcons, perhaps to alert their kind to danger, but also for scaring other species from their territory and away from food sources. The latter definitely seems true at my feeders. I have watched this Jay strategy several times, and it works beautifully in their favor.

Blue Jays are one of the few Jays that migrate, and theirs is a sporadic, inconsistent migration. Perhaps they are aware of something we are not. One year they may move south, sometimes in large flocks, while the next year they may never migrate from their home range.
At my feeders over the last 10 years, I have observed Blue Jays much more often in my forested environment than Steller’s Jays, which originally were everyday visitors. For a few years, Steller’s Jays seemed to share the space comfortably with Blue Jays. This year especially, Blue Jays dominate my landscape, and Steller’s Jays have only occasionally strayed into my yard. It will be interesting to watch the numbers in the coming years to see how, or if, the balance changes. Interesting to watch for also will be possible hybrids produced by interbreeding between the two species of Jays. So are Blue Jays filling a niche, or just being good opportunists, or is their expanding range another indicator of a changing climate? We may never know for sure, but Blue Jays are a part of our Northwest Montana world for the present time. Enjoy their beautiful plumage, inquisitive nature, and get used to that piercing wake-up call!

Cornell Lab of Ornithology–All About Birds
Avian Web, Beauty of Birds (Photograph)