A flash of blue and a flurry of noisy activity around your garden feeder in the depth of winter is a stunning sight, bound to brighten up even the most miserable of dreary days.
Flocks of blue jays gather together to forage when temperatures start to drop, and can be seen hopping around in backyards, parks, and on forest floors across the eastern United States in search of food they have cunningly cached.
To find out more about where to find blue jays in winter and how these striking birds survive in subzero temperatures, please do keep reading.
Close up of a Blue Jay perched on a snowy branch in winter
Blue jays have a particularly interesting and unpredictable relationship with migration and the reality is, there is no pattern to where they head to, when they leave, or why they are prompted to set off.
Some blue jays migrate, some don’t. Some may fly south one year, but remain in their home territory the following winter. Migrating flocks of several hundred blue jays may be seen departing from a region one year, while the next they may stay in place to forage locally.
A true ornithological mystery!
Some research indicates that younger blue jays are more likely to migrate, with older, more established individual birds seeing out the winter months on the same territory they breed in.
Blue jays are resident all year round in all U.S. states located east of the Great Plains, and in the southernmost regions of 10 Canadian provinces, particularly in the eastern part of the country. Some populations in the extreme north of this range may migrate in some years, flying south along the Atlantic Coast.
Blue jays are found as far south as Florida, and their range extends along the Gulf Coast into central Texas.
Southern populations may be temporarily swelled by visiting birds from the northern extremes, and occasionally larger-scale ‘winter invasions’ are recorded in western states too.
Analysis of banded blue jays from three northeastern states showed that 11 percent of birds from these regions traveled to southeastern states during winter, while 89 percent remained in their breeding territories.
Blue jays seek out evergreen trees with thick foliage, offering warmth and protection when they are roosting overnight in winter. Although some do migrate, many remain in their home territory throughout the colder months, and rely on caches of food that they had the foresight to bury earlier in the fall.
Three Blue Jays foraging for food in the snow
Once the breeding season is over, blue jays turn their attention to planning for winter survival. Mated pairs join larger loose flocks, and forage together, visiting bird feeders and backyard platforms for peanuts, berries, and seeds.
Early in the fall, blue jays engage in caching of food stores to revisit when food supplies start to dwindle. These stores, most commonly acorns and beech nuts, are hidden beneath leaves or loosely covered in earth, and are scattered around different locations within their home territory.
Blue jays roost overnight in particularly dense patches of evergreen foliage, as these provide maximum protection when temperatures plunge. They fluff their feathers to insulate their bodies, creating a layer of warm air that becomes trapped, thereby raising their body temperature. They also preen regularly, using oil secreted by their uropygial gland at the top of their tail to coat their feathers, for extra insulation.
Temperatures in the extreme north of a blue jay’s range, in parts of northern Canada and the United States, can drop significantly and can be particularly hard for wildlife to withstand, particularly smaller birds with low body weight.
While blue jays adapt fairly well to plunging temperatures by roosting in dense foliage and fluffing their feathers, some conditions prove too harsh for their survival. One research study in the Upper Midwest, which witnessed temperatures dropping as low as -30°C (-22°F), recorded that around 50 percent of blue jays did not survive the winter.
After a cold night, a common sight is a blue jay with wings spread and beaks open wide, soaking up the sun’s rays to warm their bodies.
In winter, Blue Jays utilise their caches of food like acorns and beech nuts, which they prepared and stored in the fall
During winter months, insects and nectar are in shorter supply than during spring and summer, so blue jays need to adapt their diet to match what is naturally available. They may be more frequently seen foraging near backyard feeders for scraps and leftovers, and are not fussy eaters, taking whatever they come across including roadkill and carrion.
Blue jays spend a large amount of time caching food during the fall, and are particularly active in oak forests where they scour the floor for fallen acorns to hide for a future meal.
Caching takes the form of ‘scatter hoarding’, where acorns are buried under leaf litter at numerous different locations throughout their usual home territory. Blue jays have been observed to carry acorns and nuts to sites up to 4 km (2.5 mi) from where they found them in order to hide them.
Cache sites are remembered and revisited when naturally available food sources run low, but frequently these acorn stashes are left unretrieved, and end up growing into oak trees. Other foods stored by blue jays for winter sustenance include beechnuts, hazelnuts, and hickory nuts.
Blue Jay perched on the branch of a snow covered pine tree
Many backyard feeding stations include bird baths that are kept topped up with fresh water. Some may even have heated bird baths that remain ice-free even when outside temperatures plunge below freezing.
In winter months many backyard feeders witness a noticeable influx of blue jays, arriving to take advantage of offerings of peanuts, sunflower seeds, and leftover scraps. While they may visit feeders at any time of the year, the decline in insects and larvae as the weather worsens means that backyards quickly become a go-to choice for hungry blue jays in search of a quick and effortless energy fix.
Blue Jays are frequent visitors to backyard feeders during the winter
Blue jays are common visitors to bird feeders in winter months, so keeping your feeding platform well stocked with peanuts and even collecting beech nuts or hazelnuts is a surefire way to increase your chances of your yard being brightened by sudden flashes of azure wings.
During winter months, blue jays gather in large flocks to forage for food in woodlands, so head for plantations of oak, beech and hickory and look to the floor, where groups of blue jays may be sifting through leaf litter for any dropped nuts or acorns.
Remaining active in winter is a key survival strategy for blue jays, and their constant foraging and lively presence at backyard feeders, as well as en-masse food-sourcing parties on the forest floor gives them the energy stores needed to survive the colder weather.
Blue jays form loose winter feeding flocks, and spend days foraging for food and retrieving acorns and other nuts from cache sites they buried them at earlier in the year. They also become more frequently seen at backyard feeding platforms during colder weather.
Many remain in their home territory all year round, although some small populations located in the extreme north of their range are migratory, traveling south to regions with more plentiful food supplies and milder climates.
Winter nights are spent roosting, with spots deep in evergreen foliage a favorite due to the double protection they offer – from predators and from extreme weather conditions. Feather-fluffing is a common way to maximize body heat when temperatures drop rapidly overnight.
A flock of Blue Jays in the winter
After breeding, blue jays undergo a full molt, replacing every feather in their plumage over the course of around a month. The new plumage that grows in during this annual process is identical in color and markings to the one that is replaced, meaning that a blue jay in winter is indistinguishable from a blue jay in spring.
Blue jays spend the breeding season in bonded pairs. However, once the final hatchlings have been raised and gained independence, the pairs will join up with other nearby blue jays to form a winter foraging flock.
Advantages of searching for food as part of a larger flock include safety in numbers from predators, and the benefit of covering more ground when scouring the woodland floor for a potential source of insects, nuts or seeds.
The nesting period for blue jays falls in spring and summer, typically occurring between March and July. No blue jays successfully nest – or even attempt to – in the winter months, due to the unsuitable temperatures for keeping young chicks warm, unpredictable weather conditions, and lack of insects on which hatchlings are fed.
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