The Blue jay (Cyanocitta cristata) is inarguably one of North America’s most famous birds, so famous in fact they have a Canadian baseball team named after them, called the Toronto Blue Jays.
From the small Cyanocitta genus of the Corvidae family, which contains crows, ravens, jackdaws and magpies, the Blue Jay is a quirky and intelligent bird that has been observed intently for some 250 years. Like all corvids, Blue jays are also flexible and adaptable birds, so what do Blue Jays eat?
Blue jays are omnivores, consuming roughly 75% plant and vegetable matter. They have strong bills, which are capable of cracking nuts and crushing hard seeds - Acorns are one of their favourite foods. As well as seeds and nuts, they tend to eat airborne insects including cicadas and dragonflies.
One study found that Blue jays consume around 22% insects, the remaining 78% being vegetable matter.
In terms of arthropods and insects, Blue jays have a particular fondness for cicadas, dragonflies and other airborne insects and are skilled at catching them on the wing (in flight). In the winter, Blue jays have been observed putting more effort into foraging insects, likely because they become more scarce.
Overall, though, Blue jays are skilled and resourceful feeders, which has helped establish them as one of the more common large songbirds in North America.
Read on to learn more about the diet and foraging behaviours of this beautiful and quirky blue bird!
Blue jay eating an Acorn - one of their favorites!
Blue jays are omnivores, consuming both arthropods and plant or vegetable matter. They do lean towards plant matter which makes up some 75% of their diet by common estimates.
One study of 530 Blue jays found that stomach contents contained some 22% arthropods including flies, cicadas, crickets, spiders, larvae of various kinds, beetles and worms. Blue jays love grasshoppers, cicadas and crickets that make up 20% of their diet in some summer months. Blue jays are flexible omnivores and are capable of scavenging carrion and catching prey, particularly flying insects.
Whilst Blue jays do have a reputation for attacking and eating other birds and their nestlings (as is the case with many corvids), nestling meat and bird eggs was only found in a very small percentage of birds.
The main plant food consumed by Blue jays is the acorn and during acorn harvest periods, the vast majority of Blue jays consume a steady supply of acorns.
A Blue jay perched on a fence in the backyard, feeding on insects
In the winter, insect populations typically drop as they head into hibernation (or die), meaning the Blue jays and many other birds have to either forage harder for insects or resort to a more plant-heavy diet.
Blue jays forage acorns, seeds, berries and nuts in the winter and also go out of their way to locate larvae of various kinds, as well as molluscs, worms, ground beetles and caterpillar eggs. These high-protein foods are ideal for the colder months. Blue jays also consume more carrion and human leftovers in the winter and will frequent garden bird feeders and bird tables.
One interesting Blue jay behaviour is caching. Blue jays cache many thousands of nuts and seeds throughout their lifetime, including beechnuts, hazelnuts, hickory nuts and of course, acorns.
The process of caching essentially means saving food for later, likely for the winter where Blue jays need only find and open their cache rather than hunt for new food. These caches are often spread through a radius of a few miles or so.
Caching helps sow seeds, mainly because cache sites often lie outside of the forest. This helps forests expand outwards.
Blue jay foraging on the ground, during the winter
Similarly to the winter, Blue jays in the fall put more effort into foraging the insects that can provide them with a protein kick before the winter ahead. By foraging from the forest floor, Blue jays find all manner of worms, beetles and larvae of various kinds. They’ll still forage lots of plant foods, too, including acorns, seeds, nuts and berries.
Blue jays are not complicated feeders and enjoy most common garden bird food, including seeds, cracked corn and suet. They love whole peanuts, which are similar to the acorns they consume in the wild. Sunflower seeds are another bird feeder staple that is readily consumed by Blue jays.
One thing to note here is that Blue jays are usually too large and heavy to feed from bird feeders and would likely prefer to feed on open bird tables.
Blue Jay eating a peanut on a wooden stump
Baby Blue jays consume the same diet as their parents, though they are likely fed some of the softer foodstuffs available like larvae and insects rather than hard acorns and nuts. The male typically feeds the young.
Blue jays are not fussy when it comes to typical garden bird food, so any seeds, suet and nuts are perfect for them. Peanuts are their favourite, though, especially shelled peanuts which they take delight in crushing in their beaks.
Blue jays will consume the following common bird foods:
Sunflower seeds are great to attract Blue jays to your feeders
There’s no real evidence to suggest that Blue jays eat snakes. In fact, if anything, snakes pose a risk to Blue jays and may prey upon their nestlings and fledglings.
Blue jays are certainly able to kill and eat other small birds, particularly the nestlings of small songbirds.
This behaviour is certainly not exclusive to Blue jays - many other corvids, including crows and magpies, also do this, and many other species of birds besides those.
However, despite the reputation which comes with such a behaviour, evidence suggests that nest predation is rare and acts more as a ‘last resort’ when food supplies are at their lowest. Studies have found that the stomachs of only a tiny minority of Blue jays contain meat from nestlings or other birds (<0.5%).
Close up of a Blue jay feeding
Blue jays are good aerial hunters that are capable of catching fast-moving, large flying insects like dragonflies. They also forage insects and arthropods from the forest floor, hopping amongst the vegetation and leaf mould. Blue jays are flexible hunters and skilled foragers, hence why they rarely go without food.
Blue jays aren’t huge fans of bread, but they will eat it if they need to or want to. The issue with bread is that it’s nutritionally poor, meaning that birds who fill themselves up on bread likely aren’t getting the nutrients they need to live a healthy life.
Bread placed on garden bird tables goes mouldy quickly - the infection can spread to birds and other wildlife if the bird table isn’t cleaned periodically.
As such, feeding birds bread should be kept to a minimum or avoided completely. An exception might be wholemeal or seeded bread which are much healthier than plain white bread.
Blue jay in flight
In a word, no. Blue jays do eat primarily vegetable and plant matter, but there are many more foods on offer that are healthier (and tastier!) than grass.
Blue jays are not great fruit eaters, much preferring seeds, nuts and insects. There is still some observational evidence to suggest that Blue jays will eat apples if provided on a garden bird feeder.
Generally speaking, Acorns make up the mainstay of a Blue jay’s diet in the summer months, where acorns are at their most abundant.
Some studies found that over 80% of Blue jays in some regions were eating acorns regularly. With their large, strong beaks, Blue jays are often observed cracking acorns and swallowing the pieces which they often cache for later.
This process of caching also helps spread trees and other plants, as some caches are scattered miles from the Blue jay’s typical territory. Some will inevitably be forgotten, the seeds then germinating into plants and trees.
A pair of Blue jays enjoying some acorns
Blue jays regularly consume worms, larvae, caterpillars and similar creatures from the forest floor. In the winter, Blue jays have been observed putting particular effort into foraging worms, likely because they provide a high-fat, high-protein meal.
There’s little evidence of Blue jays eating hummingbirds, but if a Blue jay did come across a hummingbird nest, it would certainly be capable of eating any eggs or nestlings it finds. This scenario would be rare.
Blue jays drink water from small pools or concave leaves. They actually consume quite a lot of water, unlike many birds.
Blue jay drinking water from a bird bath
Despite being steadfast and headstrong birds, Blue jays are still vulnerable to predators such as hawks, owls and falcons. Nestlings and fledglings are vulnerable to many more predators, including raccoons, squirrels, snakes, American crows and other corvids, cats, opossums and birds of varying kinds.
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