With their distinctive electric blue wing feathers and ear-piercing screeching call, Eurasian jays are an instantly recognisable presence in the woodland canopies they inhabit. For those familiar with Latin, the Eurasian jay’s scientific name, Garrulus glandarius, gives a major hint to what tree nut forms a significant part of its diet. So let's get into it, what do jays eat?
Although jays are omnivorous, their preferred food is acorns, which they collect in autumn and bury in caches that they then dig up and eat in winter. If acorns are unavailable, they look for other nuts and seeds to eat, but also feed on grubs, small rodents, frogs, and other birds and their eggs.
With the Latin name meaning ‘chattering and noisy’ (Garrulus) and ‘of acorns’ (glandarius), jays are highly resourceful birds. They adapt their dietary preferences depending on what is most plentiful and appear to possess an unrivalled sense of foresight for future planning.
Acorns are one of Jays most favoured foods
Jays can often be spotted hopping about on the woodland floor in search of fresh acorns, which they carry off to stash under leaf litter, in tree crevices and in holes in the ground made with their beaks.
One of the UK’s most intelligent birds, they possess an enviable sense of recall as to where they have hidden their prized booty, which can amount to thousands of acorns each year.
When their favourite acorns are in short supply, jays become somewhat undiscerning and opportunistic scavengers, and will forage for insects, larvae, caterpillars, other invertebrates and carrion. They are also known to prey on small mammals, and when the opportunity arises, they eat small birds and take fledglings and eggs from other birds’ nests.
Read on to find out more about the fascinating dietary habits of these ultra-intelligent corvids.
In autumn, jays busily forage for acorns underneath oak trees, collecting as many as they can, with some birds travelling for several miles to visit a tree with a bumper crop. They use their beaks to crack open the shells and eat what they need before burying the rest, at various different ‘cache’ sites.
During winter months, when fresh acorn sources have started to decline, they revisit their stashes and rely on these as their main source of food through the winter and into the spring.
In summer months, they eat a mixed diet that includes berries and seeds, caterpillars, and worms. Jays are skilled mimics and can imitate birds of prey, a cunning ploy they use to scare off other hunters and catch their prey for themselves. They can be particularly ruthless predators when they target young birds in their nests.
A Eurasian Jay looking for nuts to store in a cache
Jays feed throughout the day and can be seen scouring the woodland floor for acorns from early morning until the light fades. In autumn they are particularly busy and active foragers, feeding constantly as they orchestrate their highly organised hoarding missions.
When winter arrives, jays begin to rely on the thousands of acorns that they were busy burying earlier in the autumn. Research estimates that each winter, more than 3,000 acorns are hidden for future meals. They rely on impressive powers of recall to retrieve their caches from where they hid them and this source of food lasts them through the coldest months of the year.
Other nuts and seeds that jays may stash in this way include beechnuts and sweet chestnuts. Sometimes, inevitably, some of the hoarded acorns remain undiscovered and germinate into seedlings.
Jay eating nuts in the winter snow
In summer, with acorns in shorter supply and their winter stashes exhausted, jays need to seek alternative sources of food. At this time of year, jays may rely more on mealworms, beetles, caterpillars and other invertebrates for food. They may take small birds or eggs from nests, as well as feeding on small rodents, frogs and bats. Roadkill and carrion also form part of a jay’s natural diet.
Baby jays are fed foods high in protein, including larvae, mealworms and crickets, by their parents. In summer months, eggs and chicks taken from other birds’ nests may also be used as high-protein food sources for juvenile jays.
Young Eurasian Jay feeding in garden
Jays visiting garden feeders will eat any nuts or seeds that are left out for them, for example sunflower seeds, monkey nuts or peanuts. They will also eat suet.
Jays are highly active birds and can be seen foraging for food from early morning until evening. If they discover a plentiful source of food, they tend to eat as much as they need to before carrying off what’s left and stashing it for a future feast.
Eurasian Jay in flight
In the past, it was far less common to see jays searching for food in urban back gardens. However, with a decline in oak trees and the knock-on effect of a shorter supplies of acorns, jays have had to diversify and look for alternative food sources, including any nuts, seeds or mealworms left out in garden feeders and on bird tables.
Providing these foods in your garden, together with a birdbath topped up with fresh water, will help attract these colourful geniuses to your backyard. It can help to leave larger food scraps on the ground as a visual ‘signpost’ that there is food available.
Highly elusive birds, jays are most likely to visit gardens of homes near to their natural woodland habitats, with cover of trees nearby, as they prefer not to be out in the open for long periods.
Jays are frequently seen hopping around on the ground in search of food. They feed both on the ground and in trees, but it’s not unusual to see them on bird feeders or on off-ground feeding stations if they discover a source of their favourite foods there.
It’s not uncommon to see pairs of jays feeding together on the ground, or even in groups of three, particularly in winter or spring.
A Jay collecting peanuts
Jays eat a variety of seeds and berries that they forage for, including blackberries, rowan berries, sunflower seeds and seeds from various conifers and deciduous trees.
Jays drink only water. They will be able to get some of this from food, but also rely on drinking water from puddles, ponds and bird baths in gardens.
Jay drinking water
Jays are able to feed from garden feeders, as well as from bird tables and feeding platforms. They are also skilled at knocking hanging feeders to the ground and emptying their contents for easier access.
Although acorns and other nuts are a jay’s preferred source of food, they do also feed on small birds, including nestlings and fledglings, and also eat birds’ eggs, particularly in the spring and summer.
Jays are fond of any nuts, and are known to carry off whole monkey nuts in their beaks, choosing to bury these for a future meal. They are able to crack the shells open with no problem at all.
Peanuts are a popular source of human-provided food for jays, and a welcome alternative when acorns are scarce. Jays will eat peanuts from garden bird feeders or feeding stations.
Eurasian Jay at a bird feeder, feeding on sunflower seeds
Jays do eat mealworms, as well as other larvae, grubs and insects. It is more common for mealworms to form part of a jay’s summer diet than in winter.
Similar to other corvids, jays will eat snails and slugs, although these do not form a major or preferred part of their diet.
Small rodents, including mice and voles, do form part of a jay’s wider diet. While they primarily feed on nuts, jays are resourceful hunters and will prey on small mammals when the opportunity arises.
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