Blue jays (Cyanocitta cristata) are perhaps one of the most recognizable birds in North America. Its baby blue feathers trimmed in black and white, plus the iconic tuft on top of the head, make this bird impossible to mistake. Even in areas where they seldom or never occur, people are familiar with this distinctive member of the corvid family.
The blue jay is common throughout the eastern and central United States and southern Canada. They have also been slowly extending their range to the Northwest. Several factors contribute to the blue jays’ expansion. The growth of forested urban areas throughout the Great Plains and the popularity of backyard bird feeders are two of the most substantial benefits to the jay.
These jays are incredibly adaptable as long as a few habitat necessities are met. Read on to discover what those necessities are, where blue jays live, and how the birds have successfully expanded their range.
Blue Jays can be found towards the edges of forests and woodlands
The blue jay's habitat is primarily deciduous or mixed forests (containing coniferous and deciduous trees). They prefer woodland edges over dense interiors. These birds are also common in towns and suburban areas.
In the southern part of their range, the birds are found in scrubby forests where the trees and brush are low. Because they prefer woodlands, the blue jay's western expansion is likely due to the creation of shelterbelts and wooded suburban areas throughout the plains regions.
Blue jays prefer areas where oaks and other mast-producing trees (i.e. beech) are prevalent. Mast crops, including acorns and beechnuts, make up a large portion of the blue jay's diet.
A blue jay in the forest during the autumn
Blue jays are prevalent throughout the eastern and central United States. The birds have also expanded their range to the northwest. Although not common in these states, blue jays are found in Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Washington, and Oregon.
The blue jay’s northwestern expansion can largely be attributed to the growth of residential areas throughout the Great Plains of North America. As houses were built, trees were also planted to offer protection from strong winds and snow. These small “forests” offer nesting opportunities and food sources for the blue jay, providing them with a gateway west.
Blue jays are most common throughout the eastern and mid-western United States and the southern regions of Canada’s provinces. The highest concentrations of jays are in the northwest and the southeastern United States. In these regions, the birds are frequent year-round visitors to residential areas, particularly those with birdfeeders.
Blue jay perched on a tree branch during the spring
Blue Jays are not generally found in California. Although, since the birds have made their way into the Pacific Northwest, rare winter migrants have been recorded in northwest California.
Blue jays are only irregularly migratory, meaning populations do not fly south every year. Those that nest east of the Great Plains and in the Canadian provinces are typically year-round residents. These birds are well-adapted to survive long, cold winters. To escape particularly harsh winter weather and cold temperatures, the birds will seek shelter in dense evergreen vegetation.
Blue jays in the southeast - Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, and south through Florida - rarely, if ever, leave their territories. In fact, populations in this region may become denser in winter with jays from the north moving slightly farther south.
Northeastern and midwestern blue jay populations are often reluctant to leave their territories and will not do so every year. However, when mast crops in the north have low yields, jays in these regions will migrate south, where food is more readily available in the colder months.
There are also records of western migrants overwintering in areas of British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Utah, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, and West Texas. The birds are not native to these states. These are regions where the blue jay has expanded its territory.
For more information on Blue Jays in the winter, check out this guide.
A blue jay on a snow covered branch, pictured in Canada
Blue jays find somewhere safe and well-protected to sleep at night. The birds will often roost in dense evergreen vegetation during winter. In warmer months, these jays will overnight in thick shrubs or amongst deciduous foliage that offers decent cover, particularly overhead.
A paid of blue jays
Blue jays are not considered a migratory species, although some do migrate. These birds are generally well-equipped to overwinter even in the northernmost regions of their breeding grounds. Thus, many blue jays stay in the same area year-round, particularly those in the southeastern United States.
There is no particular pattern to how blue jays decide to migrate. An individual may fly south one fall, but not the next. Migrations are likely based on available resources.
Since these birds depend on mast crops for the majority of their food sources, they likely migrate the years that yield particularly low crops of acorns and beechnuts. If the birds are not able to cache enough food for winter, they will fly south to an area where food is more widely available.
If you live in the Northeast or Midwest, the blue jays you see at your feeders in spring are not necessarily the same ones visiting in winter. Your spring and summer jays may migrate slightly farther south and be replaced by jays from regions farther north or northwest.
Blue jay eating seeds from a bird feeder
Blue jays do live in Florida. They are common year-round residents throughout the entire state. The warm winter climates mean jays in this region do not have to concern themselves with migration.
Blue jays do not generally live in California. The birds are not native to this state. Reports of them visiting are rare and often confined to northern California.
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