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- Zone-Tailed Hawk Guide (Buteo albonotatus) - October 30, 2022
Who doesn’t love beautiful shades of blue gliding through the air and landing in trees and on fence posts? Better yet, a geometric pattern of black, white, and blue soaring by to rest on the window sill? That would be a Blue Jay.
See a flash of orange or red with that blue? It could be a Bluebird!
Few things are as time-honored as bird watching. Watching their wings take flight as they swoop in circles around bird feeders and birdbaths, frolicking in the water, and pecking at the ground, there is no better place to be.
Which Bird is the Blue Jay, and Which is the Bluebird?
Man has yearned to fly from the beginning of time. Birds represent that desire being actualized. Alit at a whim, scurrying from roof to roof or scouting for a new nesting area, birds represent our longing for self-determination.
And blue may be the most popular color of all. It belongs to the sky and to the sea – the contrast of high and low, earthly character or elysian fields. Is it any wonder that birds of a blue hue have cornered our interest?
Spoiler Alert Below!
The Blue Jay and the Bluebird have long been mistaken for each other and share more similarities than just the color in their name. They are both songbirds with a strong call, and both have similar shades of blue feathers. They also both have a long and wide shape to their wings. It is common for people to call them by the other’s name.
- The primary difference is that the Blue Jay has a large crest on top of its head. The second differentiator is the rusty red chest on the Bluebird compared to the white breast of the Blue Jay. Can you tell the difference in the picture now?
The answer is…the Bluebird is the picture above left, and the Blue Jay is above right!!
Note that it seems as if its head and neck are square due to the Blue Jay’s head crest. It appears that the Bluebird’s head is more rounded and soft. If you took away the crest on the Blue Jay, the Blue Jay’s head would also be rounded.
Bluebirds and Blue Jays may share the word “blue,” but they are two different types of birds.
My grandmother was constantly eschewing the flaws of the Blue Jay and would shoo them away from her many birdfeeders. I couldn’t understand why she loved birds but disliked the Blue Jay.
She explained that they were aggressive and mean birds that drove all the other birds away. They were annoying with their loud calls, she said. It wasn’t until years later that I wrapped my head around exactly what she meant.
The Bottom Line
Quick Ways to Tell the Bluebird From the Blue Jay
- The behavior of a Bluebird is that of a conservative follower, perching low to scan for ground insects.
- Bluebirds are smaller Thrush-like songbirds at 6 to 8 inches long.
- A Bluebird’s tail is short and narrow.
- The lifespan of a Bluebird is 6 to 10 years.
- The Bluebird’s call is a warbling, moderately high-pitched sound of short clucks and longer lyrical flute-like tones.
- Blue Jays are large songbirds measuring 10 to 12 inches.
- A Blue Jay’s tail is long and wide.
- The lifespan of a Blue Jay is 6 to 8 years (the oldest recorded was 27 years old).
- The Blue Jay whispers, clicks, chucks, whirrs, and whines and is decisively loud.
- The Blue Jay can also sing for more than two minutes at a time and mimic a hawk’s screech, a cat, and a cell phone ring!
- The Blue Jay’s behavior mimics ground patrol. They are usually aggressive in their nature, almost as if they have a “fight or fight” syndrome rather than the “flight or fight” response.
- The Blue Jay is overprotective of its territory, nest, hatchlings, and food supply. (More on the Blue Jay’s bad reputation below)
That wraps up the most obvious differences between Blue Jays and Bluebirds. For a more in-depth explanation of their differences, try reading this article in Expedition Wildlife.
Sitting in a lawn chair reading a magazine under the trees is not complete without my resident Bluebirds flitting to and from the upper branches.
Spring bloom makes itself known as the male’s bright blue back and hearty reddish chest provide dappled color through my trees’ green leaves and brown limbs.
Hopping about and nesting in their house, it is tranquility at its best to lay my head back and watch them through my nearly closed eyes.
Hearing the Bluebird’s moderately high clucking sounds and flute-like, more extended notes is like bits of heaven floating through the air. They start high and spiral down to the end of the call.
- Bluebirds love parks, fields, gardens, and anywhere there is a bit of open land with trees. The Bluebird is the only “blue” bird to have an official name of “Bluebird.” The Bluebird, Robin, and Wood Thrush all belong to the bird family of Thrush.
- Having a thinner beak than Blue Jays and more petite feet, and a shorter tail, these lightweight birds concern themselves with scouring the ground for insects and berries and then hurriedly going back to their perch to spot more meals.
There are three species of Bluebirds that call North America their home. Eastern Bluebirds, Western Bluebirds, and Mountain Bluebirds. The Mountain Bluebird, found in the Rockies mountains, is the only one of the three that doesn’t have an orange-rust breast.
Are Bluebirds Clean?
An interesting fact about the Bluebird is that when their hatchlings excrete a fecal sac of waste, the parents will pick it out of the nest and fly away to dispose of it. Removing waste keeps the nest fresh and odor-free so predators can not smell them.
Keeping their nest clean is one way to extend the longevity of their abode, as Bluebirds can lay up to 3 “broods” every year! Each brood consists of 3-7 eggs, and the short incubation period is only 13 to 15 days long!
Bluebirds will also return to their home for safety from the cold and snowy winters, so be sure to leave nesting boxes and birdhouses up all year. Their nest will have grass, pine needles, small twigs, and straw as the main building blocks.
Preferring moderate tree cover with plenty of open ground, Bluebirds will shy away from densely wooded areas as it impedes their sight for food on the ground.
- Parks, grassy plains and fields, and scattered Oak trees are the preferred habitats of the Bluebird. Seeming to stop mid-air and suction up their meals from the ground, the Bluebird uses its wings to hover over land, barely touching it with its beak as they pick up insects.
I love to sit out and watch several Bluebirds fly from their perches to skim the earth and then fly back to their perch with a meal in their mouth! Very entertaining to see!
- Bluebirds migrate south for the winter and start as early as August! Talk about planning ahead!
- Grouping themselves in large random flocks, they slowly make their way to the more temperate regions of North America, and then, come March, they will begin to venture North again.
Attracting Bluebirds to Your Yard
Enjoying these small, luxuriously blue creatures in your yard is soothing and fascinating. Watching them scope out their insects and berries from the ground or short bushes and then take flight back to their perch or nest brings a colorful burst of nature to even the gloomiest of days.
Attracting these creatures is easy, as Bluebirds are adept at maneuvering a plain birdhouse with just a hole and no perching ledges.
Wood is much better than manufactured material for the birdhouse. The natural texture and softness allow scoring the inside so the baby birds can climb up to the hole.
Cedar and redwood or high-quality exterior plywood are the best options. For more details on creating a Bluebird habitat, read the article at Expedition Wildlife.
Ensure the wood is at least ¾” thick, so heat doesn’t build up and harm the eggs. Unpainted birdhouses are best as they look more natural and will appeal to birds. If you do paint it, stick with light colors. Dark or “deep” colors attract heat, damage eggs, and provide an oppressive environment for the birds.
Being of a simple nature allows for an easy DIY project to build a Bluebird birdhouse!
Bluebirds also prefer moving water, so adding a small solar-powered floating fountain to a birdbath is a sure way to attract many birds!
Especially in the winter when finding unfrozen water is difficult. Having moving water is also a calming feature that will add to your outdoor relaxation. There is nothing more relaxing in my backyard than listening to the sound of bubbling water (well, adding birds to that makes it super heavenly!)
Using mealworms is fantastic for Bluebirds. They love live mealworms but also eat dried mealworms.
Ensure that the Bluebirds feeding and nest areas are resistant to cats. Whereas Blue Jays will dive-bomb animals and even humans, the Bluebird is very timid and susceptible to attacks. Check out the feeder protectors here.
Bullet Points for Attracting Bluebirds
- Cedar and Redwood plain square birdhouses appeal to Bluebirds
- A plentiful supply of Mealworms
- Moving water in a birdbath
- Baffle-protected feeders
Fun Facts About Bluebirds
- More than 45% of the Western Bluebird’s nests have eggs that are not fathered by the attending male!
- Eastern and Mountain Bluebirds prefer to mate for life (or at least several seasons).
- Mountain Bluebirds can nest in elevations up to 12,000 feet above sea level, but many move to lower woods and deserts in the winter.
- Eastern bluebirds are particular about the homes they raise their young in. They like snug boxes with a 4-inch-square base and a 1¾-inch-diameter entry hole.
- All Bluebirds love live mealworms! A full fountain birdbath and live mealworms will ensure that you have Bluebirds in your yard! (Dried mealworms are also acceptable to Bluebirds and much more convenient.)
- Bluebirds are the state bird of New York.
- Bluebirds eat insects when the insects are mostly in the larva stage, which is excellent for farmlands!
- Bluebirds do not desert their babies if they have contact with humans!
Are Blue Jays Mean?
Consider this. At a bird feeder, a Blue Jay is feeding, and then a Grackle comes along and harasses it, forcing the Blue Jay to leave and find food elsewhere.
This happens every day. Substitute “Woodpecker” or “Squirrel” for the word “Grackle,” and the story will end the same.
Another tale is that of the Blue Jay and its eggs being hunted every day by hawks, falcons, eagles, owls and other raptors, possum, cats, snakes, and humans (a 27-year-old Blue Jay was killed by fishing gear)! Even Morning Doves will drive Blue Jays away until they don’t return.
Blue Jays are by nature extremely territorial, protective, and loud. Kind of like an un-favorite uncle who peers out the window hoping to catch a glimpse of trespassers crossing his yard. Supervising everything you eat and frequently yelling about it.
Or an over-protective new mother whose baby is sleeping. You know the one (I was one, too). Every time anyone makes a noise louder than a whisper, they are scolded.
Every time you step foot away from your seat, you are patrolled to determine how close to the baby’s room you are going and how quietly you are going to get there.
And these actions are consistently maintained with apparently boundless energy. That is the fate of the Blue Jay. Can they be annoying? You bet. Are there reasons? You bet.
Do they chase away smaller birds that are not bothering anyone? Yes, they do, but not just for fun, as you read above. For me, that makes it much easier to tolerate them knowing why they do what they do.
Blue Jays are Intelligent Beings
Do birds have birdbrains? To some extent, they do, but relative to birds, the Blue Jay is from the most intelligent family. Blue Jays can count up to five. Unbelievable, you say? Read Jennifer Ackerman’s NYT bestselling book, “The Genius of Birds, “which sports a Blue Jay on its cover.
Birds in the Corvidae family, such as the Blue Jay, have a high brain-to-body mass. So do Great Apes, who are known for their intelligence. Blue Jays learned to imitate the hawk sounds to warn others of nearby predators. However, they have also learned that making that hawkish noise will also leave a bird feeder empty for them!
The tale of the cowbird putting its eggs into Blue Jay’s nests is no tale but reality.
Most instances result in the Blue Jay cracking open the Cowbird egg and eating it.
Blue Jays are also fond of peanuts and acorns (Blue Jays can find ripe acorns from non-ripe ones with 88% accuracy, and scientists credit the spread of Oak trees after the last glacier to the Blue Jays). Read more about that here!
Habitat and Nesting of the Blue Jay
- Blue Jays live in all types of forests but prefer to be at the edge of the woods, especially if there are many Oak trees (for acorns).
- You will also find them in cities and suburbia, congregating where there are Oaks or birdfeeders.
- Blue Jays migrate both North and South, but the percentage of Blue Jays that do migrate is only 20%.
- You can identify the Blue Jay nest by its round, cup shape made of twigs (some taken from live trees), grass, and young roots for which they rob newly dug holes.
- Both male and female Blue Jays gather material for the nest, but the female does most of the nest construction like most birds.
- These Blue Jay nests of sticks, moss, bark, paper, string and other debris are found six to twenty feet high in trees.
- The eggs are blue and brown with brown spots and are tiny, being about one inch by 4/5 of an inch. The female will lay from two to seven eggs at a time, and the “brooding” period is about 18 days until they hatch. During this time, the male brings back most of the food.
- The new babies are born helpless with no feathers and with their eyes shut and remain with their parents for up to two months.
Watching the birds from my window one spring morning, I noticed a male Blue Jay tugging and bending a small limb on the tree in my backyard, yanking it with jerky motions in all different directions until it finally gave way. He flew off with a 6-inch-long live twig in his mouth!
Diet of the Blue Jay
- A Blue Jay’s diet consists mainly (80%) of acorns, nuts, fruits, berries, and grains from the ground, shrubs, and trees. The rest (20%) is insects. For Blue Jays that cannot find enough food, there is evidence for 1% of them eating small vertebrae or dead birds and eggs.
- A Blue Jay’s feet will hold the food item while they pick it apart or crack open the seed, and often they will store excess food in a cache to return to later.
- Blue Jays are avid gatherers, and they can carry up to five acorns at once back to their nest!
- They have a pouch in their upper esophagus in which they can carry three acorns, having another one in their mouth. The last acorn is at the tip of their beak!
- They will store these five acorns in the cache near the nest for later feeding, often burying them (thus the spread of Oak trees.) Interestingly, Blue Jays can detect which acorns are healthy and ripe and which ones are infected. Scientists found one Blue Jay to have stored 4,000 acorns one season when they tracked the birds with radio transmitters!
Blue Jay Communication and Social Network
- The intelligence of the Blue Jay allows them to communicate in complex ways and have a strong sense of social connections and solid family bonds.
- Being vocal in diverse calls and using body language to communicate, Blue Jays are efficient at imitating other birds’ calls and have been known to mimic human language!
- The crest of the Blue Jay is utilized frequently when displaying their aggression level and is held down in a relaxed position when they are nesting, brooding, feeding their young, or when they are with their mate, family, or flock members.
- Their aggression level is high if their crest is up, and the higher the crest, the more defensive they are.
How to Attract Blue Jays to your Yard
One of the most common ways to attract Blue Jays to your yard is to put out peanuts, acorns, and corn into your feeder.
The hard beak of Blue Jays easily cracks open peanut shells and acorns! Having Oak, Hickory, or Beech trees is a benefit, as is bland, unseasoned birdfeed.
A ground littered with leaves or having piles of compost will also appeal to Blue Jays as they love hiding their excess food. If you have a rather large open yard, be careful of the Blue Jay’s caches of food in leaf piles or undercover on the ground – you may end up with a tree or two growing from the acorns!
Pole or ground-mounted birdfeeders provide these large and heavy birds a steady foundation that Blue Jays can stay on and feed. Nothing more unfortunate (but comic) than a Blue Jay trying to keep its balance on a swaying birdfeeder!
There is no need for birdhouses because the Blue Jay doesn’t use manufactured homes; instead, it builds one or two nests in the crooks of old and steady trees.
Providing a platform (at least 8 inches on each side) among the branches will also attract them. Have a supply of grass clippings and twigs for them to build a nest and they will feel pampered!
Blue Jays like their space and are cautious by nature, so always put your birdfeeder near a large tree or shrubbery – away from commonly trafficked areas. If humans are consistently nearby, the Blue Jay will reticent to eat at that birdfeeder.
Read in-depth explanations of attracting Blue Jays to your yard in the article at World Birds.
Bullet Points for Attracting Blue Jays
- Have corn, acorns, and peanuts away from humans
- Large leaf piles in yard corners
- Place large platforms in old trees
- Supply of twigs and grass
Answer: Though Blue Jays may push out other birds from the feeder or scream loudly at nothing in particular, there are things that a Blue Jay likes to avoid.
Predators such as Owls and Hawks will scare the Blue Jay away, as will larger snakes. Having a fake owl or hawk on a fencepost or mounted pole, and a few artificial snakes in the grass should ward off Blue Jays.
Another option is to get some wind chimes. Having simple windchimes that are reflective, such as silver or shiny colors, will scare the Blue Jay. The sounds from the windchimes also confuse the Blue Jay and will be perceived as a threat, leading to the Blue Jay’s retreat.
Answer: Bluebirds and Blue Jays are two different birds belonging to different families. The Bluebird belongs to the Thrush Family while the Blue Jay belongs to the Corvidae Family (includes Magpies and Crows).
The biggest visual difference is the raised crown on a Blue Jay’s head which make the head shape appear “block-like”.
Answer: Besides Blue Jays, the Bluebird is blue and is most commonly mistaken for a Blue Jay but it doesn’t have the Blue Jay’s head crest and the Bluebird has a rust-colored breast.
Other birds that are blue include Warblers, Buntings, Kingfishers, Swallows, Grosbeak, Purple Martins, and Herons are some of the most known North American birds that are blue.
There are many exotic South American and Asian birds that are blue, also. Macaws, Parrots, Pheasants, Peacocks, and Cockatiels are a few which are not native to North America.
Answer: The Indigo Bunting is an all-blue, brightly-hued bird that is quite common in Missouri. They are similar to Grosbeaks and have black streaks on their wings. The Great Blue Heron is another bird of North America that is all blue. The Heron has a misty, darker blue color than the Bunting.
The Mockingbird, Gnatcatcher, Thrush, Swallows, and Scrub-Jay are all blue as well.
Birdwatching is an overlooked hobby and is greatly underestimated for its relaxation and meditative effects. It’s such a part of life to have birds flying around, pecking at the ground, and perching in inconvenient spots that it becomes easy to take them for granted.
I love to birdwatch because it’s a readily available activity in all seasons, it forces me to stop and be present “in the moment,” it’s free, and it’s wildly compelling! Nature is thrusting herself toward us, providing enchanting opportunities to learn and just be.
Choosing a spot in your front yard for the more assertive Blue Jay and a space in your backyard for the more friendly, timid Bluebird is perfect for a difficult co-habiting situation! Places where each can call home and feel both protected and protective at the same time ensure you can enjoy the best of both birds.
I like a bird with personality – a bird that not’s afraid to be itself, regardless of what the other birds may or may not think!
That leaves me with having chosen the Blue Jay over the Bluebird if I had to pick (which thankfully I don’t). The Blue Jay is all out there, not subtle or timid, and has learned to put its self-preservation first, like a welded-on life-jacket.
The Blue Jay is not shy when singing a cappella and can sing for minutes at a time. When I am outside, I want to hear the birds, and the louder, the better to drown out daily life with their cacophony of social sounds.
I probably like the Blue Jay more because it reminds me so much of myself, and we tend to be drawn to similar things (we can identify with that thing or that person.)
If you hear the Blue Jays before you see them in your yard, drag over a chair and watch these intelligent birds as they scope out their surroundings and exert their authority. Sometimes I get my earplugs, but it’s always worth the effort.
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