Gardening for Birds: Planting for Blue Jays


Photo by Jack Bulmer on Unsplash

Author: Julianne Labreche, Master Gardeners of Ottawa-Carleton; published with permission

The blue jay is notably recognizable by its shrieking, sharp calls and its beautiful blue, white, grey and black plumage. Considered to be an intelligent bird, it has a complex social system and tight family bonds.

Where you can find Blue Jays

These birds are drawn to forested areas as well as suburban and urban spaces where nut trees, small fruit trees and berry bushes are grown and where there are insects, which constitute about 22 percent of the blue jay’s diet. They visit many backyard gardens, including my own.

Across North America, blue jay populations are decreasing. According to the North American Breeding Bird Survey, their numbers fell by about 28 percent between 1966 and 2015. Other North American birds are in decline too, including many songbird species. Gardeners can make a difference.

Blue jays are members of the crow family and are very good at mimicking sounds. As such, they can be a very vocal bird, which is not to everyone’s liking. Others find them fascinating, drawn to their intelligence and beauty. In our area, blue jays tend to remain year-round. In other regions, they may migrate south in the winter months.

Feeders for Blue Jays

Blue jays prefer tray or hopper feeders to hanging feeders, eating sunflower seeds, peanuts and suet. They can appear to consume copious amounts. In fact, they have a distensible esophagus that enables them to carry multiple seeds or acorns at any one time. Blue jays do not consume all they take from a feeder but cache food in trees for future use. They appreciate large trees that provide shelter, crevices to cache food and places to rear their young and to roost.

Trees that Attract Blue Jays

To attract blue jays to your garden, consider growing these native trees:

American beech (Fagus grandifolia) – This large tree is native to the eastern parts of the United States and parts of Canada, including our region. At maturity, it can reach 18 to 24 m. The tree has large oval-sized leaves. It requires clay, loam, sand, coarse or organic soil that is well-drained, and full sun or partial shade. Many birds and mammals eat beechnuts, including the blue jay.

Shagbark hickory (Carya ovata) – This is a tough, rugged tree with interesting, shaggy bark and sweet tasting nuts, which are enjoyed by people and wildlife alike. The tree is native to the eastern United States and to southeastern Canada, including our region. It is a large tree that can reach 31 m tall. It prefers full sun but will tolerate some shade and grows in a variety of soil types. Shagbark hickory has a large taproot, which makes transplanting difficult. It is an important tree for wildlife, both birds and mammals.

Oaks (Quercus spp) – Native oaks are large, deciduous trees. Their abundant acorns provide food for variety of wildlife they attract and support. Oak leaves and branches also attract many species of insects that are needed by birds, especially to feed their young. Oak trees generally prefer full sun, well-drained soil and will grow in different soil conditions. In Ottawa, the bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa) and the white oak (Quercus alba) are often grown. Native oaks are considered keystone plants in our region, important in preserving biodiversity because of the variety of wildlife they attract.

How Blue Jays Use Dead Trees

Not only do birds require living trees; they utilize dead trees too. Standing dead trees are called ‘snags’. Birds use the holes and cavities in them as nesting sites. Insects feed on the decaying wood and birds feed on the insects. If it does not pose a safety risk, try leaving a dead tree standing, or at least part of it. Blue jays, chickadees, woodpeckers, hummingbirds and many other bird species will benefit. Logs can also be left on the ground, providing natural garden edging, and sometimes growing interesting lichens and mushrooms. When snags decay they provide nutrients for the soil.

Listen to the Call of the Blue Jay

Listen to the call of the blue jay. Click here:

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