Blue jays, scrub jays, and Stellar jays are beautiful, intelligent, bold, and noisy, and they can wreck havoc in your garden.
Thieves in the coop
I have a love-hate relationship with jays. I admire their intellect and their beauty. However, in the last two weeks, I have lost four purchased fertile eggs ($30!) plus three regular eggs to local scrub jays. They also go into my coop every day and gorge themselves on the organic laying pellets I put out for my hens. If you have young chicks, jays will easily kill them, whether they can carry them off or not. Jays will also pull baby birds from nests and nest boxes.
Jays are medium-sized blue passerines (perching birds) with a heavy beak. They use that beak to crack nuts, snail and egg shells, and to pierce fruit. Jays are members of the Corvidae family, which includes crows, ravens, and magpies. Baby jays are born grey, with a red comb, just like chickens. After about a week, the chick loses the comb and begins to turn blue. Most scrub jays live for 9 years, but the oldest known scrub jay, raised in captivity, lived for nearly 20 years!
Most people are familiar with the crested bright blue of a Blue jay (Cyanocitta cristata). These are generally only found east of the Rocky Mountains. In the area on either side of the Rockies, you may see Pinyon jays. Pinyon jays (Gymnorhinus cyanocephalus) are in serious decline, mostly due to habitat loss. On the west side of the country, we have scrub (or California) jays. Scrub jays have a white throat, a gray back, and are crestless. There are three recognized species of scrub jay (with several subspecies, within each group):
Jay’s are very intelligent birds, like their crow cousins. They can find their way through mazes, into grain storage bags, and under fruit tree nets. Studies have shown that jays can retain and use information about the rate of food decay in over 200 caches. They also tend to collect shiny items. Jays have strong family connections that span multiple generations. Previous years’ offspring sometimes stick around to help care for the current year’s chicks, and extended family members come together to mourn the death of a relative. Scrub jays can be tamed to the point of feeding out of your hand, but their droppings are, shall we say, impressive.
Jay bird damage
If you have fruit or nut trees, you have already battled jays. These orchard pests will peck a large chunk out of several different pieces of fruit, rather than eating one at a time. This damaged fruit rots more quickly and it leaves the trees vulnerable to other infestations and infections. In the U.K., there are several very nice tree netting systems, but I have not found anything nearly as effective here in the U.S. (If you know of a supplier, please let us know in the Comments!) Jays can wipe out your berry, corn, pea, and grape crops. They can also carry West Nile virus and avian pox.
Jay bird controls
According to D. Whisson and M. Freeman, of UC Davis, “Jays are classified as migratory non-game birds according to federal regulations. They can only be controlled under a permit from the USFWS. Shooting is a possible control measure but is very labor intensive. Frightening devices are relatively ineffective. Trapping with rat traps using nuts as bait can be effective for a small number of birds.” Of course, in the Bay Area, shooting is not an option. You can avoid using bird seed mixes that attract jays and squirrels in bird feeders. My dogs like to chase the scrub jays away, but it is a very temporary fix.
Probably the most humane scrub jay control is to provide a distracting food source that fulfills their needs enough to reduce the potential for garden damage.
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!