- Minnesota Breeding Bird Distribution
- Breeding Habitat
- Population Abundance
- Literature Cited
A regular breeding resident, migrant, and permanent resident throughout Minnesota. Some individuals migrate, and some remain as year-round residents; individual birds may change their migratory status from year to year. The Blue Jay was a very abundant species during the Minnesota Breeding Bird Atlas (MNBBA).
Broadly distributed across central and eastern North America, the Blue Jay is found in southern Canada, from eastern British Columbia east to Newfoundland, and in the United States, from the northern Great Plains, south to Texas, and east to the Atlantic coast. High breeding densities can be found in portions of the Great Lakes states, including Minnesota. The highest breeding densities, however, are found along the southern Gulf coast (Figure 1).
Assigned a Continental Concern Score of 8/20 by Partners in Flight.
Resident or short-distance migrant; less than 20% of the population is believed to be migratory.
Despite its reputation as a robber of young birds and eggs, it feeds primarily on arthropods and nuts; eggs and young birds are occasionally taken. The Blue Jay is a ground gleaner and hawker.
Open-cup nest in a deciduous or coniferous tree.
The Blue Jay has long been considered a common, year-round resident in Minnesota. Roberts, in his comprehensive account of the species in 1932, includes a quote from Jonathan Carver, who was exploring the region in 1766 and 1767 and remarked, “Upon the whole this bird can scarcely be exceeded in beauty by any of the winged inhabitants of this or other climates.”
Regarding the species’ status in Minnesota, Roberts made two specific comments. First, he noted that the Blue Jay was a breeding species throughout the state but was less abundant in extensively forested landscapes. Instead, it was more common in “settled” areas, where it could easily take advantage of waste grains and cultivated fruits. Second, he included a list of 20 banding reports that provided evidence that many Blue Jays were year-round, permanent residents in the state. “If there is a winter southward movement, it is limited to only a portion of the birds.” At the time, he had compiled confirmed nesting records (nests with eggs) from 7 counties stretching across southern, central, and northwestern Minnesota: Crow Wing, Hennepin, Isanti, Meeker, Polk, Sherburne, and Stearns. An inferred nesting report (nest only) was reported from Goodhue County.
In their updated account of the species’ status, Green and Janssen (1975) remarked that the species was less numerous in the northern regions. Although it was considered to be both a permanent resident and a regular migrant, it was not entirely clear if the birds present at a given site in the winter were the same birds that summered there, or were instead migrants. Janssen (1987) referenced recent studies that suggested that young birds in the population migrated but also remarked that in more northern regions both the adults and the young moved south each winter.
One objective of a three-year study of Blue Jays at the Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve in Anoka and Isanti Counties in the early 1980s was to address the very question of migration (Hilton and Vesall 1980). Unfortunately, after three years of field work, which included color-banding nearly 1,000 jays, the population crashed, and the work was terminated. A brief, unpublished summary of the findings noted that Cedar Creek supported year-round breeding residents as well as migrants that bred on the site. The residents bred earlier then the “apparent” migrants, and their reproductive success was higher. Most of the 276 nestlings that were banded either dispersed or perished; very few overwintered on the site (Hilton 2016).
Despite numerous studies, the true nature of the Blue Jay’s migratory behavior remains as elusive today as it was in Roberts’s time. Smith and her colleagues (2013) summarized what is undisputed: (1) some individuals are present year-round throughout their range, (2) the proportion of the population that migrates is likely 20% or less, and (3) age does not appear to be a factor in determining which birds migrate. Indeed, studies have shown that some individuals migrated for the first time more than five years after they were banded (Stewart 1982; Hickey and Brittingham 1991). Other studies have suggested that the tendency for northern birds to migrate has subsided in response to the availability of food supplied by bird feeders (Smith et al. 2013). Although this may be influencing local populations in more residential areas, the number of Blue Jays observed migrating south at the Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory in Duluth, Minnesota, certainly indicates that a significant number of northern birds move south each winter. From 2007 through 2016, the number of migrant Blue Jays has ranged from a low of 15,077 birds (2008) to a high of 66,647 (2015); the 10-year average approximates 36,000 per year (Karl Bardon, pers. com).
As the work on Blue Jay migration unfolded, Minnesota field observers continued to document the species’ breeding distribution and status. Janssen’s 1987 account included a statewide distribution map that delineated 37 counties where nesting had been confirmed since 1970. Unlike Green and Janssen (1975), he makes no mention of the species’ lower abundance in northern Minnesota. By 1998, nesting had been confirmed in 10 additional counties, most located in southern and central Minnesota (Hertzel and Janssen 1998). Field work conducted by the Minnesota Biological Survey (MBS) beginning in the late 1980s further documented the Blue Jay’s statewide distribution. Among the 2,493 breeding season locations the MBS identified were several hundred records in the Arrowhead counties of Cook, Lake, and St. Louis (Minnesota Department of Natural Resources 2016).
During the MNBBA, observers reported a total of 6,321 Blue Jay records in 64.2% (3,067/4,778) of the surveyed atlas blocks and in 81.3% (1,900/2,337) of the priority blocks. Breeding evidence was documented in 422 blocks (Figures 2 and 3; Table 1). The birds were observed in all 87 Minnesota counties and were confirmed nesting in 69 counties. A total of 28 of the counties where breeding was confirmed were additions to the list published by Hertzel and Janssen in 1998. Blue Jays were present in nearly every priority block in the Laurentian Mixed Forest and Eastern Broadleaf Forest Provinces. Although they were common also throughout western Minnesota, they were more sparsely distributed in the Red River valley of the Prairie Parkland Province.
MNBBA data were combined with data on climate, habitat availability, and landscape context to develop a predictive model of the species’ relative abundance across Minnesota (Figure 4). Present in moderate numbers statewide, the Blue Jay is predicted to be just a little less abundant in west-central Minnesota. Scattered areas of higher abundance occur throughout the forested regions of the state but are limited in extent.
If there has been any significant change in the species’ abundance in the past century, it may be that it is now more widely distributed and present in moderate densities throughout the northern forest region. A similar increase in the number of Blue Jays in the northern forested regions was observed in Wisconsin. Uncommon in the pine forests of northern Wisconsin in the early 1900s, the state’s first breeding bird atlas (1995-2000) confirmed the species’ presence in 94.6% of all atlas quads (Cutright et al. 2006). In Michigan, however, the species has been described as an abundant species statewide since the early 1900s (Chartier et al. 2013).
Although few changes have been observed in the core of the species’ breeding range, Blue Jays began expanding west in Canada in the 1940s. Nearly 80 years later, populations continue to expand their range north and west in British Columbia (Dohms et al. 2015). The United States also witnessed an increasing number of reports from many western states, especially in the 1970s, including in Montana, New Mexico, Oregon, and Wyoming (Smith et al. 2013). Several factors have spurred the westward expansion, including urbanization, the prevalence of bird feeders, and dispersal from neighboring states and provinces (Smith et al. 2013).
*Note that the definition of confirmed nesting of a species is different for Breeding Bird Atlas projects, including the definition used by the Minnesota Breeding Bird Atlas, compared with a more restrictive definition used by the Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union. For details see the Data Methods Section.