Jay: British bird guide


I am particularly interested in garden wildlife which is why I did my Master's degree with a focus on "animal ecology". I am convinced that beneficial insects and wildlife are a sustainable and effective alternative to many of the products we use on our plants. I am also a passionate birdwatcher and rarely go for a walk without my binoculars.

Favourite fruit: kiwi, apple and redcurrant
Favourite vegetables: tomatoes and green beans

Our native jay is a beautiful, colourful bird with many quirks. Here’s everything you should know about the jay.

A jay perched on a branch
The jay has striking blue wings [Photo: Piotr Krzeslak/ Shutterstock.com]

Unbeknownst to many, the jay (Garrulus glandarius) is a spreader of acorns. Each year, a single jay will hide up to 5000 acorns in a forest, stockpiling for the colder, winter months. Despite the jay’s astonishingly good memory however, many of these acorns will never be found again. And it is this carelessness that helps promote oak growth. The jay is also renowned for alerting both other jays and nearby forest animals to danger with its piercing call.

Jay: key facts

SizeAbout 35cm
WeightAbout 170g
Breeding seasonApril-June
LifespanApproximately 15 years
HabitatForests, parks, cemeteries and large gardens
Food preferencesAcorns, berries, mice, eggs, insects, seeds
ThreatsDecline in habitat and birds of prey

How to recognise the jay

The jay is unlike any other garden bird – both in size and plumage – and it is rather beautiful. Predominantly a grey-brown red, jays have black-spotted crowns and strong beaks that are unusual for a member of the crow family. On either side of a jay’s beak is a thick, black band that stretches to the throat, and its dark wings are highlighted with white, and partially striped blue and black. They are remarkably distinctive. In flight, you may also notice the jay’s snow-white lower back, that contrasts with its black tail-feathers.

A jay holds an acorn in its beak
Jays and their acorns are inseparable [Photo: Voodison328/ Shutterstock.com]

What does a jay’s song sound like?

Despite its unusually colourful plumage, the jay cannot hide its relationship to the crow. If you are near a jay, you will surely notice its call, which sounds like a loud, turning ratchet. It functions as a warning cry if the jay is in danger. Almost all crows are like this, giving rise to the Latin name, “Garrulus“, meaning “talkative”. A pretty, melodic song is not on the cards for the jay.

A jay perched on a branch
A jay’s call penetrates loudly throughout the forest

How to recognise a young jay

Young jays look very similar to their parents. Their plumage has the same reddish-brown colour, their tails are dark, and with distinctive, electric blue stripes on the wings, you will be hard-pressed to mistake a baby jay for any other species.

A young jay
The young jays are similar in appearance to their parents [Photo: Anton Kozyrev/ Shutterstock.com]

How to recognise a jay egg

Given a jay’s size, it is no surprise that their eggs are larger than the average songbird’s. Measuring about 31 x 23 millimetres in size, jays lay their eggs in a nest of branches lined with moss. A single brood consists of four to seven eggs, coloured somewhere between blue and green, and sandy in complexion. Often, the eggs will also have brown speckles.

New born jays and unhatched eggs in nest
Jay eggs are larger than the average songbird egg [Photo: Vishnevskiy Vasily/ Shutterstock.com]

How to tell the difference between male and female jays

Unfortunately, it is impossible to tell the difference between male and female jays merely by observation – sorry, you’ll just have to guess!

What is the perfect habitat for jays?

The jay is found in all types of forest: deciduous, coniferous and mixed. They prefer richly populated forests with tall shrub layers – forests that are too structured or open are unattractive for the jay. Occasionally, jays will also visit urban areas, including forest-like parks and large, wild gardens.

Where do jays build their nests?

A jay’s nest is usually very well hidden. Jays prefer to build their nests in treetops or in tall bushes, several metres from the ground. On occasion, jays will also take over a disused nest, built by some other crow or bird of prey. If the jay is building its own nest however, it is very cautious. If they feel in any way disturbed, jays will give up their nesting site and find another location. It is for this reason, that jays rarely breed in gardens.

Two jays build their nest
The jay builds a flat nest, made from branches [Photo: nkula/ Shutterstock.com]

When is breeding season for jays?

Jays breed from April to June, raising one brood at a time. This is no surprise, given that jay broods require a lot of care: jay chicks are born blind after around 16 days of incubation. Following this, baby jay birds are supplied with food from both parents for 20 days and are dependent for some time after leaving the nest.

Where do jays spend winter?

Jays are part of a family of birds whose populations split; some will migrate south for the winter, whilst the rest stays put. Migration depends on the jay’s home climate. In the UK, jays are resident birds.

A peculiarity of the jay is that it stockpiles food in preparation for winter. It buries nuts, particularly acorns, throughout its home forest. Astoundingly, the jay will locate almost all of its buried food in the colder months.

Help the jay!

Even with the jay’s intelligent stockpiling, it can still use our help during the colder months. Finding a good supply of nuts is becoming ever harder. Here are some practical tips for supporting jays in your garden.

What do jays eat?

Jays have a very varied diet. As omnivores, jays eat insects, worms, spiders, mice and other small animals, as well as berries, seeds, nuts and, of course, acorns. Jays are also known to be nest-robbers, eating the eggs and chicks of other birds.

In winter, it is essential to supply jays with a suitably rich diet. Consider offering apples, raisins, seeds and nuts. Sunflower seeds and peanuts are particularly suitable, because they will be loved by other species, including the blue tit.

Tip: jays are cautious birds and rarely come to free-standing bird feeders. Therefore, it is best to hide your feeding station near some trees.

A jay perched at a feeding station
Jays are colourful, but you will rarely see them at bird feeders [Photo: Giedra Bartas/ Shutterstock.com]

Which birdhouses are suitable for jays?

Since jays prefer to nest in the treetops and are watchful during nest building, they rarely utilise birdhouses. If you would like to try anyway, be sure to use a large, open birdhouse, that is protected; you will need to find a dense, overgrown area of your garden.

For more information about building your own birdhouse, have a look at our article.

How can I support jays even more?

Like all birds, jays love a summer bird bath – don’t forget to put one out!

Another garden visitor, whose voice you won’t fail to hear, is the green woodpecker. Check out our article to find out more!