If you spend much time in the woods then you’ve probably had the experience of being suddenly inundated with a noisy flock of jays.
Jays are sometimes so noisy that even people who aren’t at all interested in birds wonder what’s happening to make them act so crazy.
So let’s explore this… why are blue jays so noisy?
There are 3 common reasons for noisy Jay behavior:
- During courtship: noisy groups of male jays will follow around their desired mates while making loud and raucous calls.
- During predator defense: groups of Jays will gather around hawks & owls to mob and scold the source of danger.
- Young jays in late summer/fall: make extremely noisy begging calls to elicit food from their parents.
For each situation, there are distinct behavioral indicators that identify why the jays are calling and making so much noise.
So let’s explore these different scenarios and next time you hear jays going crazy you’ll know exactly what they’re saying!
While this article uses the example of blue jays, these same basic principles will also apply to Stellar’s jays, Scrub jays, and all jays who make loud noises.
Generally birds in the corvid family like jays, crows, magpies & ravens all tend to have incredibly varied and noisy vocalizations sharing significant overlap with the concepts on this page.
1. Blue Jays Have A Very Loud Spring Courtship
One of the loudest times of year for Jays is during spring courtship.
If you hear a noisy eruption of intense sounds coming from groups of jays flying around in the trees during early spring, there’s a very good chance this is a courtship flock.
In the morning, individual females will fly around the forest with a pack of males following in suit. They make crazy amounts of noise and head bobbing displays.
By noon the main action eases up and the jays tend to their feeding & survival needs, only to restart again the next day until the female chooses her mate.
Obviously, one of the big clues that jays are doing courtship is the time of year (spring) and time of day (morning).
This behavior involves a lot of movement around the forest with one female at the lead and a group of males following (similar to squirrel mating behaviors which I covered in a different article).
Observing their body language can help you discern courtship behavior from alarm calls, which we’ll cover next.
2. Jays Make Very Noisy Mobbing & Alarm Calls
Predator defense in jays can happen at all times of year, but it tends to reach its peak intensity during the nesting season.
Jays are vulnerable to predation from aerial predators like hawks & owls, as well as ground predators like cats, weasels and even raccoons trying to steal their eggs.
The Jays first line of defense against these threats is awareness.
The more advanced warning they have of an approaching danger, the easier it is to address the predator before it becomes a real problem.
This is why jays can sound so incredibly loud during alarms. They’re trying to attract the attention of other nearby birds to come help scold and overwhelm the danger into leaving.
Here’s a great example of what blue jay alarm calls sound like:
Mobbing is an incredibly effective strategy which we explored in another other article on why crows attack owls. There are studies showing that birds who used mobbing behavior were 8.75 times less likely to be predated by owls!
It’s even possible to eavesdrop on their alarm language in order to predict the locations of predators at long distances across the forest.
Identifying the alarm calls of jays simply comes down to making some basic observations with questions like:
- How many jays are alarming?
- Are the alarms moving or stationary?
- How long does the alarm last?
Each individual predator produces its own unique pattern of alarm which helps you track why they’re making so much noise.
When Jays Make Alarm Calls About Owls
Jay alarms for owls can be incredible displays of noise & activity.
This can involve as few as 1-3 birds, but can grow to 10 or even more birds all screaming away.
The key thing to remember is that owls tend not to move around too much during the day. Therefore alarms directed towards owls will typically focus around a single point in a tree where the owl is roosting.
Jays may also alternate between alarming for a few minutes, then fly off to handle business in other parts of the forest, before coming back to alarm some more.
This creates an on again, off again type alarm sequence that lasts all day long, and tends to stay in the same position all day.
Here’s a great video showing what it sounds like when Jays make a mild alarm at a screech owl (and some pretty funny reactions from the owl!):
When Jays Make Alarm Calls About Hawks
Jays alarming at hawks are also very loud endeavors, with a key difference being that hawk alarms are punctuated by key moments of movement and flight.
The jay alarms reflect movement patterns of the hawk as it perches for a few minutes, then quickly darts to a new spot.
At first listen, this can sound almost exactly like an owl alarm, but then suddenly the activity will move and become frantic in a short burst as the hawk flies away.
Many hawks (especially accipiters who specialize in eating birds) represent a much higher level of danger to blue jays than owls.
When Jays Make Alarm Calls About Cats
Jays alarming at cats are typically much less obvious than the earlier scenarios described, but it can still be quite noticeable.
There typically are less jays involved (as few as 1-2) and they move very slowly through the forest at the speed of a walking cat.
The jay will typically be about 5-10 feet off the ground, giving calls in a spot for several seconds, then moving to another nearby spot as the cat moves on the ground below.
When Jays Make Alarm Calls About Foxes
Another common source of alarm in Jays is foxes.
A few years back I spent a bit of time in Long Island New York, and when the foxes would move through the deciduous forests alongside open fields, the Jays were very consistent about alarming.
This pattern can be incredibly subtle because foxes really don’t pose much threat to jays, and they also move quite quickly through the landscape – I described this pattern in more detail in another article on how foxes hunt.
3. Noisy Juvenile Begging Calls In Jays
Following a lull in blue jay sounds during the heat of summer, as we move into late summer and the fall season, another common cause of noisy jay behavior are the young birds begging for food.
Jays are extremely intelligent and family oriented so the kids tend to rely on their parents for much longer than most other songbirds.
You can check for this pattern starting in late summer by observing what the jays are doing after they make this noise.
Watch carefully and you’ll see that the young jays are following around their parents making noise, while the adults are focused on gathering food.
How To Know Why Jays Are Making So Much Noise?
There are 3 main questions to answer whenever you want to know what jays are saying.
- What Time of Year Is It?
During early spring, remember to check for courtship chasing. Look for one jay at the front of the pack being followed by a noisy group.
In late summer & fall, watch out for those juvenile groups which can make a lot of noise and could be confused for alarms.
And remember, alarm behavior happens at all times of year, so it’s important to distinguish this activity from courtship and juvenile groups as described above.
- What Specifically Are The Jays Doing?
If they’re gathered in a tight group focused intensely on a sheltered conifer, this is most likely a perched aerial predator like a hawk or owl.
If there’s a noisy group following a single leader during early spring, this is most likely a courtship group.
You simply need to look and observe critically in order to clearly describe the body language and behavior. The better your observation skills, the easier it is to know what’s causing the activity.
- How Does Their Behavior Evolve Over Time?
The most important thing (which also tends to be the most challenging for many people) is that you never want to base your interpretation of jay activity on a snapshot.
A brief 10 second moment of action in the forest, followed by completely normal behavior like feeding & relaxing really doesn’t tell you all that much.
But if the jay activity goes on for long periods of time (5 minutes, 10 minutes, 20 minutes or longer), this situation becomes much easier to observe and collect data points so you can identify the true cause.
And if you want to really know what Jays are saying out there, I highly recommend you read my in-depth beginner’s guide to learning bird language for more practical exercises & skill-building.
Let me know what other questions you have on this topic!