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Cardinal VS Blue Jay: Definitive Comparison For Bird Lovers

blue jay and cardinal on a birdfeeder

Birdwatching enthusiasts are often captivated by the vibrant colors of blue jay birds and cardinals. The two birds are known for their alluring appearance and unique behaviors. They differ in physical features, dietary preferences, mating behaviors, vocalizations, and so on

Let's explore both the blue jay and the cardinal birds in this definitive comparison!

Main Differences Between Blue Jays vs Cardinals

The main differences between blue jay vs cardinal are:

  • Blue jay possesses a blue crest on their heads and striking blue and white plumage, whereas cardinals exhibit vibrant red feathers, a distinctive crest, and black facial markings.
  • Blue jays are generally larger, measuring about 9-12 inches (23-30 cm) in length, whereas cardinals are slightly smaller, ranging from 8-9 inches (20-23 cm).
  • Blue jay birds have stout and pointed beaks, whereas cardinals have short, thick beaks.
  • Juvenile blue jays have a grayish-brown plumage with hints of blue, whereas young cardinals have a grayish-brown coloration with tinges of red.
  • Cardinals are often associated with love, passion, and vitality, whereas blue jay birds symbolize curiosity, resourcefulness, and adaptability.

Differences in Overall Physical Features Between the Two Birds

Blue jay birds (Cyanocitta cristata) showcase a mesmerizing combination of blue and white plumage. Their heads are adorned with a prominent crest that can be raised or lowered. In contrast, Cardinals sport a stunning display of vibrant red feathers, which strike against their black face markings.

blue jay with a colorful blue pattern

The Cardinal's (Cardinalis cardinalis) crest is smaller than that of the Blue Jay, but it still adds an element of elegance to its appearance. These distinctive colorations and markings make both birds easily recognizable; although you may also find blue cardinals in captivity (but this is only due to selective breeding).

Body Shape Differences Between These Beautiful Birds

Blue Jay birds have a robust and stocky body shape, with a prominent crest on their head. They have relatively thick necks and sturdy, broad chests. Their beak is strong and stout, slightly curved at the tip.

They use this beak to crack open nuts and seeds.

blue jay trying to crack a nut open

In contrast, Cardinals have a more streamlined and compact body structure. They are slightly smaller than Blue Jays, with a smaller head and a slender neck. Cardinals have a short, cone-shaped beak that is well-suited for crushing seeds and eating berries.

Overall, Blue Jays exhibit a more muscular and hefty appearance with their strong build and prominent crest, while Cardinals have a sleeker and more slender profile, emphasizing their agility and elegance.

Size and Anatomy Differences Between The Two Words

Blue Jays are larger than the cardinals. On average, Blue Jay measures between 9 to 12 inches (23-30 cm) in length. They have sturdy bodies, robust wings, and long, rounded tails.

Cardinals, on the other hand, are slightly smaller, ranging from 8 to 9 inches (20-23 cm) in length. They have a more compact body structure and shorter tails in comparison to Blue Jay.

A Closer Look at Beak Characteristics For Bird-Watching Enthusiasts

Blue Jay has a stout and pointed beak, which allows it to crack open nuts and seeds. As with many bird species (but not all), it can hold food with its feet while pecking it open. A cardinal, on the other hand, possesses a short, thick beak that is well-suited for crushing seeds and foraging in dense vegetation.

Physical Appearance of the Juvenile Stage

A juvenile blue jay, as with many bird species, has grayish-brown plumage that may have hints of blue on the wings and tails. As juvenile blue jays mature, the colors intensify. They later develop vibrant blue and white plumage.

Young cardinals, on the other hand, closely resemble the adult females of their species. They exhibit a grayish-brown coloration with subtle tinges of red, gradually transitioning into the iconic red plumage.

Gender Identification For Both Birds

It is relatively easier to distinguish between male and female cardinals based on their plumage. Adult male cardinals boast the iconic bright red coloration, while females exhibit a more subdued reddish-brown hue with traces of red on their wings and tails.

male and female cardinals

Blue Jays, on the other hand, do not display significant differences in coloration between males and females. Based on visuals alone, you may not be able to tell male and female blue jays apart.

Dietary Differences and Similarities

Both Cardinals and Blue Jays are omnivorous, but their diets vary. Blue Jay birds have a diverse diet that includes insects, fruits, nuts, seeds, and even small vertebrates like frogs and lizards. They also cache food for future consumption, often burying acorns and seeds in the ground.

Cardinals primarily feed on seeds, grains, and berries.

They have a preference for sunflower seeds and safflower seeds. They are also known to consume insects and fruits. Cardinals are adept at foraging among dense vegetation, using their short, thick beaks to crack open seeds and access hidden food sources.

Vocalization Differences Between Cardinals and Blue Jays

Both Cardinals and Blue Jays are known for their vocalizations, but their calls and songs have distinct characteristics.

Blue Jay produces a wide range of calls, including harsh and loud screams, mimicked sounds of other birds, and even human-like vocalizations. They often engage in "whisper songs," producing quiet, almost inaudible vocalizations during courtship or while approaching food sources.

Cardinals have a melodic and rich song that is often described as a clear whistling sound. The song is typically a series of repeated musical phrases. Male Cardinals sing to establish territory boundaries and attract mates. Females also sing, but their vocalizations are generally softer and shorter than those of males.

Differences in Mating Behavior of the Two Birds

The mating behaviors of Blue Jay and Cardinal species differ in several aspects.

Blue Jay is monogamous and forms a long-term pair bond with its mate. During courtship, males engage in vocalizations and aerial acrobatics to attract females. Once paired, the male and female engage in mutual preening, feeding each other, and building the nest together.

Cardinals also exhibit monogamous behavior and engage in courtship rituals. Male Cardinals use their vibrant plumage and melodious songs to court females. They present food offerings and engage in hopping movements to impress potential mates. Once paired, the male Cardinal continues to provide food to the female as she constructs the nest.

Nesting Behavior in Blue Jays and Cardinals

The blue jay bird species typically builds its nests in the branches of deciduous or coniferous trees. The nest construction is primarily undertaken by the female, although the male may assist in gathering nesting materials.

Blue Jays build sturdy nests using twigs, grasses, and rootlets, which they tightly weave together to create a cup-shaped structure. The interior of the nest is lined with softer materials such as fine roots, feathers, and sometimes even mud.

female cardinal with her nestlings

Blue Jay constructs well-hidden nests, often placed high in the tree canopy for protection from predators. They typically lay 3-6 eggs per clutch, and both the male and female take turns incubating the eggs, which hatch after approximately 17-18 days.

Cardinals also construct nests in trees, shrubs, or dense vegetation, but they exhibit some differences in nesting behavior. They prefer lower nesting sites, typically within 3-10 feet above the ground.

The nests are often situated in dense shrubs, thickets, or tangled vines, providing additional protection and concealment. Female Cardinals are primarily responsible for nest building, using twigs, grasses, and bark strips.

blue jay feeding hatchlings on a nest

The nest is cup-shaped and is lined with softer materials such as leaves, rootlets, and sometimes animal hair. Cardinals typically lay 2-5 eggs per clutch, and both parents participate in incubating the eggs, which hatch after approximately 11-13 days.

Parenting Behavior in Blue Jay Bird Species and Cardinals

Both blue jay parents actively participate in raising their offspring. Once a pair of Blue Jays has successfully mated and built a nest, both the male and female take on the responsibility of incubating the eggs, which typically hatch after about 17-18 days.

The parents then work together to feed and care for the nestlings. They regurgitate food to feed their young and diligently protect the nest. The parents continue to care for their offspring until they fledge, which usually occurs around 17-21 days after hatching.

Both cardinal parents play an active role in raising their young. The male Cardinal assists the female in selecting and building the nest, and both parents take turns incubating the eggs, which hatch after approximately 11-13 days.

Once the eggs have hatched, both parents work together to feed and care for the nestlings. They provide a steady supply of food, including seeds, insects, and fruits, to meet the growing chicks' nutritional needs. The parents continue to care for their offspring until they fledge, which typically occurs around 9-11 days after hatching.

While the two birds exhibit cooperative parenting behaviors, there are some notable differences.

Blue Jay forms strong family bonds and sticks to extended family groups where older siblings or other adults may assist in raising the young. On the other hand, Cardinals tend to have a more exclusive family unit, with just the male and female.

While they may establish territories and defend their nests, Cardinals generally do not form extended family groups like Blue Jays. The Blue Jay's tendency for extended family cooperation sets it apart from the more exclusive family unit of Cardinals.

Behavioral Differences Between Blue Jays and Cardinals

Blue Jays are known for their curious and resourceful nature. They are intelligent birds that readily adapt to their surroundings. Blue Jays are also quite bold and assertive, often driving away smaller birds from food sources.

Blue Jays and Cardinals exhibit different behavioral patterns in various contexts.

Cardinals tend to be more territorial and less aggressive compared to Blue Jays. While they defend their territories and nests, they generally coexist peacefully with other bird species. Cardinals may even form loose winter flocks, allowing multiple individuals to gather and forage together.

Blue Jays and Northern Cardinals: Are They Friends or Foes?

blue jay and cardinal on a birdfeeder

The relationship between the Cardinals and Blue Jays can vary depending on the circumstances.

Both species are known to defend their territories vigorously. In some cases, Cardinals and Blue Jays may compete for the same food sources or nesting locations, leading to occasional conflicts. However, they can coexist peacefully in areas where resources are abundant, such as large and diverse food supplies.

Aggression Between Blue Jay and Cardinal

Blue Jays tend to exhibit more assertive behavior compared to Cardinals. Blue Jays are known to chase away smaller birds and monopolize food sources. They are not hesitant to engage in aggressive interactions when defending their territories.

Aggression is natural for both species, but blue jays' aggressive behavior is more common.

Cardinals, although territorial, are generally less aggressive and may tolerate the presence of other birds in their vicinity.

Preferred Habitats of Blue Jays and Cardinals

Blue Jays are adaptable birds that can be found in various habitats, including forests, woodlands, parks, gardens, and suburban areas. They are often associated with deciduous and mixed forests, where they can find ample food sources such as nuts, seeds, and insects.

Blue Jays are known to explore different environments and can thrive in both urban and rural settings.

Cardinals, on the other hand, have specific habitat preferences.

They are commonly found in open woodlands, forest edges, gardens, and shrubby areas. Cardinals are often associated with brushy thickets, hedgerows, and areas with dense vegetation that provide suitable nesting sites and cover.

They are less likely to venture into more open areas compared to Blue Jays.

Both Cardinals and Blue Jays are frequently seen in suburban areas where there is a mix of trees, shrubs, and open spaces. Cardinals and even blue jays are attracted to backyard bird feeding trays and bird baths, making suburban gardens and residential areas potential habitats for these birds.

Overall, Blue Jays are more adaptable to different habitats and can be found in a wider range of environments. Cardinals have specific preferences for open woodlands and areas with dense vegetation. Both species, however, can coexist and thrive in suburban areas where suitable food sources and nesting opportunities are available.

Blue Jays and Cardinals Have Distinct Distributions Across North America

Blue Jays are native to eastern and central North America. They can be found throughout the eastern United States and parts of southern Canada. Their range extends from Newfoundland and Labrador in the north, westward to Manitoba, and southward to Texas and Florida.

Blue Jays are year-round residents in their range but may undergo local movements or migration in response to food availability and weather conditions.

Cardinals are also native to North America, primarily in the eastern and central regions. They are commonly found in the eastern United States, ranging from southern Maine to Florida and westward to Texas, Oklahoma, and parts of New Mexico. Cardinals also extend their range into parts of southeastern Canada, including southern Ontario and Quebec.

Within their range, Cardinals are generally non-migratory, but they may undergo short-distance movements in response to seasonal changes.

Both Blue Jays and Cardinals have expanded their ranges due to habitat modifications and human activities. Blue Jays have extended their range westward over the past century, colonizing the Great Plains and parts of the western United States. Cardinals have also expanded their range northward into parts of New England and eastern Canada.

Spotting Both Birds (For Bird Watching Enthusiasts)

To spot Cardinals and Blue Jays in the wild, you must keep the following bird-watching tips in mind:

  • Look for their vibrant colors and distinctive features in trees, shrubs, and bird feeders.
  • Attract them with feeders stocked with sunflower seeds, safflower seeds, and suet.
  • Blue Jays are often found in forests, woodlands, and suburban areas with large trees, whereas Cardinals are commonly found in open woodlands, gardens, and parks.
  • You can also use birding apps and field guides that provide detailed information on the habitats, behaviors, and vocalizations of Blue Jays and Cardinals.
  • Equip yourself with binoculars and bird-watching equipment to spot these birds from a distance.

Attracting Blue Jays and Cardinals to Your Backyard

If you wish to attract Blue Jays and Cardinals to your backyard, consider the following:

  • Provide seeds, nuts, and suet in bird feeders to cater to their dietary preferences.
  • Install a birdbath or a shallow water dish to provide fresh water for drinking and bathing.
  • Plant trees and shrubs to create a safe and comfortable habitat for these birds.
  • Set up nesting boxes or platforms at suitable heights to encourage nesting and breeding.
male cardinal perched on a birdfeeder

Differences in Symbolism Between Blue Jay vs Cardinal

Both Blue Jays and Cardinals hold symbolic significance in different cultures.

Cardinals are often associated with love, passion, and vitality. They are seen as a symbol of good fortune and a spiritual presence. In some cultures, the sighting of a Cardinal is believed to represent the presence of departed loved ones.

Blue Jays are often associated with curiosity, resourcefulness, and adaptability. They symbolize the need to explore new opportunities and adapt to changing circumstances.

Can a Cardinal Mate with a Blue Jay?

No, the Cardinals and Blue Jays cannot mate with each other.

They belong to different species and have distinct breeding behaviors and genetic differences that prevent successful interbreeding. Blue jays belong to the crow family, whereas the cardinal family is a different group of species.

Is a Cardinal a Red Blue Jay?

No, a Cardinal is not a red Blue Jay.

Cardinals and Blue Jays are separate bird species with distinct physical characteristics, behaviors, and habitats. While both birds exhibit vibrant colors, Cardinals are known for their iconic bright red plumage, while Blue Jays have blue and white plumage.

Is a Blue Cardinal a Hybrid?

No, a blue cardinal is not a naturally occurring hybrid.

Cardinals typically have bright red plumage, with the males being more vibrant than the females. While there are different species of cardinals found in various parts of the world, none of them naturally have blue feathers.

However, there is a phenomenon called "color aberration" or "color mutation" that can occur in birds, including cardinals. These mutations can result in unusual colors in their plumage, such as blue or partially blue feathers.

Blue cardinals are typically the result of pigmentation abnormalities or genetic mutations.

Some bird enthusiasts may selectively breed cardinals or engage in genetic modification to produce birds with specific color variations, including blue cardinals. These birds would be considered domestic or selectively bred individuals rather than naturally occurring hybrids.

Interesting Facts About Both Cardinals and Blue Jays

  • Cardinals are the state bird of seven U.S. states: Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia, and West Virginia.
  • Blue Jays are intelligent birds known for their ability to mimic the sounds of other birds, animals, and even human voices.
  • Cardinals are primarily non-migratory birds, while Blue Jays are known for their migratory behaviors, often traveling in flocks.
  • Blue Jays are skilled at spreading and burying acorns, contributing to forest regeneration.
  • Cardinals and Blue Jays play an important role in seed dispersal, aiding in the growth of forests and plant populations.

Bottom Line

Blue Jays and Cardinals display fascinating differences in their physical features, mating behaviors, dietary preferences, vocalizations, and symbolism. While Blue Jays impress with their striking blue plumage and resourcefulness, Cardinals captivate with their vibrant red feathers and melodious songs. Understanding these differences enhances our appreciation for the diverse beauty of avian species and the wonders of the natural world.


What are the visual differences between a blue jay and a cardinal?

Blue jays have blue and white plumage, a prominent crest on their heads, and black facial markings. Cardinals have vibrant red feathers, a smaller crest, and black face markings.

Are blue jays and cardinals enemies?

While they may compete for resources such as food and nesting territories, direct conflicts between these two species are infrequent.

Can a blue jay and a cardinal mate?

No, Blue Jays and Cardinals cannot mate with each other. They belong to different species and have distinct genetic differences that prevent successful interbreeding.

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