Blue Jays, crows and ravens are related

  • Article by: Minnesota Ornithologists' Union
  • Updated: February 20, 2002 - 10:00 PM

QI've been told blue jays, crows and ravens are related. The blue jay doesn't look anything like the other two. Are they all really related?

AYes, they are. They all belong to the Corvid family of birds, which also includes -- though, as you said, you wouldn't guess it to look at them -- jays, magpies and nutcrackers.

The glossy-black American crows are common throughout the state in summer and are becoming increasingly common in winter; they average about 18 inches in length.

Common ravens, which are limited to the north central and northeastern parts of the state, are much larger, averaging about 24 inches in length, or about the size of a red-tailed hawk. Black like the crow, the raven has a heavier bill, much longer and broader wings and a longer, clearly wedge-shaped tail, a distinguishing characteristic. (The crow's tail is shorter and slightly rounded.)

And then there are Minnesota's two jays (there are 10 species of jays in North America) the blue jay and its northern cousin the gray jay. The blue jay is crested and 11 inches long. Its blue wings and tail are barred with black and have white patches. It wears a black necklace on its breast.

About the same size as the blue jay, the gray jay has no crest and its black bill is substantially shorter. Overall it is varying shades of gray with a whitish forehead and throat fading to pale gray underneath. The back of the head is charcoal gray or nearly black, while the back, tail and wings of the bird are dark gray. This friendly beggar, sometimes called camp robber, is a frequent guest at picnic sites, campgrounds and North Woods cabins.

QWhy do birds molt?

ABirds molt because their feathers wear out. Birds cannot function at optimum levels with broken, worn down or inoperative feathers. The feathers need to be replaced at least once a year. Feathers not only enable a bird to fly, but also keep it warm in winter, dry in the rain and attractive to potential mates in spring.

Most birds molt in the warmer months, losing a few feathers at a time and growing a new one as the old feather falls out. European starlings, among a number of other species, molt in the fall. When the starling's new feathers grow back, there is a noticeable white waxy tip on the feathers; this gives the bird a spotted appearance in the winter. Gradually, the waxy tip wears off and the starling regains its iridescent black plumage for breeding.

Some species, such as mallards and geese, lose all of their primary feathers at once. Canada geese become flightless during the nesting season, and they must find refuge from predators in water rather than flying away from them. Male mallards will molt into what's called an eclipse plumage, and resemble the brown-streaked female. They are unable to fly during this stage, and consequently are quite secretive.

QHow do birds get their names?

AUsually the person who discovers a bird is given the honor of naming it. In the United States, the American Ornithologists' Union (AOU) is the body that determines who the first person was that assigned a name to a species and it classifies the bird in the proper family, genus, etc. The AOU's classification gives the bird the first part of its two-part scientific, or Latin, name; the second part is the name given by the species discoverer.

For instance, our common loon's scientific name is Gavia immer. AOU English names are not universally used, and in Europe the common loon is known as great Northern diver.

QWhy don't birds fall off their perches when they sleep?

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