Cardinals Vs Blue Jays:
14 Interesting & Big Differences

Curious to know what sets the cardinals and the blue jays apart? The two birds vary in their appearance, feed, and behavior.

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Iñigo Navarro

June 13, 2021


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What’s This Post About?

Birds come in a variety of colors, but they’re still easily mixed up. A significant number of birds are commonly misidentified as other species.

Some birds have been known to undergo remarkable transformations in their coloration during their lifetimes. They may not appear anything as they do as adults when they are little.

This makes it even easier to mistake an encounter, especially if you’re looking at it from afar.

There may be several similarities between the two, but a Cardinal and a Blue Jay are two birds that must not be confused. Not only do they belong to different families, but they also have very distinct appearances, behaviors, and lifestyle adaptations.

a blue jay and cardinal

14 Interesting & Big Differences

1. Family/Origin

Contrary to what many people believe, not only do Blue Jay and Cardinal are in different genera, they also belong to different families.

For those of you wondering what a genus is, it is a taxonomic rank used to classify living and extinct creatures.

It is placed above species and below family in the biological categorization system.

a custom infograph

As shown in the figure above, both the birds come from the same order, ‘Passeriformes’.

This is the most significant division of birds, with over 5000 species and accounting for more than 50% of all living bird species, primarily songbirds with perching lifestyles.

As the order is further classified, you can see the distinction between the two.

Cardinals are a member of the cardinal family that is scientifically known as Cardinalidae. The blue jays belong to the crow family that is scientifically known as Corvidae.

2. Habitat

Blue Jays may be found in various woodlands, although they’re most common around oak trees. They’re more prevalent along forest margins than deep in the woods.

They’re widespread in city areas, mainly where there are oak trees or bird feeders.

Woodland margins, grassy lawns, trees and bushes, back gardens, and beautiful landscaping are good sites for finding Northern Cardinals.

Cardinals build their nests in thick vegetation and search for visible, relatively high platforms to sing from.

3. Vocalization

While both the birds are considered songbirds, they have distinct vocalizations. The blue jay has a song that is mellower and seems like a whisper.

When the cardinal sings, the song is just as if someone is whistling.

The blue jay sings for a longer period, with a single song lasting up to 2 minutes. A cardinal’s song is short and lasts for about 2-3 seconds.

The song consists of a long series of clear two-parted whistles that frequently speeds up before concluding in a gradual treble.

cardinal and blue jay

4. Coloration

Northern Cardinals and Blue Jays are both stunning birds. Both the birds are noted for being the most vibrant members of the species.

Both the birds have beautiful patterns and shades across their body. The red color is dominant in the cardinal, whereas the blue jay has a dominant blue color, as the name suggests.

The blue jay has a blue back with a white belly, whereas the cardinal is entirely red. Both have long tails, but the markings on the blue jay make it very distant.

The blue jay has wings and a tail that is patterned with blue, white, and black. When the wings open, you can see it lined with white from below. This is one of its most prominent features.

The cardinal has a dark red and brown colored back.

a bluejay bird

a cardinal bird

Both the birds have a high crest that can be relaxed on will. There is a tinge of black on both of them, but the difference lies in their location.

The blue jay has a black ring around its neck that looks like a necklace. The cardinal has black marking around its beak that makes it look like it is wearing a mask.

5. Physical Features

Apart from coloration, patterns, and marking, a few key features are also different between the two birds.

While the average length might be the same for the two birds ranging between 20-25cm, their mass is different. A blue jay tends to weigh around 65-110grams while a cardinal weighs about 43grams on average.

Both birds have a strong bill, but they are still physically different when looked closely. The cardinal has a short and thick bill. The blue jay has a straight bill.

6. Gender Identification

Sexual dimorphism is the difference in color between male and female birds like cardinals.

Differences in appearance, mass, and patterns are all examples of gender differences in birds.

The male of many birds is more vibrant and ornate than the female. This is called plumage dimorphism. Many bird species, such as these Blue Jays, have identical males and females.

a male female cardinal

Since the cardinals have a different outlook for their males and females, it becomes easy to identify them from different birds as well as from the other genders.

As mentioned above, the male cardinal has a vibrant red-colored body.

The female has a pale olive-colored body with specific red markings in its crest, wings, and tail. Both of them have a black area around their bills; however, it is less significant in females.

Did You Know?

A male bird’s coloration is usually an indication of his fitness and vigor.

Male blue jays are more prominent than females, but it’s impossible to tell them apart just by looking at them because they have the same appearance.

The easiest technique to tell the sexes different is to observe courting and breeding behavior.

There is usually a single female crowded by 5-10 male birds competing for successful mating. The bird that you see leading here will be the female, while the birds that follow are the male.

When these birds land, the female bird is just an observer while the male will be seen doing stunts like flexing their features to attract the female.

Similarly, during the nesting period, the female is seen building the nest and sitting on the eggs. The male bird will make itself distinct by being seen carrying food for its brood.

a male female blue jay

7. Physical Appearance of the Juvenile Stage

In addition to being able to identify the male and female versions of the birds, you should also be able to recognize their juvenile stages.

During this stage, gender coloration has not yet developed. Often the juveniles will have the female’s coloration in early stages, which will then develop into their adult colors with time.

For the cardinals, the juvenile looks almost identical to the adult female except for the darker black colored bill. The features are more ruffled at this stage, and the shades and patterns are overall dull and dirty looking.

a baby cardinal

However, for the blue jays, just like the females, the juveniles are not different from the rest of their families. The colors, the patterns, and their markings are all very similar.

The only things that would set them apart are their sizes, the gape of their beak, and how rough the feathers are at early stages.

a baby blue jay

8. Feed

Perhaps the most apparent difference between the two birds after their physical appearance is their diet. Cardinals feed on grains, seeds, and fruits, earning the title of ‘granivorous’.

The blue jays, on the other hand, are omnivores. Their diet consists of frogs, mice, and nuts in addition to grains. However, the most interesting part is that you may also find blue jays enjoying the eggs of other birds.

Did You Know?

Granivores are species that eat plant seeds as their primary or exclusive dietary source.

9. Ways to find them

You are most likely to hear the birds before you see them.

If you are a bird lover, you would know how hard it can get to spot these beautiful creatures sometimes. Different signs will help you identify and distinguish between the two.

Cardinals are still numerous but unnoticeable outside of backyards due to their preference for thick shrubs. To locate a cardinal

  • Listen for their piercing chip tones.

  • If a male cardinal is around, the vivid crimson will be self-sufficient to get it spotted.

  • You may learn to recognize the warm, red-tinged brown of females in flight.

a cardinal singing from tree

It is relatively easier to find blue jays as they move in loose groups along shorelines. To locate a Blue Jay, keep an eye or ear out for their:

  • steady flight

  • rounded wings

  • long tail

  • White underside

  • Loud calls

a blue jay singing

10. Mating Behavior

Birds tend to have more or less similar mating behavior generally. A slight difference in the intensity of wooing the female can be observed between the two species.

When the cardinals are mating, the male cardinal attempts to feed the female cardinal giving the impression of a kiss. This is called mate feeding.

This is a flirtatious attempt by the male bird and continues until the breeding season.

cardinals feeding

The blue jays are somewhat less formal. The male birds will flock around the female, trying to appear more attractive by looking fluffed up and doing little stunts until the female makes her decision.

Did You Know?

The brighter color, the more attracted the female is to the male bird. It indicates characteristics of strength and health that they want their children to have.

11. Nesting

Cardinals do not use their nests more than once and will start building the new one once their brood is mature enough. The blue jays tend to reuse the same nest.

Both will, however, desert their nests in case of a possible threat of invasion.

It is observed that the male and the female blue jays build the nest together, whereas the male cardinal brings the material to the female who does the building in their case.

The cardinals also start hunting for potential nesting places long before they need one.

Blue Jays make their nests in the gap or relatively thick branches of a healthy or evergreen tree, generally 10 to 25 feet above ground level.

Nests of the cardinals are usually squeezed into a junction of tiny branches in a tree, bush, or grapevine tangle that is 1-15 feet tall and obscured by dense vegetation.

a blue jay nest

a cardinal nest

12. Eggs

Just like the birds differ in appearance, their eggs are also separately identifiable. The difference is mainly in color.

Cardinals have white or pale blue/green eggs with brown specks. The blue jays have blue eggs with brown dots.

PRO-TIP

You may get confused between the colors of the eggs because the cardinals also sometimes lay pale blue eggs. The main difference lies in the brown specks. The cardinal eggs have more specks covering the entire egg, while the blue jay's eggs have minimum spots clustered in one location.

  • Number: Cardinals lay about 2-5 eggs, the blue jays lay from 3 to 7 eggs.

  • Length: The blue jays’ eggs are about 2-3 cm longer.

  • Incubation Period: The blue jays incubate their eggs for a longer period, often up to 18 days while the cardinals incubate till 13 days.

cardinal eggs

blue jay eggs

13. Migration

Although not all birds migrate, the bulk of them do. In fact, over 75percent of birds in North America migrate.

A large number of birds migrate south to their wintering sites. Many others, on the other hand, decide not to migrate. During the harsh winter months, some birds are prepared to dwell in the north.

Cardinals and blue jays are different in their migratory patterns. The reason why most birds migrate is due to climate or in search of an abundant food supply.

In the case of cardinals, it has been observed that they remain stationed in their original habitats. They can find food during winter and rely heavily on the feeders that people put out.

cardinal in snow

Blue jays, on the other hand, do migrate. The pattern and direction are neither fixed nor have a definitive reason to support it.

While some blue jays migrate, others do not and prefer to spend the winter on their breeding grounds.

The ones that do migrate do not cover a large distance and just fly over to different states, searching for food and nesting.

a blue jay in snow

14. Lifespan

Birds' lifespan is directly proportional to their size; the more significant the species, the longer it is expected to live. However, the link isn't absolute.

In the wild, red cardinals can survive for many years. It is not uncommon for a cardinal to live for 12-15 years.

In comparison to other bird species, that is an extremely long life span. The longest lifespan ever recorded for a cardinal is 28 years.

A Cardinal has a longer lifespan than a blue jay. The lifespan of an average blue jay is around 7 years. The longest lifespan ever recorded for a blue jay is about 26 years.

  CARDINAL BLUE JAY
COLOR RED BLUE
WINGS RED AND BROWN BLUE, WHITE, AND BLACK
FACE BLACK MARKS AROUND THE BILL THE BLACK RING AROUND THE NECK
BILL RED, SHORT AND THICK BLUE AND STRAIGHT
MASS 43 GRAMS 65-110GRAMS
JUVENILE STAGE IDENTICAL TO FEMALE IDENTICAL TO MALE AND FEMALE BOTH
FEED GRAINS, SEEDS GRAINS, SEEDS, FRUITS, ANIMALS
MIGRATION PERMANENT RESIDENTS SHORT DISTANCE MIGRATIONS
EGGS WHITE WITH BROWN SPECKS BLUE EGGS WITH BROWN SPOTS
EGGS NUMBER 2-5 EGGS 3-7 EGGS
INCUBATION PERIOD 7-13 DAYS 13-18 DAYS
SONG WHISTLE LIKE WHISPER LIKE
MATING BEHAVIOR MATE FEEDING MORE INFORMAL
LIFESPAN 13-15 YEARS 7 YEARS

Keep Reading!

The observations reveal that these two birds are not only attractive but also possess a variety of intriguing characteristics.

When it comes to mating patterns, nesting, diet, coloration, they’re both one-of-a-kinds. They reproduce in comparable ways and will both die to protect their offspring.

These feathery, brightly colored birds are interesting creatures, and there’s a lot more to learn about them. However, there are other birds that look like cardinals, read more on how to identify a cardinal.

5 Birds That Look Like Cardinals and How to Identify Them

Wondering if those red birds in your backyard are cardinals? Here’s how you can tell the difference between cardinals and other birds.

Iñigo Navarro Picture

By Iñigo Navarro

Bird Watching USA

My name is Inigo and I'm the the founder of Bird Watching USA! I started Bird Watching with My father-in-law many years ago, and I've become an addict to watching these beautiful creatures. I've learnt so much over about bird watching over the years that I want to share with the world everything I know about them!

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Iñigo Navarro Picture

Iñigo Navarro

Bird Watching USA

My name is Inigo and I'm the the founder of Bird Watching USA! I started Bird Watching with My father-in-law many years ago, and I've become an addict to watching these beautiful creatures. I've learnt so much over about bird watching over the years that I want to share with the world everything I know about them!

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