The official bird of British Columbia, the Steller’s jay is the darkest jay in North America and the only crested jay found in the west. Beautiful and bold, this is a popular bird in many parks, campgrounds, and yards, and these members of the Corvidae bird family are just as intelligent and mischievous as their eastern cousins. The more facts birders learn about these jays, the more charming and intriguing the birds can be!
- Scientific Name: Cyanocitta stelleri
- Common Name: Steller’s Jay
- Lifespan: 10-15 years
- Size: 11-12 inches
- Weight: 3.5-5 ounces
- Wingspan: 17 inches
- Conservation Status: Least concern
Steller's Jay Identification
The Steller's jay is easy to recognize because of its dark blue and black plumage and prominent, expressive head crest. The bill is long, straight, and black, and in flight, the wings show somewhat blunt, rounded tips. Males and females are similar with a black or gray-black head and crest, sometimes showing narrow white or light blue streaking on the forehead and above the eye, though these streaks are highly variable and may not always be visible. The neck, throat, back, and upper chest are black or dark gray and the underparts are a rich blue. The wings and tail are a brighter blue or bluish purple with thin black barring in a ripple pattern. The legs and feet are black, and the eyes are dark. In some subspecies, the crest and back can appear more blue than black or gray.
Juveniles look similar to adults but have less defined markings and more gray in their plumage, especially on the back and head.
Steller’s jays are noisy birds with a wide repertoire of sounds. Their song is an uneven buzzy chirping, and calls include a moderately paced “chip-chip-chip-chip-chip” that can sound scolding. Their voice is generally raspier or coarser than more familiar jays. These birds are also excellent mimics and can recreate sounds from other birds and animals including red-tailed hawks, loons, chickens, squirrels, dogs, and cats.
Steller's Jay Habitat and Distribution
Steller’s jays can be found at lower mountain elevations throughout western North America, including mountainous regions of Mexico and Central America. The most widespread populations are in the Rocky Mountain region including Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, Utah, Idaho, Washington, Oregon, and northern California, as well as into British Columbia. These birds prefer mixed pine and oak or pure coniferous forests, but they will also frequent campgrounds, yards, and urban parks in appropriate habitats.
Steller’s jays do not migrate to completely separate seasonal ranges but may have some limited altitudinal migration in winter. The degree of this migration will vary from year to year based on the severity of the winter's weather, the amount of snowfall, and the availability and abundance of food sources.
Steller’s jays can be bold when they become accustomed to humans and have even been noted to rob campsites of unattended tidbits or poke through trash piles to find forgotten morsels. Deeper in the forest, however, they can be much more elusive and may skulk through thicker vegetation to avoid being seen, typically stay higher in the tree canopy. These birds will form family flocks of a dozen birds or more after the nesting season and often travel in groups.
Diet and Feeding
Like most corvids, Steller's jays are opportunistic omnivores and will sample a wide range of foods depending on what is most easily available and most abundant. These birds regularly eat seeds, nuts, fruit, insects, amphibians, eggs, and snakes, and will even pick at carrion and carcasses for an easy meal.
When feeding, they frequently cache nuts and seeds for later use.
These are monogamous birds believed to mate for life, with a bond cemented through courtship behavior that includes ritual feeding when the male brings tidbits to the female. Both genders work together to build a cup-shaped nest of pine needles, twigs, leaves, roots, and grass, often using mud to hold nesting materials together. The nest is positioned in a tree and may be as high as 100 feet above the ground.
Eggs and Young
A successfully bonded pair of Steller's jays will raise one brood of 2-6 eggs annually. The eggs are pale green or blue with brown flecks. The female parent incubates the eggs for 16-18 days, and both parents will feed the young chicks for 18-20 days until the young birds are ready to leave the nest.
On rare occasions, Steller's jays will hybridize with blue jays where their ranges overlap.
While these jays are not considered threatened or endangered, their populations can be affected by habitat loss, particularly in areas of their range where logging is a thriving industry. Protecting forest habitats, particularly at low and middle elevations, is essential to ensure strong populations of Steller's jays.
Tips for Backyard Birders
These birds will regularly visit backyard feeders where peanuts, black oil sunflower seeds, suet, and fruit are available. Backyard birders who offer these foods in several widely spaced feeders can accommodate the medium-sized family flocks that Steller’s jays travel in, and having pine trees nearby will give the birds a sheltered space for roosting or nesting. Planting oak trees and berry bushes can also provide natural foods to tempt these jays to visit.
How to Find this Bird
In campsites and more developed areas, it can be easy to see Steller's jays as these birds visit feeding areas. On trails and in less developed areas, however, these birds are much warier and will be difficult to spot. Listen carefully for their raspy voices to determine if Steller's jays are in the area, and to help determine where to spot them in coniferous trees.
Explore More Birds in This Family
The Corvidae bird family is one of the most popular ones, with more than 130 species of jays, crows, magpies, and treepies. Close relatives of the Steller's jay that are just as fascinating include:
Visit our other wild bird profiles to learn more facts about all your favorite bird species!