Steller’s Jays always remind me of camping trips. They were our constant companions when we camped in the Sierras during the summers. They would sit up in the pine trees and watch our camp. Food left unattended would soon become history, as they came swooping down to grab it, screaming a loud victory call! With their constant contact with humans, we discovered they could be quite tame.
At 12-13″, the Steller’s Jay is the largest jay in North America. It is related to the Blue Jay but has a slimmer bill and longer legs. It is the only western jay with a crest. The front part of this jay is black; the back, wings and tail are dark deep blue. There are fine black lines on the wings and the tail. Adults have lightly streaked eyebrows and forehead markings which vary in size and color. For example, the birds in the western interior range have white forehead marks, while the ones along the Pacific have blue streaks. The Steller’s Jays in the north are grayer in color, while the ones in the south are bluer in color. They have short, broad tails. Juveniles are drab and grayer in color.
Range and Habitat
The Steller’s Jay is found in coniferous forests and in pine and oak forests in the southern part of their range. They are residents from southern Alaska, east to the Rocky Mountains, and south to Central America. Migrating movements may be by going up in elevation or by traveling down slope.
They are very intelligent and opportunistic. Steller’s Jays usually travel in pairs or family groups. They have a complex social and communication system, with a variety of calls, postures and displays. For instance, a spread wing shows submission, and a raised crest might mean attack, while a folded crest might mean retreat. Steller’s Jays also have strict hierarchy and dominance patterns.
They may mimic the screams of hawks and Golden Eagles. When they are mellow, females make rattling sounds, while males may make “gleep” sounds. They also have a variety of loud, raucous calls that are repeated in patterns of three.
They feed mainly on acorns and pine seeds, but will raid other bird’s nests for eggs and nestlings. They also will eat small reptiles, nuts, berries, fruits, and insects. You might see them pounding on hard seeds and nuts with their beaks to order to open them. They have distendable esophagi that are able to carry acorns and nuts. These foods are often cached for the winter or saved for eating at a later time. They are carefully covered and hidden. Steller’s Jays are often found in campgrounds cleaning up the goodies left by campers!
The wing beats of these jays are below the horizontal line when they fly, and the crest on their heads lays flat while they are in flight. They are known to work together to mob predators to protect their young.
Breeding and Nesting
Steller’s Jays are silent and shy near their nest and are considered to be monogamous. The nest is constructed by both adults. It consists of twigs, roots, and tubers, and is lined with pine needles. This is the only jay besides the Blue Jay to use mud in its nest. The female lays 3-5 eggs. She incubates the eggs for about 18 days. Both parents feed and care for their young. The young are able to make short flights in about 3 weeks, but the parents continue to feed them for about a month. The Steller’s Jay will sometimes hybridize with Blue Jays.