In my last entry, Winter Larder, I mentioned many of the birds and mammals that depend upon the western juniper for winter survival, providing links to my posts on these animals. What a surprise to realize that I never did a post on the Steller’s jay (Cyanocitta stelleri), a bird almost as common in our area as the robin. I am always looking for something different and ignored the obvious. Time to correct that omission.
A native jay of the mountain west, the Steller’s jay is difficult to mistake with its deep blue and black plumage and triangular crest that often sticks up straight from its head. Both males and females have a black head, throat and neck while the body, wings and tail are blue with faint black barring. A vertical “eyebrow” above each eye is usually light blue but can be white. Juveniles lack the eyebrow and generally have a washed-out color that sometimes appears more grey or brownish. Even though there is some slight regional variation in color throughout their range, identification of Steller’s jays is easy.
Steller’s jays live in evergreen forests, mixed forests or arid pine-oak woodlands (its habitat near our home) from 3,000 feet to 10,000 feet. They can also be found near parks, campsites, birdfeeders or other areas where humans might intentionally, or unintentionally, provide food. Steller’s jays are resident throughout the year, but high-elevation breeders will move to lower elevations in the winter.
Omnivores, Steller’s jays are very adaptive feeders and will eat insects, berries, nuts, seeds, small animals, eggs and nestlings as well as garbage and other human-provided food. I enjoy watching Steller’s jays as they hop about on the ground or on tree branches foraging. They store extra food, particularly acorns, in caches for the winter. Not only do they utilize their own food caches, Steller’s jays also rob the winter stores of other birds.
This social bird is monogamous, forming long-term pairs that remain together for several years and is usually found around other Steller’s jays.
Named for Georg Steller, a naturalist on a Russian exploration who first saw the jay in Alaska in 1741, the Steller’s jay is noisy, making loud, scolding calls almost constantly, except when tending a nest or stalking prey. They also will mimic other birds and animals, red-tailed hawks being a favorite.
These Steller’s jays were photographed at a friend’s house in Cassel CA. He has a feeder for gray squirrels that the opportunistic Steller’s jays regularly rob.