Birds & Blooms
The Most Stellar Jay
Attract bold and witty Steller’s jays to your yard and experience their playful antics.
mart, gregarious and handsome, the
Steller’s jay lives year-round in the western half of North America, frequenting campgrounds, picnic grounds and yards.
From a distance, the Steller’s, which is related to the blue jay, may look like just a dark crested bird. A closer view reveals its striking dark head and shoulders contrasted with its deep blue body and tail.
Jeff Black, a Department of
Wildlife professor at Humboldt
State University based in Arcata,
California, has been studying
Steller’s jays since 1998. These brightly colored jays belong to the corvid family, known to be among the most intelligent in the avian world. That, along with the birds’ sociable nature, makes it easy to observe them.
“Here in Arcata, California, jay pairs stake claim to our yards, both front and back, and they stay all day and all year,” Jeff says.
Researchers fit the birds with leg bands, each with a different color combination to identify them.
“Jay pairs readily come to bird feeders, so we can see who’s who and who they are hanging out with or chasing off,” Jeff says.
To attract Steller’s to your own feeder, offer peanuts, black oil sunflower seeds, suet or fruit. Pine and oak trees are alluring cover and provide additional food and nesting sites.
Steller’s are opportunistic birds, eating any leftovers people may leave behind, insects, berries, nuts, bird eggs and even small animals such as lizards. As winter approaches, they hide food for later retrieval, gathering nuts and seeds in their throats and stuffing the nourishment into nooks and other hiding spots for later in the year.
These clever and social jays communicate with other birds in a variety of ways. Jeff says,
“They have dozens of call types conveying different information.”
These include harsh rattles and melodious notes.
“Steller’s jays also imitate calls made by hawk species they live with,” he says. In winter, they use those calls to scare other birds away from feeders so all the food is left to them. Using their voices in another way, they team up to scold and chase away predators, including the great horned owl, in a group behavior that ornithologists call mobbing.
Adults likely mate for life. They engage in courtship feeding and show off by throwing their crests and vibrant blue feathers around.
During the breeding season, a pair gathers pine needles, twigs, grasses and mud to construct a cup-shaped nest where the female incubates up to six blue-green eggs with dark brown spots.