Photograph by Vickie Anderson, Nat Geo Image Collection
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A Steller's jay perches on a tree stump.

Photograph by Vickie Anderson, Nat Geo Image Collection

Steller’s Jay

The Steller’s jay is a bold and aggressive species frequently found scavenging in campgrounds, picnic areas, and feeding stations in the West. The bird’s flight is strong and steady, with wings rarely flexed above horizontal. Polytypic. Length 11.5".


A nearly unmistakable dark blue, black-crested jay with variable white or blue markings on the head. The wings and tail are a vivid blue, with fine black barring. The head, including the crest; back; and throat are blackish. Juveniles are washed with brownish or grayish to the upperparts and are duller below.

Geographic Variation

Extensive among the 17 subspecies from Alaska to Nica­ragua, but more limited and clinal among the 8 subspecies north of Mexico. The most distinctive subspecies in North America is macrolopha of the central and southern Rockies, which has a long crest, paler back, and white streaks on the forehead and over the eye. Other North American subspecies are short crested and generally intermediate, differing primarily in size, head pattern­ing, and overall coloration. Some, including the nominate sterlleri (Pacific coast from Alaska to southwestern British Columbia) are darker backed and have blue streaks on forehead. The largest subspecies, carlottae, from the Queen Charlotte Islands off British Columbia, is almost entirely black above.

Similar Species

Nearly unmistakable. The crest, shorter tail, and lack of white in the body separate Steller’s jays from the scrub-jays. The blue jay, our other crested jay, has white in the wings, tail, and face, as well as pale underparts.


Vocal with a diverse array of squacks, rattles, harsh screams. Call: a piercing sheck sheck sheck and a descending harsh shhhhhkk. The Steller’s jay frequently mimics other species, particularly raptors, and also incorporates calls of squirrels and household animals, such as dogs and chickens.

Status and Distribution

Common. Breeding: a variety of coniferous and mixed coniferous forests. Dispersal: generally resident, but large irruptions casually occur in fall and winter. During such irruptions, individuals can appear to lower elevations of the Great Basin, the Great Plains, southern California, and southwestern deserts. Accidental east to northeastern Illinois, eastern Nebraska, eastern Kansas and central Texas.

—From the National Geographic book Complete Birds of North America, 2006