Steller's Jay

Cyanocitta stelleri



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In flight, wings appear broad and rounded, as does the tail. Wingbeats are strong and deliberate, almost entirely below horizontal.

© Brian Sullivan, California, United States, 26 September 2014

Walking, Hopping, Climbing, Etc.

Hops while on ground. Climbs trees by hopping from branch to branch, spiraling near trunk (Bent 1946a).


Strong and deliberate, but not sustained for long distances. In British Columbia, flocks frequently flew parallel to coastline; birds apparently reluctant to cross expanses of water (Stewart and Shepard 1994).

Swimming And Diving

Not recorded.


Preening, Head-Scratching, Stretching, Bathing, Anting, Etc.

Runs vanes of remiges between mandibles (Hardy 1961b). Scratches head by extending foot over top of wing. Vigorously shuffles wings and tail and stretches wings. Bathes in water, fluttering wings while spreading tail feathers. Frequently wipes bill after feeding.

Sleeping, Roosting, Sunbathing

Sleeps with head turned backward and bill tucked into back feathers (Hardy 1961b).

Daily Time Budget

No information.

Agonistic Behavior


Aggressive interactions between two individuals may include physical contact involving clenching of feet, pecking, and wing flapping.

© Jay McGowan, California, United States, 11 June 2012

Physical Interactions

During vigorous fights, two birds fly upward, grasping each other with feet and pecking at each other with bill; dominant bird usually supplants subordinates at feeding sites and occasionally chases them; supplanted bird jumps a few feet or flies short to long distances (Brown 1964b).

Communicative Interactions


Erectile crests are used as social signals in many different contexts. Higher crest angle indicates greater aggressive arousal or stress.

© Jay McGowan, California, United States, 12 June 2012
Figure 4. Aggressive Sidling behavior during interaction between male Steller's Jays

Behavior is characterized by erect crests, predominantly parallel orientation, loud and repeated calling, and frequent digging with bill or bill-rapping. From Brown 1964. Used with permission.

Social interactions involve complex combinations of postures, movements, crest displays, and vocalizations. Unless noted otherwise, following information summarized from work of Brown (Brown 1963a, Brown 1964b):

Crest Displays. Erectile crests are used as social signals in many different social contexts, and in complex combinations with other postures and vocalizations (Brown 1964b, Hope 1980). Crest is generally depressed when a bird is at rest, foraging, or preening, and during courtship; higher crest angle indicates greater aggressive arousal or stress; holds crest fully erect during high-intensity fights and predator-mobbing.

Wing-Spreading. Performed in a variety of postures with varying degrees of intensity. At low intensity, wings lifted just off body; at high intensity, wrist remains close to body, but primaries are outstretched, approaching horizontal position. Wings held up for variable amount of time. This display indicates low aggression; most commonly performed near the nest in response to an intruding jays, or at dominance boundaries between breeding pairs.

Wing-Flicking. Performed during strong agonistic arousal, or predator-mobbing, or when released after being banded. Jerks wings rapidly off back and quickly returns them.

Aggressive Sidling. Typically performed during interactions between pairs of birds during high-intensity aggressive encounters (Figure 4). Displaying bird commonly aligns to side of opponent facing in either the same or the opposite direction; tilts body, wings, and partly spread tail toward opponent; fully raises crest, and holds body horizontally; extends head and often lowers it in a sudden bowing movement. Displacement activities, such as vigorous pecking and food-seeking movements, are interspersed throughout this display; accompanied by frequent loud Wek calls (see Sounds: Vocalizations). Male gives display more frequently than female.

Tail-Flicking. Tail flicked rapidly upward then returned to normal position. This display is produced on its own, or in conjunction with Wing-Spreading or Wing-Flicking displays. Performed by both sexes, and in a variety of situations, usually associated with low to moderate levels of arousal.

Tail-Spreading. Tail held at normal angle with respect to body; rectrices fanned out then closed. Similar to Tail-Flicking, display produced on its own, or in conjunction with Wing-Spreading or Wing-Flicking displays. Performed by both sexes, and in a variety of situations, usually associated with low or moderate levels of arousal.

Hunchback Posture. Produced by raising dorsal tract of feathers on back; accompanied by tail-spreading and horizontal body posture. Given primarily by female in non-breeding season while supplanting conspecifics.

Appeasement Displays. Subordinate bird may inhibit attacks by dominant bird by crouching with body near horizontal and tail braced against ground. Head and neck pulled back onto shoulders, and bill opened up to 1.5 cm. Flutters wings and produces Wah call (see Sounds: Vocalizations). Typically produced at a food source.



Social system described as site-related dominance (Oberski and Wilson 1991), which is intermediate between territoriality and coloniality (Brown 1964b): Pair is present in home range year-round in central California, but actual territory is not clearly defined; pair defends area centered around the nest. In this area, the resident male dominates all other jays throughout the year; female dominates all other females in same area. With increasing distance from the nest, both male and female become less dominant. These concentric zones of decreasing dominance result in complex dominance hierarchies, which change depending on where jays interact. In a park near Berkeley, CA, each pair's zone of dominance was about 120 m across (Brown 1963a). Dominance relations are maintained by frequent displays and interactions.

Individual Distance

Dominant bird generally does not tolerate the presence of subordinates at close range (1.5–7 m); subordinate individuals often feed within 12 cm of each other (Brown 1963a, Brown 1964b).

Sexual Behavior

Mating System And Sex Ratio

Appears socially monogamous. Male closely guards mate during fertile periods; agonistic interactions between males peak before egg-laying and decline sharply during incubation, increase again before renesting attempts (Brown 1963a).

Pair Bond

In California, pair remains together on the territory throughout the year (Brown 1964b). In spring, pair performs Sexual Sidling; similar to Aggressive Sidling (see Figure 4), except crest angle is generally low. Male aligns sideways to a female, spreads tail, and tilts wings and body toward her, showing dorsal surfaces; Song commonly accompanies display; display may end in mounting and copulation (Brown 1964b). Courtship-Circling precedes or follows Sexual Sidling: Male (occasionally female) circles around mate, about 1.5 cm away. Tilts wings and tail toward mate, showing dorsal surfaces.

Pair bonds are relatively stable and rarely change; either sex will remate following loss of a partner (Brown 1964b).

Individuals exhibit different degrees of explorative and risk-taking behaviors; pairs with compatible behavioral syndromes may be more reproductively successful (Gabriel and Black 2012aGabriel and Black 2012b). Perhaps tied to the same behavioral syndrome, some foraging behaviors (i.e. selective sampling behaviors) may be also correlated to neophilia and risk-taking (Rockwell et al. 2012a). See Diet and Foraging: Feeding.

Extra-Pair Copulations

No direct observations or molecular confirmation of extra-pair copulations, but observations of behavior of pairs during a female's fertile period suggest that they are rare: strong mate-guarding behavior by males; courtship behaviors observed only between a mated pair or a pair in the process of forming pair bond; no apparent competition for females by courting males (Brown 1963a).

Social and Interspecific Behavior


Highly social, with frequent interactions and displays among neighbors and small groups. In spring and fall, large flocks may form during irruptive movements.

© Beverly Bowe, Washington, United States, 17 May 2016

Degree Of Sociality

Members of a pair are rarely apart. Highly social, with frequent interactions and displays among neighbors and small groups. In spring and fall, large flocks may form during irruptive movements (Swarth 1922, McCabe and McCabe 1928b, Munro and Cowan 1947, Guiguet 1954, Cannings et al. 1987). Even when associating with other species of jays, Steller's remain in closest contact with conspecifics (Westcott 1969).


No information.

Nonpredatory Interspecific Interactions

Foraging ranges of Scrub and Steller's jays overlap in coastal California; each species defends areas around its nest against the other species, but Scrub Jay generally is dominant over Steller's (Brown 1964b, Salata 1982, Hile 1993).

In se. Arizona, small flocks associate with Mexican Jay (Aphelocoma wollweberi, formerly conspecific with A. ultramarina) flocks (Westcott 1969), especially during fall and winter (J. Brown pers. comm.). At abundant food sources, Scrub, Mexican, and Steller's jays feed together, but retain separate conspecific flocks by keeping several feet between themselves and other jays (Westcott 1969). Mexican Jay displaces Steller's Jay at food sources. Steller's Jay will join interspecific flocks to mob predators. During the breeding season, Steller's Jay does not respond aggressively to tape-recorded calls of Mexican Jay or Scrub Jay; conversely, Mexican and Scrub jays do not respond aggressively to tape-recorded calls of Steller's Jay in their territories (EG).

Steller's and Blue jays frequently show aggression when sharing bird feeders; Steller's Jay is typically dominant over Blue Jay (Wilde 1993).

Frequently removes stored food from caches of Clark's Nutcracker, Gray Jay (Perisoreus canadensis; Tomback 1978a, Burnell and Tomback 1985), Acorn Woodpecker, as well as small mammals (Thayer and Vander Wall 2005).


Kinds Of Predators

Accipiter hawks prey heavily on Steller's Jays. In n.-central New Mexico, Steller's Jay constituted 12% of identified prey remains (n = 316) and 9% of direct observations of successful attacks (n = 167) by Cooper's Hawks (Accipiter cooperii). Steller's Jays are also a common prey item of Northern Goshawks across the western US (Drennan 2006). Kennedy (Kennedy 1991b) found that Steller's Jays constituted 9% of identified prey remains (n = 105) and 11% of direct observations of successful attacks (n = 36) of Northern Goshawks. No information available on mammalian predation, but eggs may be eaten by red squirrels (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus). In the sw. US, the Zuni people hunt nongame birds; Steller's Jays are hunted at a rate of 5.19 individuals/hunter/year (Taylor and Albert 1999).

Response To Predators

Mobbing is the prominent antipredator strategy employed by Steller's Jays. Group mobs predators, giving Wah calls (see Sounds: vocalizations, above), producing a loud chorus. Potential predators mobbed include gray squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis), Common Raven (Corvus corax), Red-tailed Hawk, Cooper's Hawk, and Northern Goshawk. In one instance, 5–6 individuals dove at a perched Cooper's Hawk, striking it on the back and knocking it to ground (Ficken 1989a).

Steller's Jay mimics raptor calls: 33% of playbacks of Northern Goshawk calls near hawk nests elicited mimetic responses by jays (Kennedy and Stahlecker 1993).

Recommended Citation

Walker, L. E., P. Pyle, M. A. Patten, E. Greene, W. Davison, and V. R. Muehter (2016). Steller's Jay (Cyanocitta stelleri), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.