Steller's Jay

Cyanocitta stelleri

  • Version: 2.0 — Published July 1, 2016
  • Lauren E. Walker, Peter Pyle, Michael A. Patten, Erick Greene, William Davison, and Vincent R. Muehter

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Figure 1. Distribution of the Steller's Jay.

Although generally non-migratory, high-elevation populations typically shift to lower elevations during winter and flocks of mainly young birds occasionally irrupt into habitats and regions not normally occupied.

During Vitus Bering's ill-fated 1740–1742 expedition, his ship St. Peter spent only one day anchored off Kayak Island, near present-day Cordova, Alaska, before heading back to Siberia. The ship's naturalist, Georg Wilhelm Steller, spent that July day in 1741 frantically collecting specimens and observing wildlife on the island. He was impressed with a black-crested blue jay that was common on the island, but did not recognize it from the boreal forests of the Old World. Its similarity to the painting of the Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata) that he had seen in Mark Catesby's 1731 portfolio The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands convinced Steller that the expedition had reached America. Although Steller's specimen was lost when the expedition was later marooned on Bering Island, his field notes describing the bird made it back to St. Petersburg, and J. F. Gmelin used those notes to formally describe “Steller's Crow” in 1788 (Mearns and Mearns 1992a).

Steller's Jay is a conspicuous crested jay of western coniferous and mixed-coniferous forests, breeding from Alaska, western Canada, and the western United States south through western Mexico to Nicaragua. There is considerable geographic variation in plumage color, size, and relative crest length in this species: Black-crested, black-backed, or gray-backed populations occur in Canada, the United States, and northwestern Mexico; smaller, blue-crested, blue-backed, or gray-backed populations in central Mexico and Central America. Introgression and intermediate forms often occur where different subspecies meet.

Habituating readily to humans, Steller's Jay is a well-known bird at bird feeders, picnic areas, and campgrounds, where its loud, often raucous calls announce its presence. The species has been the focus of detailed behavioral studies, revealing complex social behavior and vocal communication (Brown 1963a, Brown 1963b, Hope 1980). Steller's Jay shows site-centered dominance, which is thought to be intermediate between territorial and colonial social behavior: males and females form apparently monogamous, long-term pair bonds, and the mated pair is socially dominant to all other individuals near its nest. The pairs' dominance decreases with distance from the nest, resulting in complex, shifting dominance relations that depend on the locations of interactions in relation to the nesting areas of the interacting birds. Individuals communicate using many variable, intergrading vocalizations, in conjunction with different postures and displays, resulting in a complex and rich system of social communication.

Steller's Jay is mainly nonmigratory, although populations that breed at high elevations typically move to lower elevations during the winter. Periodic irruptions of large flocks (mainly young birds) bring this jay into areas and habitats not normally occupied.

Surprisingly little is known about the basic breeding biology and demography of this relatively tame, common, and widespread species. In addition, a taxonomic revision is needed to shed light on the evolutionary relationships among its morphologically variable populations.

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.