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Steller's Jay

Cyanocitta stelleri

Order:
Passeriformes
Family:
Corvidae
Sections

Systematics

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Geographic Variation

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Figure 2. Crest length and coloration of selected subspecies.

Dark areas on heads indicate black feathers; stippling indicates gray; fine lines indicate blue. After Brown 1963b; drawings by Kate Davis from museum specimens. Used with permission.

Body size generally increases from south to north and varies considerably in the northwestern portion of the species' range, with birds from Alaska substantially larger than birds from southern British Columbia. The relative length of the crest is similar for populations across the United States and Canada, but very long-crested birds occur in the sw. United States and nw. and central Mexico, whereas short-crested birds occupy the remainder of Middle America, excepting a long-crested population in Oaxaca (Figure 2, Appendix 1 ).

Plumage variation is evident on smaller scales, too, such as the inter-island variation in the Queen Charlotte archipelago (Topp and Winker 2008); e.g., birds from Graham I. have the ventrum dull bluish gray and the tail little barred, whereas birds from Queen Charlotte I. have the ventrum more purple and the tail conspicuously barred. As expected, there is marked genetic differentiation between the insular populations and those on the mainland (Burg et al. 2005, Topp and Winker 2008).

Subspecies

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Adult, subspecies C. s. stelleri. Resident from southern Alaska south to southwestern British Columbia. The head is the darkest of any subspecies, with a black crest and forehead with small, light blue streaks. White eye-crescents are lacking, and throat is pale streaked gray. Neck and mantle are dark, uniform blue-black. The ventrum is deep, dark blue, with wing coverts blue with faint darker barring. Rectrices indigo with narrow black barring, especially toward the tip.

© Theresa Bucher, Alaska, United States, 6 October 2015
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Adult, subspecies C. s. carlottae. Resident on Haida Gwaii, this subspecies is the largest and darkest overall. The crest, back, and mantle are a deep black. The throat shows more diffuse gray than mainland subspecies, and the ventrum, wings, and tail are paler. Forehead may have faint blue markings.

© Ian Cruickshank, British Columbia, Canada, 15 November 2015
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Adult C. s. carbonacea. This subspecies is resident in coastal central California, from Marin County south to Monterey County. Similar to C. s. paralia, but paler overall, and blue forehead streaks more extensive, with black crest, no white spot over eye, blackish-gray upperparts, and contrasting sky-blue underparts.

© Brian Sullivan, California, United States, 15 March 2010
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Adult C. s. annectens. This subspecies is resident in the northern Rocky Mountains from eastern British Columbia and southwestern Alberta south to northeastern Oregon, northern Idaho, western Montana, and northwestern Wyoming. C. s. annectens appears similar to C. s. stelleri, but is somewhat paler overall so that there is greater contrast between the black-blue head and gray-blue dorsum. This subspecies has blue forehead markings and a silvery-white spot above (and sometimes also below) the eye.

© Brian Lund, British Columbia, Canada, 29 May 2015
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Adult C. s. frontalis. This subspecies is resident from central Oregon south through the mountains of eastern California and west-central Nevada. C. s. frontalis is similar to C. s. annectens, but head grayish black, crest feathers tipped blue, blue streaks on forehead extended posteriorly over the crown, and dorsum light sky blue. Lacks white eye-crescents.

© Tim Lenz, Nevada, United States, 23 December 2012
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Adult C. s. macrolopha. This subspecies is resident in the southern Rocky Mountains from Nevada east to western South Dakota and south to northern Sonora and Chihuahua. C. s. macrolopha is similar to C. s. annectens, but mark above eye is bolder, whiter, and more extensive (extending to below the eye), and gray throat patch is deeper (extending into upper breast). Crest is long and glossy, and contrast is sharper between the face and crest and the gray of the mantle.

© Gordon Karre, Arizona, United States, 3 May 2016
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Adult C. s. ridgwayi, a resident subspecies in the highlands of northern Middle America south of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, from Chiapas south to northern Guatemala. Similar to C. s. restricta in appearance, but darker blue overall with bluer (less white) streaks on crest.

© Francisco Dubon, Guatemala, Guatemala, 8 November 2015

Seventeen subspecies, following Phillips (Phillips 1986a), as amended by Browning (Browning 1993b, Browning 2002), in two groups that differ most strikingly in having the crest long and black (the northern group) or short and blue (with one exception, the southern group). In addition to crest color and length (see Figure 2), subspecies differ in the extent of black on the head, the color and extent of streaks on the forehead, the presence and extent of pale markings around the eye, the color of the throat, the depth and shade of blue on the dorsum and ventrum, and, to a less extent, body size and bill depth. Subspecies boundaries are, in general, characterized by a high degree of intermediacy, suggesting substantial gene flow.

Northern Group:

C. s. stelleri (Gmelin, 1788). Includes C. s. litoralis Maynard, 1889, and C. s. borealis Chapman, 1902. Resident from s. Alaska south to sw. British Columbia [type locality = Nootka Sound, Vancouver I., British Columbia]. Crest black; head dark blue-black (the darkest of any subspecies); forehead with small, light blue streaks; white eyearcs lacking; throat pale and streaked gray; neck and mantle dark blue-black, usually with no contrast to the head; ventrum deep, dark blue; wing coverts blue with faint darker barring; rectrices indigo with narrow black barring, especially toward the tip.

C. s. carlottae Osgood, 1901. Resident on Haida Gwaii (the Queen Charlotte Is.), British Columbia [type locality = Cumshew Inlet, Moresby I., British Columbia]. Like C. s. stelleri, but crest, back, and mantle blacker, throat more extensively gray, ventrum paler (light blue to indigo), and wings and tail paler.

C. s. paralia Oberholser, 1932. Resident coastally from sw. British Columbia south to nw. California [type locality = Tillamook, Oregon]. Like C. s. stelleri, but paler overall; averages smaller (Wiebe 1995a, Browning 2002). Hybridizes with C. s. stelleri occur in sw. British Columbia (Wiebe 1995a), with C. s. annectens (below) in e. Washington, with C. s. frontalis (below) in central Oregon, and presumably with C. s. carbonacea (below) in nw. California (Browning 2002).

C. s. carbonacea Grinnell, 1900. Resident in coastal central California, from Marin County south to Monterey County [type locality = Stevens Creek Canyon, Santa Clara Co., California]. Similar to C. s. paralia, but paler overall and blue forehead streaks more extensive.

C. s. annectens Baird, 1874. Resident in the n. Rocky Mts. from e. British Columbia and sw. Alberta south to ne. Oregon, n. Idaho, w. Montana, and nw. Wyoming [type locality = Hell Gate, Montana]. Like C. s. stelleri, but somewhat paler overall so that there is greater contrast between the black-blue head and gray-blue dorsum, and with the ventrum light sky blue and a silvery spot above the eye.

C. s. frontalis Ridgway, 1873. Includes C. s. syncolla Oberholser, 1932. Resident from central Oregon south through the mountains of e. California and w.-central Nevada [type locality = Carson City, Nevada]. Similar to C. s. annectens, but head grayish black, crest feathers tipped blue, blue streaks on forehead extended posteriorly over the crown, and dorsum light sky blue.

C. s. macrolopha Baird, 1854. Includes C. s. percontatrix van Rossem, 1931, and C. s. cottami Oberholser, 1937. Resident in the s. Rocky Mountains from Nevada east to w. South Dakota and south to n. Sonora and Chihuahua [type locality = Zuni Mts., New Mexico]. Similar to C. s. annectens, but mark above eye bolder, whiter, and more extensive (extending to below the eye), gray throat patch deeper (extending into upper breast), and contrast sharper between the glossy black of the face and crest and the gray of the mantle.

C. s. diademata Bonaparte, 1851. Includes C. s. browni Phillips, 1950. Resident in the Sierra Madre Occidental of nw. Mexico from se. Sonora and sw. Chihuahua south to Durango and Jalisco; also on Cerro Potosí, Nuevo León [type locality = Zacatecas]. Like C. s. macrolopha, but forehead spots whiter (less blue) and dorsum grayer.

Southern Group:

C. s. coronata Swainson, 1827. Includes C. s. galeata Cabanis, 1851. Resident in highlands of ne. Mexico from se. San Luis Potosí south to n. Veracruz and n. Puebla [type locality = Cofre de Perote, Veracruz, fide Davis 1945]. Crest bright blue long; front of crest with pale purple marks; white marks around eye limited; cheeks black; throat ultramarine; mantle grayish blue; rump light blue; wings and tail purplish blue; ventrum rich blue. Intermediates with C. s. azteca (below) occur to in n. Veracruz.

C. s. phillipsi Browning, 1993. Resident in ne. Mexico in s.-central San Luis Potosí [type locality = 10 km southeast of Cañada Grande, San Luis Potosí]. Like C. s. coronata, but markings on front of crest more extensive and paler, and both dorsum and ventrum duller. Intermediates with C. s. coronata occur where ranges meet.

C. s. azteca Ridgway, 1899. Includes C. s. atriceps Davis, 1945. Resident in mountains of central Mexico from Edo. México and Morelos east to Puebla and w.-central Veracruz [type locality = Río Frio, Edo. México, fide Phillips 1986]. Similar to C. s. coronata, but crest black (the only subspecies in the southern group without a blue crest), throat black (not blue), dorsum purplish blue, and white marks above and below eye more extensive. This taxon is surrounded by blue-crested subspecies, with which it hybridized where geographic ranges meet.

C. s. purpurea Aldrich, 1944. Resident in w. Mexico, in mountains of n. and central Michoacán [type locality = Cerro Patamban, Michoacán]. Similar to C. s. coronata, but crest long and purplish blue, dorsum darker (blackish blue), throat gray, and ventrum grayer and with a contrasting dark blue crissum. Hybridizes with C. s. azteca (above) in n.-central Michoacán.

C. s. teotepecensis Moore, 1954. Resident in mountains of s. Guerrero [type locality = Cerro Teotepec, Guerrero]. Similar to C. s. purpurea, but lower cheek and throat blue, breast light blue, and dorsum blue-gray.

C. s. restricta Phillips, 1966. Resident in mountains of Oaxaca [type locality = Río Molino, sw. Oaxaca]. Similar to C. s. teotepecensis, but crest short, both dorsum and ventrum light blue, and throat grayish whitish.

C. s. ridgwayi Miller and Griscom, 1925. Resident in the highlands of n. Middle America south of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, from Chiapas south to n. Guatemala [type locality = Volcán de Fuego, Guatemala]. Similar to C. s. restricta, but darker blue overall with bluer (less white) streaks on crest.

C. s. lazula van Rossem, 1928. Resident in the highlands of El Salvador [Los Esesmiles, El Salvador]. Like C. s. ridgwayi, but “darker and more purely blue” (Browning 1993b), including on the throat. Birds in adjacent Honduras are intermediate toward C. s. sauvis (below). Note that although some have recognized this subspecies (Dickey and Van Rossem 1938, Rand and Traylor 1954, Phillips 1986a), others have lumped it with C. s. ridgwayi (Tashian 1953, Blake and Vaurie 1962, Monroe 1968).

C. s. sauvis Miller and Griscom, 1925. Resident in the highlands of n. Nicaragua [type locality = San Rafael del Norte, Nicaragua]. Like C. s. lazula, but crest and dorsum more ultramarine blue and upper throat gray; bill averages deeper.

Related Species

Within the Corvidae, a speciose family with a nearly cosmopolitan distribution (it is absent only from Antarctica), the genus Cyanocitta forms a clade with the genera Gymnorhinus, the Pinyon Jay of w. North America, and Aphelocoma, the scrub-jay complex (Espinosa de los Monteros and Cracraft 1997, Ericson et al. 2005a, Bonaccorso and Peterson 2007). Mitochondrial DNA (cytochrome b and control region) suggest a New World radiation of South American (Cyanolyca, Cyanocorax, and Calocitta) and North American (Cyanocitta, Gymnorhinus, and Aphelocoma) clades from an ancestral jay most likely similar to Southeast Asian magpies (Cissa and Urocissa; Ericson et al. 2005a). Southern genera are basal in many phylogenetic trees (Espinosa de los Monteros and Cracraft 1997, Ericson et al. 2005a). Three genera of the North American clade diverged rapidly from a common ancestor, with morphological and genetic data inconclusive as to whether Cyanocitta (Espinosa de los Monteros and Cracraft 1997 Ericson et al. 2005a), Gymnorhynus (Saunders and Edwards 2000, Curry et al. 2002) or Aphelocoma (Ericson et al. 2005a) is basal.

Cyanocitta includes only two species, C. stelleri and C. cristata, the Blue Jay of e. North America, which form a superspecies (Mayr and Short 1970). Cyanocitta is ecologically and biogeographically distinct from the other five genera of New World jays: it only has barred wing and tail feathers and uses mud in nest construction (Hardy 1961b). Sequence divergence of cytochrome b gene (on the mitochondria's DNA) suggest that the two Cyanocitta species diverged from a common ancestor about 5.35 mya (Klicka and Zink 1997). The two Cyanocitta species have hybridized in Colorado (Williams and Wheat 1971), British Columbia (Campbell et al. 1997b), and probably elsewhere where ranges have met recently. As expected, the plumage of hybrids is intermediate between that of the parental species (Williams and Wheat 1971, Wilde 1993). In addition, at least once C. stelleri has hybridized in the wild with Aphelocoma californica, the Western Scrub-Jay (McCarthy 2006).

Recommended Citation

Walker, Lauren E., Peter Pyle, Michael A. Patten, Erick Greene, William Davison and Vincent 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, New York, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bna.343