Steller’s Jays: Learn How to Attract These Clever Black and Blue Birds
Get to know these smart and social western birds, including what they eat, where they're found, and how to attract them to your backyard.
What Do Steller’s Jays Look Like?
Smart, gregarious and handsome, the black and blue Steller’s jay is named after German naturalist Georg Steller. He first classified them on an expedition to an Alaskan island in 1741. 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.
Where to Find Steller’s Jays
Steller’s jays are found year-round in a variety of environments in western North and Central America, from Alaska to Nicaragua. They frequent campgrounds, picnic grounds and yards. There are many subspecies in the different environments. The subspecies mainly differ in the pattern of white or blue markings on the head.
How to Attract Steller’s Jays
To attract Steller’s jays 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. They hide food for later retrieval as winter approaches, gathering nuts and seeds in their throats and stuffing the nourishment into nooks and other hiding spots for later in the year.
Intelligence and Communication
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.
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. Ornithologists call this group behavior mobbing.
Courtship and Raising Young
Adults likely mate for life. They engage in courtship feeding and show off by throwing their crests and vibrant blue feathers around. A pair gathers pine needles, twigs, grasses and mud during the breeding season. Then they construct a cup-shaped nest where the female incubates up to six blue-green eggs with dark brown spots. Check out fascinating facts about blue jays.