Meet the Jays: Blue Jays, Steller’s Jays, and Western Scrub-Jays

Whether you think they're brilliant, bullies or both, there's plenty to discover about these clever corvids.

Jays are the loudest and flashiest of the Corvidae family, which also includes crows, ravens, and magpies. They’re also considered to be among the most intelligent species of the bird world. Most jays have strong bills and feed on all sorts of food, but these birds especially love peanuts. Although at least 10 species live in North America, this spotlight is on the three most likely to visit your backyard.

Blue Jay

Photo credit: Susan Kennific (B&B reader)
Photo credit: Susan Kennific (B&B reader) Male and female blue jays are very difficult to tell apart, because they have identical markings.

Chances are good you’ve seen this jay the most. Though a rare visitor west of the Rocky Mountains, it lives throughout the Midwest and East, and is hard to miss thanks to its bright blue markings and a loud jayyy jayyy call. Telltale signs that you’re seeing a blue jay are its white wing-bars and jaunty crest of feathers. This bird doesn’t need much coaxing to visit and will stop by most seed or suet feeders. But what blue jays love to eat are plenty of peanuts, acorns and beechnuts, which may help attract a yard full of jays. Some people see these birds as bullies. If you prefer to discourage their visits, hang feeders with foods jays don’t eat, like Nyjer, and use perchless feeders designed for smaller birds. (Read more! Attract Blue Jays to Your Backyard)

Western Scrub-Jay

Photo credit: Steve Byland
Photo credit: Steve Byland A western scrub-jay sits on a feeder.

This crestless species is found in—you guessed it—the U.S. West. Western scrub-jays are common in parks and woodlands across coastal California, but the species also lives inland, where it presents with paler, grayer markings. Like their cousins, they’re omnivorous, meaning they eat both insects and plant material. They typically bury their favorite food, acorns, for later. To identify a western scrub-jay, look for a white throat and a gray back. Westerns go off on their own to breed in isolated pairs instead of staying within a large flock as Florida scrub-jays do. Nests, built by both parents, are cup-shaped and made of twigs and moss. (Read more! 8 Different Kinds of Bird Nests and How to Spot Them)

Steller’s Jay

Photo credit: Steve Byland
Photo credit: Steve Byland A steller’s jay is the only all-dark jay with a crest.

The next time you hear a quick shek-shek-shek in the mountainous West, look up, and you might spot a Steller’s jay. Common in evergreen forests, the species typically sticks to exploring the higher canopies but will swoop into backyards to stop by feeders. It’s the only all-dark jay with a crest, and it has small white or blue spots on its forehead. These birds travel in flocks except when nesting, and they eat loads of seeds, berries, and insects. They’ve been known to nibble on unattended picnic lunches, too! (Read more! 3 Types of Seeds Birds Love Best)

Shell Games

Readers share their favorite backyard jay moments.

Two blue jays consistently visit our peanut feeder, but their personalities couldn’t be more different! One boldly takes its time, choosing the perfect peanut, and the other is already in the process of flying away the moment its beak touches the shell. We like to call it our grab ‘n’ go bird! —Dana Moyer, Wichita, Kansas

A western scrub-jay picked up each peanut and rattled it before deciding whether to take it. By accident a peanut was knocked to the ground, and to my delight, the jay jumped down picked it up and put it back in the feeder! It must have been fun, because it took out another peanut, dropped it and put it back again. This went on eight more times before the bird got tired of the game and retreated with a prized peanut. —Janis Knight, Sparks, Nevada

Kaitlin Stainbrook
Kaitlin Stainbrook, Associate Editor, Birds & Blooms Although Kaitlin is a newbie when it comes to birding and gardening, she loves getting to learn on the job. (She's already impressed a few friends by being able to identify a couple songbirds!) Previously, she worked on other Reader's Digest magazines like Reminisce and Country Woman. Hidden talents include playing the ukulele and speaking Japanese.