by Bridger Donaldson
Anyone who spends time birdwatching in high or low elevations of coniferous forests in the Western United States and Canada are likely to see the bold and inquisitive Steller’s Jay. They do well in forests disturbed by humans, such as thinned areas and campgrounds. Maybe you have heard the Steller’s Jay as it raucously announces its presence to the forest, “KWEK KWEK KWEK KWEK KWEK”, maybe meaning, “I’M THE PRETTIEST BIRD IN THE WOODS!” Indeed, these Jays are very handsome and they seem to know it too! Flaunting their beautiful plumage and brash habits as shamelessly as their close relative, the Blue Jay. These two species are the only crested jays in Canada and the US and are of the genus Cyanocitta.
Steller’s Jays are distinguished from Blue Jays, their easterly cousin, by their dark brown to deep black head, crest and back, as well as their dark blue wings, tail and underbody. They also lack the white plumage and markings of the Blue Jay. In autumn, the two often appear in my yard. When together, they seem to either despise each other wholeheartedly, tussling often, or get along like family members. Maybe they are! As they are closely related, Cyanocitta forms a “superspecies” with Blue Jays and Steller’s Jays which are east-west counterparts. They occasionally hybridize where their range meets. They have also hybridized on rare occasions with Woodhouse’s and California Scrub-Jays (two species formerly lumped as the Western Scrub-Jay).
The range of the Steller’s Jay spans north-south from Alaska to Nicaragua and west-east (US) from coastal California to New Mexico. Steller’s Jay has a lot of regional variation, with 16 recognized subspecies. Subspecies may be differentiated by the length and color of forehead streaking, typically blue in “coastal” birds and bold white in “interior” Steller’s Jays, and by the extent of black on their head and the color of their throat. The length of the crest also varies from population to population.
Steller’s Jays are proficient mimics, commonly crying out like hawks. I have witnessed one local Steller’s Jay uttering a surprisingly good impression of a House Finch, complete with the typical “BJEEER” end note, soon after a real finch finished singing nearby. Other animals noted to have been mimicked by this jay include the Fox squirrel, White-Breasted Nuthatch, Northern Flicker, Northern Goshawk, and chickens, as well as a myriad of mechanical and other human-made noises.
A diverse and opportunistic forager and an omnivore, Steller’s Jays have a varied diet, eating nuts and seeds, insects, berries, and small animals. They readily attend bird feeders in winter, and their favorite offerings are peanuts and walnuts. They are also avid nest robbers, consuming nestlings and eggs, resulting in songbirds mobbing them to protect their nests. They readily habituate to campgrounds and parks throughout the western states, taking from picnickers and campers and earning the nickname Camp Robber – a label more commonly applied to another corvid, the Canada Jay.
When breeding, a pair usually chooses a conifer for its nest, a large cup made of sticks, moss and leaves held together by mud and then lined with some soft material such as animal hair. A clutch is typically two to six eggs, raising one brood a year. Incubation is 16 days and the nestling period is about the same. Like Blue Jays, Steller’s Jays get very secretive around their nests and become more elusive during the breeding season. Parents feed the fledged young for about a month after they leave the nest, and they often stay in a family flock for autumn and winter.
One good place to see them in the Flathead is Whitefish Mountain Resort and any similar forested areas around the Valley. So, maybe quit “Cyanositting” around and go look for some Steller’s Jays!