Steller’s Jay

One of my favorite artists is Beverley Hackett, a printer from Grass Valley, California, who passed away just few years ago. She did the above print of Steller’s Jays in 1982. I have it hanging on my wall near the window where as I watch the Steller’s Jays in the trees by my feeder here in Northern California. Each color in the print was carved from a different wooden block—she is truly an excellent artist with an eye toward subtle detail.

The first thing I learned in research is that the name Steller’s Jay is the most frequently misspelled name in all bird watching. Though the birds do have majestic (stellar) colors, the Steller’s Jays were discovered in Alaska by Georg Steller, a naturalist, in 1741. He also discovered the Steller’s sea lion and Steller’s Sea-Eagle. When scientist registered this bird species in 1788 they named it after this great explorer.

The Blue Jay is common on the East Coast of North America where I grew up. But it’s the Steller’s Jay (along with the Scrub Jay) that we see on the West Coast, from Alaska and the Yukon in the north to Arizona and New Mexico in the south. 

 The Steller’s Jay is a delight to the eye for artists with its unmistakable deep azure and dark blue feathers. It has a long, dark crest on top of its head. This crest shows a great deal of variation throughout the range. Some populations feature black crests and backs, and others blue. There is also some white or blue markings on the bird’s head. When flying one can see faint, dark barring on its wings.

For me, the adult Steller’s Jay, with it’s blue vertical “eyebrows” above each eye give it an aristocratic look. The bird is a bold and aggressive species, and a known scavenger at picnic areas and when camping. They eat almost any scraps that humans give them. Steller’s Jays are known as the watchdog of the western evergreen forests in the mountainous West. Their calls can sound harsh and scolding, seeming warning other birds that are intruder near. They also have a large repertoire and mimic other birds, squirrels, cats and some mechanical sounds.

Steller’s Jays are omnivores. Their diet is about 2/3 vegetable matter consisting of seeds, nuts, berries, and fruits. They also eat bird eggs and nestlings, invertebrates, suet, small rodents and carrion.

Steller’s Jays form monogamous, long-term pair bonds. They remain together year round. They typically nest in a conifer, and both members of the pair help build the nest. The nest is a bulky cup made of twigs, weeds, moss, and leaves, held together with mud. The nest is usually lined with pine needles and other fine material, often with bits of paper adorning the outside. The female incubates 4-5 eggs for 16-18 days. Both parents feed the young, which leave the nest at about 16 days. The adults continue to provide some food for the fledglings for about a month after they fledge.

Steller’s Jays have expanded into a wider variety of habitats within the past 20 years and are now more common in towns and cities than before. But Steller’s Jays are not found breeding or wintering in some parts of Seattle and other areas now due to the impact from expanding crow populations.

 (much of this information is from Cornell Lab of Ornithology)


Black-Headed Grosbeck

This morning I saw four Black-Headed Grosbeaks, both males and females, at my suet. They were grabbing up the sunflower seeds with their heavy bills. The flamboyant male has a large, black head, cinnamon body with white-barred, black wings and short tail. I think the female is just as beautiful with subtle cinnamon/brown colors and distinct white-eye markings. They sing an early morning song much like the Robin in the high trees. I see this bird, often in small flocks, in desert thickets and mountain forests here but they can be found throughout the west in various terrains.

The scientific names are interesting and very appropriate for this bird:  Species name, melanocephalus, means “black-headed.”  Genus name, Pheucticus is from two Greek words pheuticus that means “shy” and phycticus that means “painted with cosmetics.”

The female builds a bulky but loose constructed nest that’s about 5–7 inches across and 2–4 inches deep. She uses slim twigs, stems, rootlets, and pine needles with no mud or cementing. She lines the 3–4 inch wide inner cup with finer stems, rootlets, hair, string, and green material, making a 1–2 inch deep hollow. It usually takes her 3 to 4 days to build the nest, gathering most of the material in the first days and intensifying assembly later on. The loose construction can be so loose that the eggs can be seen through the bottom! This may help provide ventilation to keep nest and eggs cool. (from Cornell Lab of Ornithology)

  • Clutch Size 2–5 eggs
  • Number of Broods–1
  • Incubation Period12–14 days
  • Nestling Period10–14 days
  • Egg Description: Pale to greenish blue with brown or reddish brown spotting.

Conservation: Black-headed Grosbeak populations are stable or increasing throughout their range. The global breeding population at 14 million, with 75 percent breeding in the United States, 4 percent in Canada, and 100 percent spending some part of the year in Mexico.