Bird of the Week: Steller’s Jay

A Highly Divisive Bird

Photo by Jonah Rohlfing

Photo by Jonah Rohlfing

Species: Steller’s Jay, or Cyanocitta stelleri

Family: Corvidae (Corvids: Crows, Jays, Magpies)

Star sign: Leo

Rating: public opinion is mixed/10

Ideal Date: Going to the movies and yelling at the screen

The Steller’s Jay is a bird of controversy. A bird of conflict. A bird of drama, in more ways than one. To those who aren’t familiar, that might seem a little strange; surely, such beautiful birds should only engender feelings of admiration, awe, and appreciation for The Aesthetic… right? Look at that coat! That striking crest! To someone from east of the Mississippi, they seem like the Blue Jay’s cooler, goth cousin, with a gorgeous black head and sapphire-colored feathers which seem to shimmer in the light. You see a flash of that royal blue out of the corner of your eye and think to yourself: “what is there not to love about this friend!” And then the bastard opens its beak, and you are reminded why people consider this jay to be a nuisance.

If you haven’t seen a Steller’s Jay, you’ve definitely heard one. Their loud and scratchy scream is impossible to miss and even more impossible to ignore. The list of adjectives which accurately describes it includes (but is not limited to): harsh, unpleasant, grating, obnoxious, and physically painful. And it’s loud! But their most recognizable (and hated) call isn’t the only one that this flashy friend can make. Steller’s Jays can mimic the sounds of birds, squirrels, dogs, cats, and even some machinery. Naturally, they use this power for evil, mimicking birds of prey to scare away other wildlife from feeding areas. Since jays are corvids, their brains are big enough that when they cause problems, they’re almost certainly doing it on purpose.

But perhaps the brash, tawdry nature of these flamboyant friends is part of their charm, not something to be reviled but respected. These birds want your attention, and they don’t care how they get it; they’ve honed spotlight-hogging down to a science. There’s something admirable about that. The beautiful colors, the hideous call, the mischievous behavior — all of these reveal the essence of the one and only Steller’s Jay: a confident corvid with an ego the size of the planet Jupiter, who will not shut up about himself until you know exactly who he is. And honestly? We kind of love to see it.

If you want to see a Steller’s Jay for yourself, they aren’t hard to find: simply keep an ear out for the screams of the damned and go from there. Visually, the bird is slightly bigger than a robin, and its black crested head and blue body are unmistakable. In nature they stick to the tops of evergreens, and in the suburbs they draw closer to humans to scavenge for food, and wherever they are, they scream their hearts out at all hours of the day. Yet, despite everything, the Steller’s Jay is still one stellar jay.

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2 years ago

thank you for sharing your article on the Steller’s Jay. screams of the damned. fitting. one recently visited my patio for a good length of time and mostly i was thinking, you’re welcome to stay and i’ll mind my own, as long as you don’t scream. fortunately, it was copacetic. i was a "goth"ic dude once, and, incidentally, black and blue were my dominant colors (mixed shoes, mixed nailpolish (it’s not feminine if it’s for a different effect, ok?)) i really appreciated your comparison as it struck a chord with me.

C Fortner
C Fortner
2 years ago

You are right about those jays. I love to watch them but they are unpleasant to listen to. Obnoxious ones are usually the smart ones. Enjoyed the article!

Private Citizen
Private Citizen
2 years ago

Yes, I have these loudmouths, and ‘obnoxiou’s is my best word… the most aggressive one screamed at me for 5 full minutes the first time I put out peanuts, then dared to sit at the end of my deck… no way… he was not having it… "Brutus" kept it up and I ended up screeching back, until he gave up. Now 8 months later I put out the bird seed, unsalted nuts, coconut, and other tidbits and feed 8 different types of birds from tiny Juncos to the huge Northern Shrike couple, an odd grey pigeon looking pair , and a entire covey of plump and peaceful California quail.. quail step over and around in tight spaces on the deck rail to eat the feast, never a quarellsom word or action… Stellers will shriek and chest bump each other, it is never ending jockeying for position. Early Jay food seekers sit in the bushes and redwood trees waiting for the noise of my sliding door to open onto the deck..then they all show up. location: Far northern California, on the coast.

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