A practical guide to bird watching in Sonoma County, California

(Unless otherwise indicated, all phone numbers are in the 707 area code)


Our other jay. Less common than Western Scrub-jay (Aphelocoma californica, the ubiquitous crestless jay in Sonoma County), Steller's Jay is nevertheless fairly common in the right habitat. Favors higher elevations and more densely wooded areas than Scrub-jay, especially conifer forest and mixed conifer/oak forest. Present in such areas throughout the county. Rare or not present in the Laguna de Santa Rosa and in the marshy areas at the south end of the county. Common, noisy, inquisitive visitor to camp sites, but rarely visits suburbs or urban parks. In my own Santa Rosa garden, Western Srub-jay is a daily visitor, but Steller's Jay has appeared only once in almost eleven years. Most common call is a loud Shak! Shak! Shak! (sometimes a simple Shak!) audible over long distances, but Steller's Jay makes a variety of other sounds. Known to mimic other birds, particularly Red-tailed Hawk, Red-shouldered Hawk, and Golden Eagle. Omnivorous, but especially fond of acorns and pine seeds. Caches food, like other jays. Known to steal from Acorn Woodpecker (Melanerpes formicivorus) caches.

Our only large, mostly bright blue bird with a crest. Head, upper breast and back dark grey to black. Back color varies geographically, from nearly black to medium grey, sometimes with considerable blue as well. Lower back, belly, wings, and tail bright blue. Lighter underneath, but not pale grey like Scrub-jay. A little pale streaking also under the chin, but this is often hard to see. Tail feathers and many of the wing feathers barred with fine black lines. Bill and eyes black. Bluish streaks on forehead, usually visible only at close range, may be lacking in some birds (photo below). 

Three major subspecies are recognized: C. stelleri stelleri, C. stelleri macrolopha, and C. stelleri carlottae. Our birds are of the nominate suspecies, C. stelleri stelleri, which ranges along the Pacific coast, from southern Alaska to central California and into the northern Rocky Mountains. These birds have a medium grey back, blue streaks on the forehead (below), and no markings on the face. C. stelleri macrolopha, found in the central and southern Rockies, has a longer crest, darker back, white streaks on forehead, a white mark above the eye not present in C. stelleri stelleri and often a white mark below the eye as well. C. stelleri carlottae is confined to the Queen Charlotte Islands off British Columbia. The largest of the three subspecies, its upper parts are almost entirely black. Steller's Jay (macrolopha) sometimes hybridizes with Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata) where ranges overlap, in the eastern Rocky Mountain area. Some sources mention as many as 16 subspecies of Steller’s Jay, which range as far south as Nicaragua.

Trivia: Named after George Wilhelm Steller, the first Western naturalist to visit Alaska, according Birds of Northern California.

Further reading:

Bolander and Parmeter, Birds of Sonoma County California, rev. ed., 2000, p. 87

Brinkley, National Wildlife Federation Field Guide to Birds of North America, 2007, p. 408

Burridge, ed., Sonoma County Breeding Bird Atlas, 1995, p. 112

Dunn and Alderfer, eds., National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 5th ed., 2006, p. 320

Dunn and Alderfer, eds., National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 6th ed., 2011, p. 358

Dunne, Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion, 2006, pp. 437-438

Ehrlich, Dobkin, and Wheye, The Birder's Handbook, paperback edition, 1988, p. 408

Fix and Bezener, Birds of Northern California, 2000, p. 260

Floyd, Smithsonian Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 2008, p. 260

Kaufman, Field Guide to Birds of North America, 2000, p. 272

Kaufman, Field Guide to Advanced Birding, 2011, pp. 48, 100

Lukas, Bay Area Birds: From Sonoma County to Monterey Bay, 2012, pp. 71, 189-190, 191, 260, 261

Parmeter and Wight, Birds of Sonoma County California, Update (2000-2010), 2012, p. 51

Peterson, Field Guide to Birds of Western North America, 4th ed., 2010, p. 262

Peterson, Western Birds, 3rd ed., 1990,  p. 254

Stokes, Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 1st ed., 2010, p. 498

Sibley, Field Guide to Birds of Western North America,1st ed., 2003, p. 303

Vuilleumier, American Museum of Natural History, Birds of North America: Western Region, 2011, p. 274

Voice: Cornell Lab of Ornithology: All About Birds--Steller's Jay

Voice: Cornell Lab of Ornithology: All About Birds--Western Scrub-jay

Steller's Jay, Spring Lake, Santa Rosa, March 28, 2012

Steller's Jay collecting nest material. Note markings on forehead.

Spring Lake, Santa Rosa, March 28, 2012

Steller's Jay

Cyanocitta stelleri

1990-2013 Sonoma County data. Graph provided by eBird (www.ebird.org), generated September 8, 2013

EBird-reported occurrence in Sonoma County