Steller's Jay

Cyanocitta stelleri



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Dark blue- or black-crested jay, about 30–34 cm long, 100–140 g (Dunning 1984Dunning 1993b). Irides dark brown. Bill, legs, and feet black in both sexes.

Nominate race, Cyanocitta stelleri stelleri, has brownish black to jet black head, crest, and upper breast, with slight gloss; light blue streaks on forehead; and grayish white throat patch. Back dark grayish brown to grayish black, not usually contrasting noticeably with black of head. Lower breast dark greenish blue; lighter under tail. Wings deep, rich blue; tail dark blue or purplish blue. Plumage of sexes similar, except female may have fainter and narrower black barring on tail- and wing feathers. Juvenile has sooty gray head and body; white eye-crescents indistinct or lacking; wing feathers unbarred; crest shorter than that of adult and lacking blue frontal streaks. Bill pale, but darkens by onset of Prebasic I molt.

Substantial geographic variation in coloration, body size, and crest length. Tendency for black-headed, gray- or black-backed, long-crested birds in northern part of range south to Jalisco, Mexico; blue-headed, blue-backed, short-crested birds from Jalisco south to Nicaragua; one black-crested form (C. s. azteca) occurs in center of ring of blue-crested forms in central Mexico. See Systematics: Subspecies for detailed descriptions of subspecies.

Similar Species

The only other crested jay in U.S. and Canada is the Blue Jay, which can be distinguished from Steller's Jay by its uniform blue forehead, crest, nape, and back; generally shorter crest; white or whitish gray face, throat, and underparts; black, necklace-like band from upper breast to back of crest; and conspicuous white wing-bar formed by broad white tips on greater coverts.

In Mexico and Central America, other crested jays are distinguished from Steller's Jay by the following combination of characters. Black-throated Magpie-jay (Calocitta colliei) and White-throated Magpie-jay (Calocitta formosa) are larger than Steller's Jay (58–76 cm), with long crests, long graduated tails, and outer tail feathers broadly tipped with white. All other blue-crested jays in Central America lack barring on wings and tail.

Detailed Description

Steller's Jays have 10 functional primaries (the outermost, p10, reduced in length), 9 secondaries (including 3 tertials), and 12 rectrices. Geographic variation in appearance is moderate. The following molt and plumage descriptions pertain to the interior western North American subspecies (C. s. macrolopha and diademata) with darker crests and white markings on the forehead; see Systematics: Geographic Variation for appearance variation in up to 17 other recognized subspecies in western North America, Mexico, and Central America. Little or no geographic or sex-specific variation in molt strategies reported, although some variation in average timing and extent likely occurs with latitude of breeding throughout the range, owing to variable environmental constraints, day-length regimes, and breeding seasonality.


Adult C. s. stelleri, This subspecies has a black crest and forehead with small, light blue streaks. White eye-crescents are lacking and throat is pale streaked gray. Neck and mantle dark, uniform blue-black. The ventrum is deep, dark blue, with wing coverts blue with faint darker barring. Rectrices indigo with narrow black barring, especially toward the tip.

© Theresa Bucher, Alaska, United States, 6 October 2015


Following is based primarily on detailed plumage descriptions of Ridgway (1904), Oberholser (Oberholser 1974c), and Goodwin (Goodwin 1976b); see Pyle (Pyle 1997d) for age-related criteria; additional information on plumage coloration from representative study skins; color codes of Smithe (Smithe 1975) given in brackets. Sexes show similar appearances in all plumages. Definitive Plumage is typically assumed at Second Basic Plumage.

Natal Down

Down reported absent; hatchlings naked (Oberholser 1974c).


Recently fledged juvenile has sooty gray body and head, short crest.

© Jay McGowan, California, United States, 14 June 2012

Juvenile has sooty gray head and body, shorter crest than adult, and lacks blue frontal streaks. Bill darkens by onset of Preformative Molt.

© Charlotte Morris, California, United States, 12 September 2015

Juvenile (First Basic) Plumage

Present primarily Jun–Aug in North American populations. Crown dull black or gray (blackish neutral gray, N 4.04); remainder of head brownish; forehead and crown with a few dull gray spots; grayish white spot over eye; chin and throat blackish gray, with a few paler gray spots. Crest noticeably shorter than on adults. Back fuscous (5.0 YR 3.04/1.5) or drab gray; rump light bluish (1.9 PB 8.2/3.2). Rectrices bluish, ranging from indigo blue (5.0 PB 3.14/3.0 and 7.6 PB 1.9/5.1) on central rectrices (r1), to venetian blue (4.0 PB 5.9/10.4) on outer feathers (r6); all rectrices indistinctly barred dusky on outer web, middle pair barred on both webs. Wing feathers as in Definitive Basic Plumage but blue areas average duller, sootier. Underparts blackish neutral gray (N 4.04), lacking any blue. Juvenile body feathers (especially undertail coverts) filamentous due to lower barb density than feathers of later plumages.

Formative Plumage

"First Basic" or "Basic I" plumage of Humphrey and Parkes (Humphrey and Parkes 1959) and later authors; see revision by Howell et al. (Howell et al. 2003). Present primarily Sep–Aug in North American populations. Similar to Definitive Basic plumage except for retention of juvenile feathers in wing and tail: 1-2 tertials replaced, contrasting with older retained juvenile tertials and secondaries; 1–9 upperwing distal greater coverts and all primary coverts retained juvenile, duller and washed sooty or brownish, contrasting with replaced formative greater and other wing coverts, brighter blue; retained juvenile outer primaries and rectrices narrower, more tapered, browner, and relatively more worn, 1-2 central rectrices sometimes replaced, contrastingly fresh and bluer (Pyle 1997d).


Steller's Jay is a familiar and vocal resident of coniferous and mixed woodlands across much of western North America.

© David Hollie, California, United States, 7 June 2015

An apparent adult in Definitive Basic Plumage due to presence of uniformly bright blue wing coverts and remiges.

© Jason Vassallo, Washington, United States, 7 May 2016

Definitive Basic Plumage

Present primarily Sep–Aug in North American populations. Crown, including crest, dull blackish gray (N 4.04), crest with bluish iridescence when viewed from certain angles; forehead and crown with narrow white or pale blue streaks (1.9 PB 3.14/3.2); auriculars and nape dull blackish gray; mantle blackish gray (N 4.04); rump light sky blue (1.9 PB 8.2/3.2). Tail appears deep blue; outer webs of rectrices indigo blue (5.0 PB 3.14/3.0 and 7.6 PB 1.9/5.1); inner margins fuscous (5.0 YR 3.04/1.5) except central rectrices (r1) blue; all outer webs (and both webs of central pair of rectrices) barred blackish. Upperwing lesser coverts blackish gray (N 4.04); median, greater, and primary coverts broadly edged light blue (4.0 PB 5.9/10.4 and 3.2 PB 7.2/6.5), often with faint dusky bars on greater coverts. Primaries and secondaries fuscous (5.0 YR 3.04/1.5); outer margins of primaries light blue (4.0 PB 5.9/10.4 and 3.2 PB 7.2/6.5); outer margins of secondaries and tertials darker blue (smalt blue 7.0 PB 3.5/9.5 and ultramarine blue 7.3 PB 4.0/11.7); tertials conspicuously barred with black, bars becoming less distinct distally through secondaries. Throat and upper breast blackish gray (N 4.04), the throat with white to grayish-white streaks creating conspicuous throat patch; lower breast blackish gray (N 4.04) becoming dull indigo blue (5.0 PB 3.14/3.0) on belly and lighter sky blue (3.2 PB 7.2/6.5 and 1.9 PB 8.2/3.2) on undertail coverts.

Definitive Basic Plumage separated from Formative Plumage by having wing and tail feathers uniform in quality and freshness: tertials and inner secondaries uniform in wear; primary and greater coverts uniformly bluer, not contrasting in feather quality with retained distal greater coverts; basic outer primaries and rectrices broader, more truncate, darker blue, and relatively fresher (Pyle 1997d).

Analysis of a feather from an amelanotic Steller's Jay (Schmoker 2006) suggests that the blue color of typical jay feathers is produced by the basal melanin layer of the feather barbs (Shawkey and Hill 2006). The intensity of the structurally-based UV blue plumage color may be condition-dependent (Zirpoli et al. 2013).


Figure 5. Annual cycle of molt and breeding.

Information summarized for subspecies in the U.S. and Canada; little information available on the annual cycle of subspecies in Mexico and Central America. Thick lines show peak activity and thin lines show off-peak.

Figure 6. Timing of Prebasic I molt (upper) and Prebasic II (and later) molts (lower)

Timing of Prebasic I molt (upper) and Prebasic II (and later) molts (lower) for C. s. carlottae in Queen Charlotte Islands, British Columbia. Molt score indicates relative advance of overall molt: 0, molt not started; 50, molt completed for juveniles; 70, molt completed for adults. Crosses in upper panel indicate individuals with tail feathers in last stages of growth. In lower panel, dark dots indicate males; circles, females. From Pitelka 1958. Used with permission.


Molt and plumage terminology follows Humphrey and Parkes (Humphrey and Parkes 1959) as modified by Howell et al. (Howell et al. 2003, Howell et al. 2004). Steller's Jay exhibits a Complex Basic Strategy (cf. Howell et al. 2003, Howell 2010b), including complete prebasic molts and a partial preformative molt but no prealternate molts (Pitelka 1958; Oberholser 1974c; Pyle 1997c, Pyle 1997d; Figure 5).

Prejuvenile (First Prebasic) Molt

Complete, primarily May–Jul in North America, in the nest. No information on timing or sequence of pennaceous feather irruption and development. Duration of Prejuvenile Molt among individuals ca. 10–13 d; presumably completed or near-completed by fledging at about 16 d.

Preformative Molt

"First Prebasic" or "Prebasic I" Molt of Humphrey and Parkes (Humphrey and Parkes 1959) and some later authors; see revision by Howell et al. (Howell et al. 2003). Partial, primarily Jul–Sep in North America (Figure 5), on or near breeding grounds. In the population from the Queen Charlotte Is., BC, molt may begin while juvenile rectrices are still sheathed; molt in 83 birds spanned 10 Jun–10 Oct (75% of which commenced molt 15 Jun–9 Jul) and lasted 70–80 d per individual (Pitelka 1958). Includes most or all body feathers, 0–9 upperwing inner greater coverts (none in about 18% of birds), 1–2 tertials, and occasionally 1–2 central rectrices (Pyle 1997c, Pyle 1997d). Molt in a captive bird from Washington State began 12 Jul and was completed in 2 mo; molt began nearly simultaneously on the breast, thighs, back, scapulars, and upperwing secondary coverts; body molt lasted about a month and was almost completed before head molt begun; molt completed with nape, crest feathers, and throat (Mcmannama 1950). Anomalous individual in central California retained scattered juvenile feathers throughout the body tracts, as well as median coverts, perhaps due to subnormal nutrient resources in diet (Pitelka 1961a).

Definitive Prebasic Molt

Complete, primarily Jul–Sep in North America (Figure 5), on or near breeding grounds, although study is needed on the relationship between breeding territories and molting grounds. In a population from the Queen Charlotte Is., molt in 69 individuals spanned 12 May–10 Sep (75% of which commenced molt 22 May–12 Jun) and lasted 60–70 d per individual (Pitelka 1958). Definitive Prebasic molt about 3 wk earlier than Preformative Molt (see Figure 6) and feathers replaced more quickly, possibly related to food-resource and foraging dynamics (Pitelka 1958). Second Prebasic Molt averaged earlier than later Prebasic Molts (75% of 38 individuals commencing molt 15–28 May), likely because some individuals were not constrained by breeding; otherwise these molts were similar (Pitelka 1958). Primaries are replaced distally (p1 to p10), secondaries replaced proximally from s1 and, likely, proximally and distally from the central or innermost tertial (s8 or s9) as is typical of passerines, and rectrices probably replaced distally (r1 to r6) on each side of the tail, with some variation in sequence possible.

Bare Parts

Bill And Gape

In chicks bill pale (Mcmannama 1950); darkens to black before or with onset of Preformative Molt (Goodwin 1976b); black in adults. Mouth-lining of chicks bright red with thick pale-yellow fleshy tissue around gape; fades to flesh pink about 2 wk after fledging (Mcmannama 1950). Roof of mouth pinkish to mixed grayish and blackish through at least first Mar; primarily to entirely blackish in adults (Pyle 1997c).


Dark brown.

Legs And Feet



Within a subspecies, male is generally larger than the female, although there is overlap, so a large female can be larger than a small male. Considerable geographic variation in size; carlottae subspecies is the largest North American subspecies, frontalis the smallest. Information for North American subspecies is summarized in the Appendix 1. See also Systematics: Subspecies.

Blue-crested subspecies in Mexico and Central America are generally smaller than black-crested North American subspecies by 5–20% in linear measurements and mass. However, black-crested azteca in central Mexico is generally larger than neighboring blue-crested populations, and more similar in size to black-crested North American populations. Data on Central American subspecies can be found in Brown 1963b and Phillips 1950b.

Linear Measurements

Linear measurements for North American subspecies are summarized in the Appendix 1. Information on subspecies in Mexico and Central America can be found in Phillips 1950b.


For both sexes of specimens of stelleri from w. Canada: mean 128 g (range 111–142, n = 67; Dunning 1993b). For both sexes of specimens of macrolopha from Arizona: mean 106 g ± 5 SD (range 98–117, n = 23; Dunning 1984). No information on seasonal variation in mass.

Recommended Citation

Walker, L. E., P. Pyle, M. A. Patten, E. Greene, W. Davison, and V. R. Muehter (2016). Steller's Jay (Cyanocitta stelleri), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.