Steller's Jay

Cyanocitta stelleri


Distribution, Migration, and Habitat

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Figure 1. Distribution of the Steller's Jay.

Although generally non-migratory, high-elevation populations typically shift to lower elevations during winter and flocks of mainly young birds occasionally irrupt into habitats and regions not normally occupied.

eBird range map for Steller's Jay

Generated from eBird observations (Year-Round, 1900-present)

Population relative abundance of the Steller's Jay across North America.

This map depicts the relative abundance estimate for the Steller’s Jay during the second week of June, with brighter color representing higher abundance. The data for this estimate were generated using Spatio-Temporal-Exploratory Models to predict population relative abundance at specific locations by relating observations of Steller's Jay from eBird to local environmental features derived from NASA remote sensing data. eBird ( is a citizen science program run by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Distribution in the Americas

Breeding Range

Figure 1 Resident from south-coastal and southeastern Alaska west to the Kenai Peninsula (Gabrielson and Lincoln 1959); also coastal British Columbia, including coastal islands, and across the central and southern interior of that province (Campbell et al. 1997b). Also breeds in extreme southwestern Alberta (rare and local; Federation of Alberta Natualists 2007). Rare vagrant to southern Yukon (not known to breed; Sinclair et al. 2003).

In Washington, occurs throughout the state except in central and south-central dry sagebrush areas; local on the San Juan Islands (Wahl 2005b). Breeds throughout Oregon, except in drier southwest and north-central portions (Gilligan et al. 1994). In Idaho, breeds in north and south; absent from central and south-central desert habitats (Burleigh 1972).

Breeds in western Montana, east to Red Lodge and the Beartooth Range (Montana Bird Distribution Committee 2012);, northwestern and southeastern Wyoming (mountain ranges; Faulkner 2010), foothills and mountains in western and central Colorado (Winn 1998; Colorado Breeding Bird Atlas); north-central, west-central, and south-central New Mexico (fairly rare and local; ); and the Davis and Guadalupe Mountains of western Texas (rare and local; ).

In California, occurs (discontinuously) in a broad strip of humid forest along the coast from the Oregon border south to the southern Diablo Range, San Benito County, and Morro Bay, San Luis Obispo County; also in the Warner Mountains, and from the northern Cascades south through the Sierra Nevada to the Greenhorn Mountains, Kern County (Shuford 1993a, Small 1994). Absent from large areas of California, including the Central Valley, eastern interior valleys, south-coastal and near-coastal areas, and lowland southeastern deserts; patchily distributed on mountain ranges throughout southern California (Small 1994, Garrett and Dunn 1981).

Absent from large areas of Nevada, but occurs in montane forests in the west, northeast, and southeastern parts of the state (Floyd et al. 2007). In Arizona, breeds in coniferous forests generally above 2,100 m along the Mogollon Rim and in the White Mountains (south-central to northwest portions of the state); patchily distributed in mountain ranges in southeastern Arizona (Chiricahuas and Sky Islands), and in portions of the northeast (Black Mesa, Chuska Mountains, Defiance Plateau (Sitko 2005).

In Mexico, occurs through interior highlands in western Mexico from Sonora and Chihuahua south through Sinaloa, Durango, Nayarit, Zacatecas, and Jalisco; disjunct populations in northeastern Mexico in Guerrero and Oaxaca; Michoacán, México, Distrito Federal, Federal District, Morelos, Tlaxcala, Puebla, Hidalgo, Querétaro, Guanajuato, San Luis Potosí, Veracruz, and Chiapas (Howell and Webb 1995). Breeds in highlands of south-central Guatemala (Land 1970), northern El Salvador, and highlands of Honduras into north-central Nicaragua (Phillips 1986a, Howell and Webb 1995).

Winter Range

Although considered a resident throughout its range, high-elevation populations typically migrate to lower elevations during winter. Large flocks of mainly young birds occasionally irrupt into habitats and regions not normally occupied (see Overview of Migration).

Casual east to southern Saskatchewan, southwestern South Dakota (Sutton 1967b), southwestern Kansas, and central Texas (Oberholser 1974c). Accidental records include northwestern Baja California (Wilbur 1987); Chicago, IL; and southeastern Quebec (American Ornithologists' Union 1983).

Distribution Outside the Americas

Not recorded.

Overview of Migration

Normally nonmigratory and resident on breeding areas year-round (Bent 1946a, Brown 1964b), although during winter birds that breed at high elevations in the U.S. and Canada typically move to lower elevations (Bent 1946a, Phillips et al. 1964a, Westcott 1969, R. W. Campbell pers. comm.). Such seasonal elevational movements may be common throughout the range, but may be largely undetected if birds are not banded. Downward movements can be erratic, sometimes starting as early as Jul in British Columbia, but usually not beginning until Aug, and peaking in Sep and Oct (R. W. Campbell pers. comm.). No information for Central American populations.

Large irruptive movements are sporadic after the breeding season, perhaps in response to food shortages (Svärdson 1957, Hubbard 1978c, Garrett and Dunn 1981, Monson and Phillips 1964, Vander Wall and Balda 1981, Rosenberg et al. 1991). Irruptions can occur over large geographic areas, and in years when other corvid species also irrupt. During irruptions, flocks apparently are composed mainly of immatures, which may have originated from areas much farther north (other subspecies; Phillips et al. 1964a, Stewart and Shepard 1994). Some authors have suggested that there is a generally southward movement during irruptions (Swarth 1922, McCabe and McCabe 1928b, Munro and Cowan 1947, Cannings et al. 1987, Gilligan et al. 1994, R. W. Campbell pers. comm.). A bird banded near Boulder, CO, was recovered 75 d later 346 km south in Weston, CO (Webb 1981); however, a bird banded in Feb near Boulder, CO, was recovered in Jul 640 km to the southwest in New Mexico, and thus may have flown north during the previous fall (Hough 1949).

Periodic autumn invasions of s. Vancouver I., British Columbia (Stewart and Shepard 1994). During the large 1992 invasion, flocks moved into the city of Victoria between 19 Aug and 27 Sep; flock sizes ranged from 8 to 250 birds; during movements, flocks typically moved silently, flying at or above treetop level in same direction; birds spent the winter in Victoria feeding on acorns and at bird feeders; became restless during early Apr, with most birds gone by late Apr. Of 89 birds that were aged, 75% were yearling birds; all 6 birds sexed were female (Stewart and Shepard 1994). Irruptive movements similar to those described for Blue Jay (Broun 1941, Gill 1941, Bent 1946a, Smith 1979d, Stewart 1982).

Habitat in Breeding Range

Coniferous and mixed coniferous-deciduous forest, open woodland, orchards, and gardens, including humid coniferous forest in nw. North America, and arid pine-oak (Pinus-Quercus) associations in sw. U.S. and Central America. On the West Coast of North America, from sea level to tree line; in interior of North America and Central America, generally from 1,000 to 3,500 m elevation.

Reported breeding in the following habitat types: subalpine forests of western hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla) and Douglas-fir forests in British Columbia (Cannings et al. 1987, R. W. Campbell pers. comm.); western hemlock, Douglas-fir, amabilis fir (Abies amabilis), grand fir (A. grandis), western red cedar (Thuja plicata), and Sitka spruce (Picea sitchensis) on Vancouver I., British Columbia (Stewart and Shepard 1994); spruce-fir (Picea-Abies) forests, lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta), mixed ponderosa–Douglas-fir forests in w. Montana (McEneaney 1993, WD, EG); mixed forest of coast live oak (Quercus agrifolia), eucalyptus (Eucalyptus spp.) groves, and California laurel (Umbellularia californica) near Berkeley, CA (Brown 1964b, Salata 1982); piñon pine–scrub oak (Pinus monophylla-Quercus berberidifolia) and Jeffrey pine (Pinus jeffreyi) in Kern and Ventura Cos., CA (Hile 1993); ponderosa pine, Douglas-fir, piñon-juniper (Pinus–Juniperus), lodgepole pine, and spruce-fir forests in Colorado (Andrews and Righter 1992). Over much of Steller's Jay's range, Clark's Nutcracker (Nucifraga columbiana) occurs at higher elevations than Steller's Jay, and Scrub Jay (Aphelocoma coerulescens) occurs at lower elevations, but often there is much overlap (Goodwin 1976b).

Across their range, Steller's Jays are most abundant in fragmented, patchy forested landscapes, often along edges (Sieving and Willson 1998, Brand and George 2001, Raphael et al. 2002a). Steller's Jays also utilize forest patches and edges in settled and recreation areas, although at lower densities (Vigallon and Marzluff 2005a). Some forest management practices, e.g. prescribed fire and selective harvest methods, contribute to landscape patchiness and diversity at the broad scale and, at the local scale, may create edges. Dickson et al. (Dickson et al. 2009b) found that, in the short term, density of Steller's Jays increased following a fire event, although the amount of increase depended on fire severity. Similarly, Steller's Jay abundance increased after treatments of group-selection timber harvest (Garrison et al. 2005).

See also Breeding: Nest Site.

Habitat in the Overwintering Range

Low-elevation populations typically remain on breeding territories during winter in North America (Bent 1946a, Brown 1964b). High-elevation populations typically move to lower elevations during winter, and into habitats not occupied during the breeding season, such as oak forests, orchards, and gardens (Bent 1946a, Stewart and Shepard 1994, R. W. Campbell pers. comm.). During mass irruptive movements, flocks may move through habitats not normally occupied, such as the Sonoran Desert (Phillips et al. 1964a, Monson and Phillips 1964, Rosenberg et al. 1991).

Historical Changes to the Distribution

Range apparently expanding north in central British Columbia into the Peace River region, between Fort St. John and Chetwynd as far north as Rose Prairie (R. W. Campbell pers. comm.). No other changes in geographic range reported.

No large population changes estimated between presettlement times and present in ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa) and Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) forests of w. U.S. (Brawn and Balda 1988b, Raphael et al. 1988, Hejl 1994).

Fossil History

Pleistocene jay Protocitta dixi from Florida (Brodkorb 1957) is similar but slightly smaller than the magpie-jay; more similar to Cyanocorax form rather than to true magpie, Pica. Unclear if there was a geographically widespread Protocitta jay in temperate zone during Pleistocene that gave rise to Steller's and Blue jays.

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.