Steller's Jay

Cyanocitta stelleri


Diet and Foraging

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Main Foods Taken

Omnivorous; consumes a wide variety of animal and plant food, including arthropods, nuts, seeds, berries, fruits, and small vertebrates. May also prey on nestlings and eggs of other birds found incidentally while foraging for primary prey (Vigallon and Marzluff 2005b). Nest predation may be most common while jays are raising their own nestlings (Sieving and Willson 1999). Mast seeds, such as acorns and pine seeds, are important food sources when available. Steller's Jays also readily use human food sources (Marzluff and Neatherlin 2006); at bird feeders, picnic areas, and campgrounds, this jay consumes a wide variety of foods, such as suet, sunflower seeds, peanuts, meat, cheese, bread, and cookies.

Microhabitat For Foraging

Forages on the ground and in trees and bushes. In California, 71% of total foraging time was spent in trees, with peak use in spring and fall; foraging on the ground increased in summer and winter (Salata 1982). Fly-catches while in trees, gleans insects off foliage while standing or hovering, or pries under loose bark with bill.

Food Capture And Consumption

While on ground, typically obtains food by flicking aside leaf litter with sideways swipes of its bill (Abbott 1929). Typically carries nuts or large food items to elevated perches, then holds food items under one or both feet and strikes them with slightly open bill (Brown 1964b). Will take acorns from storage trees of Acorn Woodpecker (Melanerpes formicivorus; Bent 1946a).

Commonly takes eggs and nestlings of small birds, prey items that may be particularly important during the early nesting season (Sieving and Willson 1999). Forms search images and uses area-restricted searching, but does not appear to use these strategies to specialize on nest predation (Vigallon and Marzluff 2005b). Observed attacking adult Pygmy Nuthatch (Sitta pygmaea) and adult Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis): Both birds were caught in air with feet and carried to a perch, where the jay held them with one foot and plucked and partly ate them (Carothers et al. 1972).


An adult approaches a bird feeder. Steller's Jay is a regular visitor to backyard feeders in appropriate habitat.

© Ken Langelier, British Columbia, Canada, 26 October 2014

Adapts feeding behavior to social context at bird feeders. Jays peck seeds at a lower rate when other conspecifics are nearby (Bekoff et al. 1998). Given multiple options for bird feeder locations and conditions, jays prefer to feed on sunflower seeds, at unoccupied feeders, farther from cover (Bekoff et al. 1999). Individuals' foraging behavior may be correlated with age as well as explorative and risk-taking behavioral characteristics as part of a behavioral syndrome (Rockwell et al. 2012a). Sampling behavior (number of food items sampled, length of foraging visit, and number of food items taken) is more common in older and larger birds that are neophilic and risk-prone.


Analysis of 93 stomachs of birds collected in California contained 28% animal material, of which beetles (Coleoptera) constituted 8% and wasps and bees (Hymenoptera) 11%; 72% plant material, mostly acorns (F. Beal, cited in Bent 1946a). Wasps and wild bees, beetles, caterpillars and moths (Lepidoptera), spiders (Araneida), and grasshoppers (Orthoptera) are commonly eaten (Goodwin 1976b).

Appears in Wyoming in whitebark pine (Pinus albicaulis) forests when seeds mature; spends about 25% of foraging time in whitebark pine; seed-harvesting rate is much lower than that of Clark's Nutcracker, a specialized pine cone forager (Hutchins and Lanner 1982). Steller's Jay is an important disperser of piñon pine seeds; transports them in throat and mouth away from the parent plants and caches them in soil, where some later germinate (Vander Wall and Balda 1981, Christensen and Whitham 1991).

Steller's Jays within 1 km of human settlements and campgrounds on the Olympic Peninsula, WA foraged on a variety of invertebrates, berries, fruit, and seeds as well as anthropogenic food (Marzluff and Neatherlin 2006). Jays nesting far from human settlement (> 5 km), however, did not use human food sources and foraged more on berries, fruit, and seeds.

Food Selection and Storage


Oak acorns and other hard mast are an important food source that is cached during fall.

© Michael Smith, California, United States, 13 October 2012

Caches food such as acorns by pushing them into crevices in ground or in bark of trees (Abbott 1929); loosens soil with bill, sometimes digs small hole, inserts food item in hole, covers hole with soil or vegetation with bill. Large seeds of piñon and whitebark pine may be transported up to 3 km and are cached mostly as single seeds (Vander Wall and Balda 1981). Pine seeds and acorns are likely recovered during the late autumn and winter. Jays locate their own caches using spatial memory and pilfer the caches made by other birds and mammals by observing others cache and remembering the location (Thayer and Vander Wall 2005).

Nutrition and Energetics

No information on nutrition. See below for information on energetics.

Metabolism and Temperature Regulation

Following information from studies on C. s. frontalis from s. California acclimated to summer conditions (Mann 1983). Birds had narrow thermoneutral zone of 28.0–31.8°C. Standard metabolic rate within thermoneutral zone 1.8 ml O2/g/h ± 0.3 SE (n = 8), which is 97% of value predicted for a passerine bird of this size (Aschoff and Pohl 1970). Oxygen consumption increased to 3.2 ml O2/g/h ± 0.5 SE (n = 8) at temperatures below (10.9°C) and above (33.2°C) thermoneutral zone.

Between 10 and 30°C, evaporative water loss (EWL) is about 4 mg H2O/g/h. Birds appeared physiologically stressed at 33°C, and only 18% of metabolic heat lost was dissipated by evaporation. At 21.3°C, 52.3% of EWL was cutaneous EWL; remainder was respiratory EWL. Cutaneous EWL rose to 69.6% at 33.1°C. These EWL rates are about twice as high as those predicted by allometric equations for passerines (Crawford and Lasiewski 1968).

Below upper critical temperature of thermoneutral zone, mean body temperature 41.4°C ± 0.5 SE for resting birds (n = 6); about 1.5°C higher for active birds; birds became hyperthermic at temperatures above 33.1°C. Tarsal temperatures about 2.6°C ± 1.1 SE above ambient for all temperatures tested. Although tarsal temperature rose with ambient temperature, gradient did not increase significantly. Unable to maintain body weight at 25°C without water; requires about 1.1 ml water/d, or about 7.4% of body mass. In contrast, Scrub Jay maintains body weight at 25°C for 3–7 d without water (Mann 1983).

These physiological data suggest that Steller's Jay may be precluded from inhabiting hotter, drier environments by relatively poor ability to conserve water at high temperatures and inability to tolerate high temperatures without incurring high energy costs. Scrub Jay is more tolerant of moderately high temperatures and better able to use nonevaporative and evaporative cooling mechanisms to regulate body temperature. Circumstantial evidence implies that Steller's Jay has limited cold tolerance: Does not have the low lower critical temperatures and high resting metabolic rates characteristic of cold-tolerant species (Weathers 1979).

Drinking, Pellet-Casting, and Defecation


Consumes snow and ice, even when water is available.

© William Wuttke, Alaska, United States, 20 January 2016

Consumes snow and ice even when water is available (Abbott 1929). Captives drink from water dish (Hardy 1961b). No information on pellet-casting or defecation rates.

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.