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Help develop a Bird ID tool!

Western Scrub-Jay

Aphelocoma californica ORDER: PASSERIFORMES FAMILY: CORVIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

Western Scrub-Jay Photo

The “blue jay” of dry Western lowlands, the Western Scrub-Jay combines deep azure blue with dusty gray-brown and white. The rounded, crestless head immediately sets it apart from Blue Jays and Steller’s Jays. These birds are a fixture of dry shrublands, oak woodlands, and pinyon pine-juniper forests, as well as conspicuous visitors to backyards.

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Keys to identification Help

Crows and Jays
Crows and Jays
Typical Voice
  • Size & Shape

    A lanky bird with long, floppy tail and an often hunched-over posture.

  • Color Pattern

    Blue and gray above, with a pale underside broken up by a blue necklace. In birds, the color blue depends on lighting, so Western Scrub-Jays often look simply dark.

  • Behavior

    Assertive, vocal, and inquisitive. You’ll often notice scrub-jays silhouetted high in trees, on wires, or on posts where they act as lookouts. In flight seems underpowered and slow, with bouts of fluttering alternating with glides.

  • Habitat

    Look for Western Scrub-Jays in open habitats of the West: oak woodlands and chaparral near the coast and pinyon-juniper woodlands of the interior West; also backyards, pastures, and orchards. Typically, though not always, in lower and drier habitats than Steller’s Jay.

Range Map Help

Western Scrub-Jay Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Field MarksHelp

  • Adult

    Western Scrub-Jay

    Adult
    • Deep blue head, neck, wings, and tail
    • Brownish gray back
    • White throat
    • Light gray underparts
    • © Lorcan Keating, California, November 2008
  • Adult

    Western Scrub-Jay

    Adult
    • Blue head with white eyebrow
    • Very long, blue tail
    • White throat
    • Blue breastband
    • © Lorcan Keating, San Francisco, California, January 2009
  • Adult

    Western Scrub-Jay

    Adult
    • Blue breastband
    • White eyebrow on blue face
    • Very long, blue tail
    • Light gray underparts
    • © lee.karney2, San Francisco, California, February 2007
  • Juvenile

    Western Scrub-Jay

    Juvenile
    • Dark gray head and upperparts
    • Blue wings and tail
    • Often shows pink around gape
    • © Lorcan Keating, California, August 2008
  • Adult

    Western Scrub-Jay

    Adult
    • Streaked white throat
    • Blue head, nape, wings, and tail
    • Brownish gray back
    • © Robinsegg, Utah, October 2008
  • Juvenile

    Western Scrub-Jay

    Juvenile
    • Dark gray head and upperparts
    • Blue wings and tail
    • Often shows pink around gape
    • Acquires blue head and body feathers in late summer
    • © Lorcan Keating, California, August 2008
  • Adult

    Western Scrub-Jay

    Adult
    • Streaked white throat
    • Blue breastband
    • Blue head with darker face and white eyebrow
    • © Lorcan Keating, San Francisco, California, February 2008
  • Adult Interior

    Western Scrub-Jay

    Adult Interior
    • Pale blue breastand (darker and bolder on Pacific birds)
    • Gray underparts (paler on Pacific birds)
    • © Jason P. Odell, Colorado

Similar Species

  • Adult

    Blue Jay

    Adult
    • Similar to all plumages of Western Scrub-Jay
    • Distinctive blue crest
    • Blue back, bold white wing and tail markings
    • Gray and black patterned face
    • © Gary Mueller, December 2008
  • Adult male

    Western Bluebird

    Adult male
    • Similar to all plumages of Western Scrub-Jay
    • Bright blue head and throat, back, and wings
    • Chestnut red breast, sides, and parts of back
    • Blue or whitish belly
    • Short tail
    • © Jamie Chavez, Santa Maria, California, February 2009
  • Adult

    Steller's Jay

    Adult
    • Similar to all plumages of Western Scrub-Jay
    • Dark blackish head, breast and back
    • Dark blue belly, wings, and tail
    • Dark crest
    • © Bob Scott, British Columbia, Canada, August 2008
  • Adult

    Florida Scrub-Jay

    Adult
    • Similar to all plumages of Western Scrub-Jay
    • Ranges do not overlap (found only in Florida)
    • Pale gray back
    • Blue undertail
    • Whitish forehead and eyebrow
    • © Marcus Sharpe, Lake Co, Florida, January 2009
  • Adult

    Pinyon Jay

    Adult
    • Similar to all plumages of Western Scrub-Jay
    • Unmarked blue overall, brighter blue head and grayer underparts
    • Short tail
    • © David F. Smith
  • Adult

    Mexican Jay

    Adult
    • Similar to all plumages of Western Scrub-Jay
    • Plain grayish underparts, no blue breastband
    • Grayish back does not contrast much with blue wings and head
    • Blue face, crown, and nape, grayish throat
    • © Sam Wilson , Sierra Vista, Arizona, May 2008

Similar Species

This and Pinyon Jay are the only large blue birds without a crest that you're likely to see in most of the western United States. Pinyon Jays are stockier, shorter-tailed (almost crow-shaped) and plainer blue overall. If you live in Central Florida and think you've seen this species, you've seen the very similar but much less numerous Florida Scrub-Jay. (There's another species of scrub-jay on California's Channel Islands, the Island Scrub-Jay.) If your blue bird has a black crest, it's a Steller's Jay; if the crest is blue you have a Blue Jay. Western Bluebirds and Lazuli Buntings are also blue, but are much smaller, with shorter legs, beak, and tail. The Mexican Jay of far southern Arizona and New Mexico has an all-blue back and lacks the scrub-jay's necklace.

Regional Differences

Birds along the Pacific Coast are sharply marked, with a bold blue necklace against white underparts and a distinct brown back. Great Basin birds (called "Woodhouse’s" scrub-jay and sometimes considered to be a different species) are grayer overall, the necklace is less contrasting, and the back patch is grayish blue.

Backyard Tips

Western Scrub-Jays are fond of sunflower seeds and peanuts at feeders. If you have dense shrubs or small trees in your yard, a pair might build a nest.

Find This Bird

Look for this bird in suburbs, parks, and along roadsides at low elevations, or flying overhead on rounded, fluttering wings. Listen for the raspy scolds and weep calls these birds use to communicate.

Get Involved

The Western Scrub-Jay is a focal species for Project NestWatch. Join and contribute your observations!

Western Scrub-Jays are one of the top 25 feeder birds for California and the Southwest, according to Project FeederWatch. Report your counts of jays and other birds at your feeders this winter.

You Might Also Like

Scrubland Survivors: The precarious existence of the Florida Scrub-Jay

A Naturalist’s Notebook: Western Scrub-Jay

Downloadable "Common Feeder Birds" poster from Project FeederWatch (PDF)

Explore sounds and video of Western Scrub-Jays from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's Macaulay Library archive