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California Scrub-Jay

Aphelocoma californica ORDER: PASSERIFORMES FAMILY: CORVIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

The “blue jay” of dry lowlands along the Pacific seaboard, the California Scrub-Jay combines deep azure blue, clean white underparts, and soft gray-brown. It looks very similar to the Woodhouse's Scrub-Jay (they were considered the same species until 2016), but is brighter and more contrasting, with a bold blue breast band. The rounded, crestless head immediately sets it apart from Steller’s Jays. These birds are a fixture of dry shrublands, oak woodlands, and backyards from Washington state south to Baja California.

At a GlanceHelp

Measurements
Both Sexes
Length
11–11.8 in
28–30 cm
Wingspan
15.4 in
39 cm
Weight
2.5–3.5 oz
70–100 g
Relative Size
Larger and bulkier than a Western Bluebird; smaller than an American Crow.
Other Names
  • California Jay (English)
  • Geai buissonier (French)
  • Urraca azuleja, Chara azuleja, Chara pecho rayando (Spanish)

Cool Facts

  • Look closely, and you'll see an intriguing difference between the California Scrub-Jay and its close relative, Woodhouse's Scrub-Jay. The bill of a California Scrub-Jay is stout and hooked, giving it extra power and grip as the birds hammer open acorns in their oak woodland habitats. By comparison, Woodhouse's have thinner, more pointed bills that nimbly reach deep into pinyon pine cones to pull out the pine nuts inside.
  • The Western Scrub-Jay’s calls are a hallmark sound of the open West. Some 20 call types are known, and perhaps the best description comes from naturalist W. L. Dawson in 1923: “No masquerader at Mardi Gras has sprung such a cacophonic device upon a quiveringly expectant public. Dzweep, dzweep: it curdles the blood, as it is meant to do.”
  • California Scrub-Jays—like many members of the crow and jay family—have a mischievous streak. They’ve been caught stealing acorns from Acorn Woodpecker caches, and some even steal acorns they’ve watched other jays hide. When these birds go to hide their own acorns, they check first that no other jays are watching.
  • You might see California Scrub-Jays standing on the back of a mule deer. They’re eating ticks and other parasites. The deer seem to appreciate the help, often standing still and holding up their ears to give the jays access.
  • The oldest known California Scrub-Jay lived to be at least 15 years, 9 months old. It was banded in California in 1932 and found in 1948 in the same state.

Habitat


Scrub

California Scrub-Jays are found in scrub, oak woodlands, and suburban yards of the Pacific Seaboard from extreme southern British Columbia, Canada, through Baja California, Mexico. Look for them near oaks: in oak scrub, oak woodlands, and the oak savannah of California’s Central Valley. They also live in the dense, shrub-choked chaparral and coastal sage that lines coastal hillsides, as well as in mangrove forests at the tip of the Baja California peninsula, Mexico. Although this species is best known for eating acorns, in a few areas of the western Mojave desert they live in pinyon pine woodlands.

Food


Omnivore

California Scrub-Jays eat mostly insects and fruit during spring and summer. They switch to nuts and seeds during fall and winter, especially acorns. They also eat small animals such as lizards and nestling birds, sometimes shadowing adult birds to find their nests. For plant material, scrub-jays eat acorns and grass seeds; sunflower seeds and peanuts at feeders; as well as cultivated corn, almonds, walnuts, and cherries. To get at the meat of an acorn, California Scrub-Jays hold the nut between their feet and hammer at it with their stout bills. Once the shell splits open, they hold the nut steady with their lower mandible and peck at it with the hooked upper mandible to open the shell wider and pluck out the meat.

Nesting

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size
1–5 eggs
Number of Broods
1 broods
Egg Length
0.9–1.3 in
2.4–3.4 cm
Egg Width
0.7–0.8 in
1.9–2 cm
Incubation Period
17–19 days
Nestling Period
17–19 days
Egg Description
Pale green blotched with olive, or pale gray spotted with brown.
Condition at Hatching
Naked and helpless, eyes closed.
Nest Description

Scrub-jay nests are made of a basket of twigs lined with rootlets, fine strands of plant fibers, and livestock hair. Nests take about 10 days to build and are about 6 inches (15 centimeters) across when finished. Both members of a pair help with building.

Nest Placement

Tree

Either male or female may choose the nest site. Typically it's fairly low (6-14 feet high) in an oak tree, but may be in laurel sumac, bay, madrone, and poison oak, among others. Nests are often well hidden amid foliage, vines, and mistletoe.

Behavior


Ground Forager

California Scrub-Jays are great to watch because they’re animated, vocal, and playful. They move about in bold hops and lunges, looking around with sharp turns of the head. They're often found in flocks during fall and winter; particularly birds that don't have territories of their own (known as "floaters"), which can form flocks up to about 30 individuals. Much as in a group of chickens, a dominance hierarchy governs how members of these flocks behave toward each other. Both members of a breeding pair staunchly defend their territory year-round, keeping other scrub-jays away by flying at them, calling, and occasionally pecking or grappling. Pairs stay together throughout the year and typically stay together for several years (although about 11% of pairs split up each year, according to a California study). In years when the local acorn crop fails, California Scrub-Jays may abandon their territories for the winter, sparking a free-for-all for real estate the next spring when the birds return. Members of a pair often feed each other, particularly during the breeding season. The female does all the incubation. Nest predators include raccoons, weasels, skunks, squirrels, king snakes, gopher snakes, rattlesnakes, magpies, crows, and jays. Predators of adults and fledglings include bobcats, house cats, accipiters, and Great Horned Owls.

Conservation

status via IUCN

Least Concern

California Scrub-Jays are common and overall, their populations appear to be stable, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates the global breeding population for the "Western" Scrub-Jay" (including California and Woodhouse's) at 2 million with 75% occurring in the U.S., 25% in Mexico, and less than 1% in Canada. They are a U.S.-Canada Stewardship species. The "Western Scrub-Jay" rates a 9 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score. It is not on the 2016 State of North America's Birds' Watch List.

Credits

Range Map Help

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

Migration

Resident

Backyard Tips

California 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 out more about what this bird likes to eat and what feeder is best by using the Project FeederWatch Common Feeder Birds bird list.

Find This Bird

Look for this bird in oak woodlands, 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

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

The "Western" Scrub-Jay" (including California and Woodhouse's) is 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

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

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

Naturalist’s Notebook: The Secret Knowledge Of Western Scrub-Jays, Living Bird, Summer 2008.

Scrubland Survivors: The Precarious Existence of the Florida Scrub-Jay, Living Bird, Autumn 2008.

Naturalist’s Notebook: Two Forms Of The Western Scrub-Jay, Living Bird, Autumn 2009.

Where Is That Bird Going With That Seed? It’s Caching Food For Later, All About Birds, April 13, 2016.

Farewell Western Scrub-Jay!, Project FeederWatch, September 8, 2016.

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