Scientific Name: Aphelocoma californica
Description: Western scrub-jays have long tails and small bills. The head, wings and tail are blue, the back is brown, the underside is gray to tan, and the throat is white. Unlike Steller’s jays and blue jays, they do not have a crest. Western scrub-jays include several sub-species that live along the Pacific coast and in the interior West. The Pacific coastal group has a distinct blue collar and is brighter in color than those of the interior West. They also have beaks that are short and hooked, for eating acorns, while interior scrub-jays have longer, more pointed beaks for extracting pine nuts from pine cones. Their behavior can be bold and inquisitive and their calls can be loud and raucous, although the jays of the interior tend to be quieter and their calls are lower-pitched than those of the coast.
Size: Western scrub-jays are about 11.5 inches in length with a wingspan of just over 15 inches.
Diet: Western scrub-jays eat insects, fruits, nuts, berries and seeds and occasionally small animals. They often forage in pairs or family groups. Jays are known as planters of acorns. They scatter these in many hiding places for later retrieval. They move thousands of acorns each fall, often depositing them in damp soil. When some of these acorns aren’t retrieved, they sprout into seedlings and replenish the forest. Western scrub-jays have been shown to have an ability to plan ahead in choosing food storage sites, remembering the locations of their caches and storing enough food to plan for the future. Jays can also be quite sneaky when it comes to acquiring and storing food. They steal acorns from acorn woodpecker caches and from stores hidden by other jays, and then look around to make sure no one is watching before they re-hide their prize. They have also been observed picking parasites such as ticks from the backs of mule deer.
Predation: Adult and juvenile jays must watch out for predators including raptors, common ravens, snakes, and other jays.
Typical Lifespan: Jays are relatively long-lived birds and can reach over fifteen years of age in the wild.
Habitat: Western scrub-jays are found in semi-desert scrub, chaparral and open oak woodlands near the Pacific coast and dry mountain canyons with pinyon pine and juniper forests in the Rockies, but they prefer scrubby, brushy areas. Coastal sub-species are often found in backyards.
U.S. Range: The Western scrub-jay does not migrate. It is found from Washington state south through California and into Mexico and east to Texas.
Life History and Reproduction: Western scrub-jay pairs make basket-shaped nests of twigs lined with fibers and hair. Nests are built low and concealed behind foliage generally in an oak or pinyon-pine. They have one brood of one to five eggs. The young remain with the parents for about five months. Pairs stay together through the year. They are very territorial during the breeding season.
Fun Fact: Western scrub-jays appear to have “funerals” in reaction to finding a dead jay. They will screech over the body, attracting other jays, for as long as 30 minutes and stay near the body for a day or two.
Conservation Status: Common. Some populations may be increasing. However one sub-species in southeastern California that may be vulnerable to disturbance is listed as a species of concern in California. Some populations are being affected by West Nile virus.
Video: Summoning Scrub Jays to a Funeral
Baughman, M. (2003). National Geographic reference atlas to the birds of North America. Washington, D.C., National Geographic Society.
California Partners in Flight Oak Woodland Conservation Plan for the Western Scrub-Jay
Cornell Lab of Ornithology
National Geographic Society
Nature Serve Explorer
Planning for the future by western scrub-jays. Nature. Vol. 445 (22), February 2007.
University of California
Western scrub-jay funerals: cacophonous aggregations in response to dead conspecifics, Animal Behaviour. Vol 84 (5), November 2012