California Scrub Jay, Aphelocoma californica

Photo above: California scrub jay near the Mesa School Lane entrance of the Douglas Family Preserve, 11/6/22, 2:51pm, weather: cloudy and light wind.  This jay, which appeared to be a healthy adult, was perched in an oak tree within a shaded area of eucalyptuses and oaks and did not appear too startled by my presence.  It had an acorn that it was trying to crack open against the tree branch with its beak.

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Species Profile

DIET: Acorns, nuts, seeds, insects, fruit, sometimes lizards and nestling birds

PREDATORS: Cats, hawks, owls, bobcats; many more for nestlings such as raccoons, snakes, squirrels, crows, and other jays.

HABITAT/RANGE:  Coastal sage scrub, oak woodlands, chaparral, neighborhoods.  Range extends down the West Coast from the southernmost part of British Columbia to Baja. 

CONSERVATION STATUS: Least concern.  Their population is stable or even increasing.
WHERE TO OBSERVE IN SB: Neighborhoods, many parks and open spaces, oak and eucalyptus woodlands.

Source: All About Birds

A California scrub jay is a common sight in the oak woodlands of Santa Barbara's parks and trails, as well as in backyards.  Many local residents are familiar with its scratchy sounding calls, or have seen one cracking an acorn, perching at the top of a bush, visiting a birdfeeder, or eating fruit off of backyard trees. 

Appearance

California scrub jays are large songbirds recognizable by the blue feathers on their head, wings, and long tail, which has led to them being casually called "blue jays" (which are actually a different species).  They have a light grey underside and upper back, a white patch on their chin, and white streaks above their eyes.  Juveniles are typically more grey and develop the blue color as they grow, starting from the tail and wingtips.  The beak of a California Scrub Jay is long and sturdy, a good adaptation for eating acorns. Sources: All About Birds, AudubonSacramento Audubon Society

Species History

Scrub jays, genus Aphelocoma, are in the corvid family, which also includes crows, ravens, magpies, and other types of jays (such as Steller's Jays and true Blue Jays, which are not found in this area).  The closest relatives of California scrub jays include the Woodhouse's scrub jay (Aphelocoma woodhouseii), Island scrub jay (Aphelocoma insularis), and other scrub jays within Aphelocoma, which were once considered all the same species.  

 

California Scrub Jays are a native species in Santa Barbara.  They are well adapted to native plant communities such as oak woodland, chaparral, and coastal sage scrub, but also have the flexibility to thrive in suburban environments, living in backyards and supplementing their diets with fruit, birdseed, and other items common around people.

Sources: All About Birds, Sacramento Audubon Society, Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society

Behavior

California Scrub Jays, like other corvids, are highly intelligent birds.  When foraging for food on the ground, in trees and shrubs, or around human habitation, they are quite opportunistic and flexible.  During the fall, which is acorn season, they will often store acorns in the ground for future eating, and still remember later where they put them.  They will hold the acorn with their feet against a branch and crack it with their beak to get the nutmeat from the inside. They are known to watch other birds and take advantage of them for food, such as by stealing the acorns hidden by another jay or following a smaller bird to its nest and eating the eggs or nestlings.

They breed and raise young in pairs, staying with their mate all year and usually keeping the same mate for multiple years.  March and April are the usual breeding season.  Both the male and female help build the nest, which is usually located in a shrub or low tree.  California Scrub Jays are territorial and will aggressively defend their nest.  If another bird tries to parasitize the nest (lay eggs in it to be raised by the jays), the jays will readily recognize and discard the foreign eggs.  If a potential predator, such as a crow or hawk, gets near the nest, the jays will repeatedly dive-bomb it and make loud, harsh noises.

California scrub jays do not typically gather in flocks, instead staying isolated with only their mate.  However, an interesting behavior has been observed in which jays will alert each other of their dead and all come together in what resembles a "funeral."  It is unclear why they do this, but it may have some kind of emotional component, or it might be a way to teach young jays about dangers in the area (source).

In areas with a lot of human activity, jays can become unafraid and even "friendly" around people.  People have attempted to train jays to land on their hand by offering food, and sometimes been successful.  However, this is not a good idea for either you or the jay.  A jay that imprints on people and expects food from them can start behaving as a pest, and food offered by humans is not as healthy for the jay as its natural food.  It has even been found in related species of jay that hand-feeding can alter the timing of breeding, in turn decreasing the survival of the young because the season is not yet suited for them.

Sources: Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society, All About Birds, Audubon, Sacramento Audubon, Animal Diversity Web.

Our Feathered Neighbors

With people and jays often sharing the same spaces, both positive and negative interactions can result.  By promoting habitat in your yard and neighborhood, minimizing opportunities for conflict, and understanding the behavior and ecological role of these birds, you can coexist with them and enjoy frequent birdwatching opportunities.  Here are some tips for living in harmony with jays.

  • Since jays love acorns, oak trees are good to plant if you want to attract them.  And if you notice an oak tree seedling growing in your yard that you didn't plant, it may have grown from an acorn hidden and forgotten by a jay!

  • Being territorial, jays sometimes see reflections of themselves in windows or car mirrors and try to attack them as if they were another jay.  There are decals you can put on your house windows that help prevent this (and bird strikes in general) from happening.

  • If you raise backyard chickens, you may have had jays get stuck in your coop and/or eat the eggs before.  Strips of burlap, denim, or another heavy fabric placed as a curtain over any open doors can help prevent this.

  • Keep your cat indoors if possible!  Housecats are one of the biggest threats to jays and other birds in populated environments.  You're also protecting your cat as well, by keeping it safe from predators like coyotes.

  • Backyard fruit trees serve as a food source for a variety of neighborhood wildlife, including jays.  This can give you lots of good birdwatching opportunities, but it also means you have to share what you grow.  If birds are eating too much of your fruit or otherwise causing a problem, hanging old CD's, strips of Mylar or other shiny material may help deter them (at least temporarily), and harvesting fruit as soon as it ripens can also reduce the problem.  

  • You may notice smaller birds being driven away from birdfeeders by territorial jays, or even a jay preying upon the nests of other birds.  Both of these activities go along with the natural behavior of jays, allowing them to fulfill their roles in the food web, and shouldn't be considered a problem.  However, by providing birdseed, or drawing attention to a songbird nest by constantly watching it, you may be giving the jays an unfair advantage.  Try planting native food sources instead of putting up a birdfeeder, and avoid disturbing nesting birds in any way to minimize your influence on the backyard food web.

Ecological Roles

In addition to both serving as prey for raptors and regulating the populations of other birds by predation or competition, California Scrub Jays have another important role- seed dispersal.  They never quite remember all the acorns and other seeds they hid, and since these seeds are buried in the ground (unlike the acorns stored by woodpeckers in trees), many of them end up germinating.  In fact, the ideal soil conditions for a jay to bury its acorns- soft, damp soil that is easily dug- are also the ideal conditions for germination.  As a result, jays are instrumental in the spread of many of the plants whose seeds they eat, especially oak trees. (Source: Thomas Scott, UCOaks)

How to Observe Jays

Anywhere with oak trees in Santa Barbara is generally a good place to observe California scrub jays, especially during acorn season!  Fruiting shrubs like toyon, pyracantha, or lemonade berry are also good places to look. Binoculars or a long camera lens are helpful for observing birds of any kind, but even if you don't have them, you'll still likely be able to get a relatively close look at a jay since they're not that afraid of people.  You also might not have to go farther than your own backyard to see a jay, since they are frequent visitors to birdfeeders, gardens, and native fruiting shrubs.