CHS Aviary | Steller’s Jays battle neighbors over shared spaces on Capitol Hill

Steller Family Values, originally uploaded by ingridtaylar.

Note to Readers: This will be my last CHS Aviary post. I’m having a baby and moving on to other pursuits after a few months of maternity leave. I’ve enjoyed writing about birds and reading your comments over the last couple of years, so thanks for reading! –Melissa Koosmann

Human beings aren’t the only creatures on Capitol Hill that sometimes squabble over public spaces. Check out the trees and yards in your neighborhood, and you’ll see many species of birds engaged in squabbles over territory. One species that displays particularly interesting social and territorial relationships is the Steller’s jay.

The Steller’s jay is one of the most distinctive birds on the Hill. It has a tall black crest on its head and a blue body. If you look closely, you may see two bright blue vertical stripes over the eyes.

Like its relative the American crow, the Steller’s jay is an intelligent, opportunistic omnivore. It eats insects, seeds, fruit, eggs, and small animals—including little birds like dark-eyed juncos or black-capped chickadees if it can catch them. Here in our urban environment, the Steller’s jay also supplements its diet with human garbage.

Male and female Steller’s jays mate for life, and mated pairs establish dominance over a small area surrounding their nest. They are not completely territorial; other Steller’s jays may enter their space. However, Steller’s jays display dominance behaviors toward any other jays that enter their home area. But the farther they travel from their nest space, the more likely they are to show deference to other jays. This causes a complex, shifting pattern of social relationships based more on geography than on age or sex characteristics.

Steller’s jays indicate their dominance with harsh, raucous calls and various body movements that include wing-spreading and tail-flicking. A submissive bird—in other words, a bird outside its home environment—may crouch low, press its tail to the ground, and let out a “wah” call.

The Steller’s jay is common in parks and gardens around the Hill. If you don’t have a yard, you can find these birds in nearly any green space that has lawns and conifers.

Interested in learning more?

  • Check out the Steller’s jay’s page at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
  • Learn more about the jay’s distribution in the state of Washington here.
  • This video shows some of the Steller’s jay’s behaviors.

Have a Capitol Hill topic you’re fascinated by that you think would make a great regular column for CHS? Let us know chs

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15 thoughts on “CHS Aviary | Steller’s Jays battle neighbors over shared spaces on Capitol Hill

  1. Thank you very much, Ms. Koosmann. I’ve really enjoyed your writing and you will be missed. I’m a recent convert to watching the birdies and Capitol Hill really has a good variety.

  2. Thank you Ms. Koosmann. I have enjoyed your posts on the birds of Capitol Hill. Good luck with your new child and future endeavors.

  3. I have thoroughly enjoyed reading your posts! I have gained a much greater appreciation for the complex relationships of our aviary neighbors; all thanks to you. Thanks also for sharing your knowledge and passion with all of us. I have no doubt that there are many new bird watching converts on the hill.

    Enjoy your baby! S/he will most definitely prove as entertaining to watch as the birds – if not more ;-)

  4. Congratulations on the new arrival. My sensei s you’ll be an amazing mother. You ignited an interest in birds with me, and I can only imagine how great you’ll do at parenting!

  5. Congratulations on the new baby, motehrhood is a gift. I’ve really enjoyed your posts.. A few weeks ago we were entertaining and being entertained by a scrub jay on our roof deck. Haven’t had any Steller’s though. Will miss reading you – hopefully another bird observer will show up!

  6. I have enjoyed these posts immensely over the years and appreciate your interest in sharing your knowledge with the community. Now you can pass it on to your little one. Best to you!

  7. I have really enjoyed your bird posts, I will really miss them. Thank you very much for caring about our birds and our community. Good luck with the baby and your next endeavor!

  8. I often see – and hear! – steller’s jays on my deck over Lake Union …always fun to see them, even if they peck into my pots looking for bugs & leave clumps of dirt on the deck.

    Thanks so much for this post & for all your others …i’ve really enjoyed learning about our urban aviary from your wonderful essays.

    All the best as you move on in your new life with your baby!

  9. I’ve enjoyed your posts, and will miss them. I’ve got a whole aviary in the trees off my balcony, and you’ve helped me learn more about them. Congratulations on the new baby!

  10. Wow, thanks for all the well-wishes. I’ve had a great time with these posts, and I’m glad to hear that so many other people have, too!