California Scrub-jay

Western Scrub Jay

California Scrub-jay

Aphelocoma californica

Status: Not Listed

Classification: Bird


California scrub-jays have long tails and small bills. The head, wings, and tail are blue, the back is sandy brown or gray, the underside is gray to white, and the throat is distinctively white. Unlike Steller’s jays and blue jays, they do not have a crest. California scrub-jays include several subspecies that live along the Pacific coast.

The California scrub-jay was once known as the western scrub-jay. It has recently been split from what was previously considered an interior subspecies of western scrub-jay, now called the Woodhouse’s scrub-jay. In comparison, California scrub-jays have a distinct blue collar and black mask, and are brighter in color than Woodhouse’s scrub-jays. They also have shorter beaks that are hooked for eating acorns, while Woodhouse’s scrub-jays have longer, more pointed beaks for extracting pine nuts from pinecones. California scrub-jay beaks can be longer in the winter than in the summer, possibly due to wear.

Their behavior can be bold and inquisitive, and their calls can be loud and raucous. California scrub-jays are about 11.5 inches (29 centimeters) in length with a wingspan of just over 15 inches (38 centimeters).


The California scrub-jay does not migrate. It is found in the United States from Washington State south through California and down to the southern tip of Baja, California. California scrub-jays are found in semidesert scrub, chaparral, and open oak woodlands near the Pacific Coast, and are often found in backyards. Adult and juvenile jays must watch out for predators including raptors, common ravens, snakes, and other jays.


California 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. California 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 hide their prize again. They have also been observed picking parasites such as ticks from the backs of mule deer.

Life History

California 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 in wild grape vines. They have one brood of one to five eggs each spring season. The young remain with the parents for about five months, and pairs stay together through the year. They are very territorial during the breeding season. Jays are relatively long-lived birds and can reach over 15 years of age in the wild.


California scrub-jays are common, and some populations may be increasing. However, one subspecies, the island scrub-jay of southeastern California, may be vulnerable to disturbance and is listed as a species of concern in the state. Some populations are being affected by West Nile virus.

Fun Fact

California scrub-jays sometimes 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. It is thought that this behavior allows the jays to gather and share information about the circumstances of the death so that they can avoid a similar fate.


Baughman, M. (2003). National Geographic reference atlas to the birds of North America. Washington, D.C., National Geographic Society.

National Geographic

Nature Serve Explorer

Planning for the future by western scrub-jays. Nature. Vol. 445 (22), February 2007.

Point Reyes Bird Observatory

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology

University of California Oak Woodland Management

Western scrub-jay funerals: cacophonous aggregations in response to dead conspecifics, Animal Behaviour. Vol 84 (5), November 2012

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