The western scrub jay (Aphelocoma californica) is one of six species of scrub jay, all native to western North America. A medium-sized bird, approximately 27–31 cm (11–12 in) in length, it ranges from southern Washington to central Texas and central Mexico, inhabiting areas of low scrub including pinon-juniper forests, oak woods, edges of mixed evergreen forests, and mesquite bosques. Scrub jays are often confused as "blue jays" (Cyanocitta cristata), which are smaller and crested corvids, resident of eastern North America. Western scrub jays are very common west of the Rocky Mountains, usually living in pairs or small groups. In recent years, the California scrub jay has expanded its range north into the Puget Sound region of Washington (Cornell Lab of Ornithology ND; Wikipedia 2015).
The western scrub jay is nonmigratory and can be found in urban areas, where it can become tame and will come to bird feeders. They are omnivorous, eating insects, eggs of other birds, small reptiles and amphibians, as well as seeds, nuts, fruits. They have been shown to cache and store food for future needs, and are thought to have good special memory and observational skills (which the use to pilfer the caches of other individuals), remembering the location of 200 or more different storage locations (Correia et al 2007; Dally et al 2006).
Aphelocoma californica comprises three subspecies groups, which show distinct morphological and behavioral differences: the California scrub jay (coastal), Woodhouse's scrub jay (interior US and northern Mexico), and Sumichrast's scrub jay (interior southern Mexico). In molecular phylogenetic reconstructions, these three groups do not make up a monophyletic lineage with respect to the island scrub jay (A. insularis) and the Florida scrub jay (A. coerulescens); Delaney et al. (2008) suggest that A. californica species be reconsidered as two or three separate species.
- Correia, S.P.; Dickinson, A.; Clayton, N.S. 2007. Western scrub-jays anticipate future needs independently of their current motivational state". Current biology : CB 17 (10): 856–61. doi:10.1016/j.cub.2007.03.063. PMID 17462894.
- Dally, J. M., Emery, N. J. & Clayton, N. S. 2006. Food-caching western scrub-jays keep track of who was watching when. Science 312 (5780): 1662–5. doi:10.1126/science.1126539. PMID 16709747.
- Delaney, K.S., Zafar, S., Wayne, R.K., 2008. Genetic Divergence and Differentiation within the Western Scrub-Jay (Aphelocoma californica)". Auk 125 (4): 839–849. doi:10.1525/auk.2008.07088.
- The Cornell Lab of Ornithology (No date given). Western Scrub Jay. Retrieved May 14 2015 from http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Western_Scrub-Jay/id
- Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 3 June 2015. Western Scrub Jay. Retrieved June 4 2015 from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Western_scrub_jay&oldid=665297833
Regularity: Regularly occurring
Type of Residency: Year-round
Global Range: RESIDENT: southwestern Washington to southwestern Wyoming, Colorado, and central Texas south through the southwestern U.S. to southern Baja California and Oaxaca, Puebla, and west-central Veracruz, Mexico.
Length: 29 cm
Weight: 91 grams
Gray-breasted (Mexican) jay is grayer, lacks strong contrast between throat and breast, lacks white eyebrow. Pinyon jay is more uniformly blue and has a blue throat with white streaks; scrub-jay's tail is much longer than that of the pinyon jay.
Habitat and Ecology
Comments: Scrub (especially oak, pinyon and juniper), brush, chaparral and pine-oak associations; also riparian woodland, gardens, orchards, mangroves (southern Baja California), and tropical deciduous forest (southern Mexico) (Subtropical and Temperate zones, upper Tropical Zone in southern Mexico) (AOU 1983, 1995). Nests usually in low trees or shrubs, 0.5-3.5 m above ground (Terres 1980).
Non-Migrant: Yes. At least some populations of this species do not make significant seasonal migrations. Juvenile dispersal is not considered a migration.
Locally Migrant: No. No populations of this species make local extended movements (generally less than 200 km) at particular times of the year (e.g., to breeding or wintering grounds, to hibernation sites).
Locally Migrant: No. No populations of this species make annual migrations of over 200 km.
Comments: Feeds on nuts (acorns, pinyon nuts), grains (corn, oats), fruit, insects (wasps, bees, caterpillars cutworms, grasshoppers, etc.), mollusks, eggs and young of small birds, mice, shrews, frogs, lizards, etc. (Bent 1946).
Known prey organisms
This list may not be complete but is based on published studies.
Travels alone or in small family groups. In Oaxaca, Mexico, occurred in temporally stable groups of 2-6 adults; territories averaged 1.5 ha (Burt and Peterson 1993). In coastal California, territories averaged "about 3 ha" (Verbeek 1973), and in New Mexico, a single territory measured 2.1 ha (Hardy 1961).
Predation impacted by noise
Francis et al. (2009) studied bird communities in woodlands near gas wells in New Mexica, USA. Though noise decreases nesting success and species richness in general, there was an indirect benefit. Where noise was high, western scrub jays were less able to prey on nests of other birds. This is likely because vocalizations of the prey species were less noticeable over the noise of compressors. The effect was particularly beneficial to species such as house finches (Carpodacus mexicanus) and black-chinned hummingbirds (Archilochus alexandri)
Life History and Behavior
Lifespan, longevity, and ageing
In Oaxaca, Mexico, nested at least from early April to late July (Burt and Peterson 1993). Clutch size is 2-7 (usually 4-6; 3 in Oaxaca, with reduction to 2 fledglings typical). Incubation lasts about 16 days, by female. Young are tended by parents and (in Oaxaca) young of previous brood. Young leave nest at about 18 days. First breeds as early as 1 year in some areas. Long-term pair bond. High adult survivorship. Breeds only in pairs in most of range (except southern end of range in Mexico). In Oaxaca, helpers aided in predator defense, territorial defense, and feeding fledglings; singular breeding was the norm (Burt and Peterson 1993).
Molecular Biology and Genetics
Barcode data: Aphelocoma californica
Below is a sequence of the barcode region Cytochrome oxidase subunit 1 (COI or COX1) from a member of the species.
See the BOLD taxonomy browser for more complete information about this specimen and other sequences.
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Download FASTA File
Statistics of barcoding coverage: Aphelocoma californica
Public Records: 18
Specimens with Barcodes: 23
Species With Barcodes: 1
IUCN Red List Assessment
Red List Category
Red List Criteria
National NatureServe Conservation Status
Rounded National Status Rank: N5 - Secure
NatureServe Conservation Status
Rounded Global Status Rank: G5 - Secure
Western scrub jay
The western scrub jay (Aphelocoma californica), [A] is a species of scrub jay native to western North America. It ranges from southern Washington to central Texas and central Mexico. It comprises three distinct subspecies groups, all of which may be separate species. They are California scrub jay (coastal), Woodhouse's scrub jay (interior US and northern Mexico), and Sumichrast's scrub jay (interior southern Mexico). The western scrub jay was once lumped with the island scrub jay and the Florida scrub jay; the taxon was then called, simply, the scrub jay. The western scrub jay is nonmigratory and can be found in urban areas, where it can become tame and will come to bird feeders. While many refer to scrub jays as "blue jays", the blue jay is a different species of bird entirely. In recent years, the California scrub jay has expanded its range north into the Puget Sound region of Washington.
- 1 Description
- 2 Habitat
- 3 Life span
- 4 Diseases
- 5 Phylogeny
- 6 References
- 7 Further reading
- 8 External links
The western scrub jay is a medium-sized bird, approximately 27–31 cm (11–12 in) in length (including its tail), with a 39 cm (15 in) wingspan, and about 80 g (2.8 oz) in weight. Coastal Pacific birds tend to be brighter in coloration than those of the interior, but all are patterned in blue, white and gray, though none as uniform in color as the related Mexican jay. In general, this species has a blue head, wings, and tail, a gray-brown back, and grayish underparts. The throat is whitish with a blue necklace. The call is described as "harsh and scratchy".
True to its name, the western scrub jay inhabits areas of low scrub, preferring pinon-juniper forests, oak woods, edges of mixed evergreen forests and sometimes mesquite bosques. The coastal population also inhabits suburban gardens. Western scrub jays are very common west of the Rocky Mountains, and can be found in scrub-brush, boreal forests, temperate forests, coastal regions, and suburban areas.
Western scrub jays usually forage in pairs, family groups, or small non-kin groups, outside of the breeding season. They feed on small animals, such as frogs and lizards, eggs and young of other birds, insects, and (particularly in winter) grains, nuts, and berries. They can be aggressive towards other birds, for example, they have been known to steal hoarded acorns from Acorn Woodpecker granary trees. They will also eat fruit and vegetables growing in backyards.
Western scrub jays, like many other corvids, exploit ephemeral surpluses by storing food in scattered caches within their territories. They rely on highly accurate and complex memories to recover the hidden caches, often after long periods of time. In the process of collecting and storing this food, they have shown an ability to plan ahead in choosing cache sites to provide adequate food volume and variety for the future. Western scrub jays are also able to rely on their accurate observational spatial memories to steal food from caches made by conspecifics. To protect their caches from potential 'pilferers', food storing birds implement a number of strategies to reduce this risk of theft. Western scrub jays are also known for hoarding and burying brightly colored objects. Western scrub jays have a mischievous streak, and they are not above outright theft. They have been caught stealing acorns from acorn woodpecker caches and robbing seeds and pine cones from Clark's nutcrackers. Some scrub jays steal acorns they have 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 western scrub jays standing on the back of a mule deer. They’re picking off and 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 scrub jay even will eat peanuts off a human hand.
Recent research has suggested that western scrub jays, along with several other corvids, are among the most intelligent of animals. The brain-to-body mass ratio of adult scrub jays rivals that of chimpanzees and cetaceans, and is dwarfed only by that of humans. Scrub jays are also the only non-primate or non-dolphin shown to plan ahead for the future, which was previously thought of as a uniquely human trait. Other studies have shown that they can remember locations of over 200 food caches, as well as the food item in each cache and its rate of decay. Western scrub jays also summon others to screech over the body of a dead jay, according to new research from the University of California, Davis. The birds' cacophonous "funerals" can last for up to half an hour.
The chicks start off fully gray. The older they get, the more they turn blue. On their heads, chicks tend to have a red crest that resembles a comb (Mostly seen on chickens). The chick will lose its crest at day seven, just like the way the baby chickens lose their egg tooth at 5–7 days. Nests are built low in trees or bushes, 1–10 m (3.3–32.8 ft) above the ground, primarily by the female, while the male guards her efforts. The nests are sturdy, with an outside diameter of 33–58 cm (13–23 in), constructed on a platform of twigs with moss and dry grasses lined with fine roots and hair. Four to six eggs are laid from March through July, with some regional variations. There are two common shell color variations: pale green with irregular, olive-colored spots or markings; and pale grayish-white to green with reddish-brown spots. The female incubates the eggs for about 16 days. The young leave the nest about 18 days after hatching.
The life span of wild western scrub jays is approximately 9 years. The oldest known western scrub jay was found in Castaic, CA, in 1991 and raised in captivity. "Aaron" lived to be 19 years, and 8 months old.
The Western, Island, and Florida scrub jay were once considered subspecies of a single "scrub jay" species. They are now believed to be distinct. Beyond the close relationship of the "California" and island scrub jays, resolution of their evolutionary history has proven very difficult.
Judging from mtDNA NADH dehydrogenase subunit 2 sequence data, it appears there are two clades, namely a Pacific one west and one east of the Rocky Mountains; the relationships of populations in the latter are not resolvable to satisfaction. Thus, it is fairly likely the western scrub jay is actually another two distinct species, one belonging to the Pacific and another one to the eastern lineage(s); the latter's ancestors apparently gave rise to the Florida scrub jay as well. Paleogeography of the Rocky Mountains range supports this scenario.
Inland birds (Woodhouse's scrub jay, woodhouseii group and Sumichrast's scrub jay, sumichrasti group) differ in plumage (paler blue above, with an indistinct and usually incomplete breast band) from the coastal birds (California scrub jay, californica group) which are darker blue above with a strongly defined – but not necessarily complete – blue breast band. The three groups also differ in ecology and behavior. The beaks of the California and Sumichrast's groups are strong and hooked at the tip, as they feed on acorns, whereas the pinyon-nut feeding Woodhouse's group has a longer, slimmer and straighter bill with little or no hook.
Each group contains a number of subspecies. "Sumichrast's scrub jay" stands apart from the others in its altruistic breeding behavior. Its remaining races are generally not quite as pale but have washed-out colors with indistinctly marked borders. Certainly, some gene flow among these populations occurs, but while the hybrid zone between the californica and woodhouseii groups is very limited.
The subspecies are:
California scrub jay, Aphelocoma (californica) californica
- Aphelocoma californica immanis Grinnell, 1901 – Interior scrub jay
- From Puget Sound through the Willamette Valley to Douglas County, Oregon
- A large subspecies. Somewhat duller and lighter in color than californica due to gene flow from inland populations. Blue of head and neck less purplish than in woodhouseii group. Back usually quite brownish, underside and especially breast quite whitish, undertail coverts usually tinged pale blue or gray in males. Bill strong, wings and tail fairly short.
- Aphelocoma californica caurina Pitelka, 1951
- Coastal SW Oregon from Rogue River valley south to Napa and Sonoma Counties; eastern limit the inner California Coast Ranges.
- Similar to californica, but head and back more intensely colored, with bright purplish tinge to blue of head. Color similar to nominate, thus darker than immanis and most oocleptica. Relative to nominate californica, blue areas more purplish and brighter, breast darker than rest of underside.
- Aphelocoma californica oocleptica Swarth, 1918 – Nicasio scrub jay. Includes A. c. superciliosa
- From Jackson, Klamath, and Lake Counties, Oregon, through Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys and surrounding mountains to Kern County, San Francisco Bay area, and Alpine County. Eastwards to Inyo County and Virginia Mountains (Washoe County, Nevada), where it intergrades with nevadae of the woodhouseii group.
- Quite variable according to the extent of gene flow between this taxon and nevadae. Generally similar to californica but larger; color of head and neck varies in lightness and amount of purplish hue. Back grayish; undertail coverts usually white. Bill usually heavy but variable according to habitat type (less heavy in birds of pinyon woodland).
- Aphelocoma californica californica (Vigors, 1839)
- California Coast Ranges from San Mateo County and SE Alameda County to SW Ventura County.
- Blue of head usually strongly tinged purple. Back bluish-brownish gray, bluer towards the rump. Incomplete bluish-violet breast band. Underside greyish white, darker on the breast. Undertail coverts white tinged with blue. Thighs gray. Rectrices and remiges dark blue, the larger feathers duller. Bill heavy, tip strongly hooked.
- Aphelocoma californica obscura Anthony, 1889 – Belding's scrub jay
- Coastal SW California, east to Little San Bernardino Mountains, some isolated mountain ranges in W Mojave Desert, and Whale Peak (San Diego County). Southwards through N Baja California, Mexico (Sierra de Juárez, Sierra San Pedro Mártir) to Todos Santos Bay
- Smaller and darker than californica, with more intense purplish and brown coloration on head and back, respectively; prominent gray streaking on throat and distinct breast collar. Belly with smoky gray wash, lighter in the middle. Generally more intense coloration overall. Bill heavy.
- Aphelocoma californica cana Pitelka, 1951 – Eagle Mountain scrub jay
- Only occurs in Single-leaf Pinyon woods on Eagle Mountain, Joshua Tree National Park.
- Smaller, lighter and grayer than californica. Bill not as heavy. Apparently an isolate of hybrid origin between A. c. obscura and nevadae of the woodhouseii group.
Woodhouse's scrub jay, Aphelocoma (californica) woodhouseii
- Aphelocoma californica/woodhouseii nevadae Pitelka, 1945a – Nevada scrub jay
- Great Basin from N Nevada southwards, some isolated mountain ranges in Death Valley and Mojave Desert from E California to the SW of New Mexico, south to NE Sonora and extreme NW Chihuahua. Some hybridization with A. c. oocleptica (californica group) at the north-western edge of its range.
- Lighter and duller than woodhouseii; light blue undertail coverts. Bill longish, quite pointed, and tapering, not hooked at tip.
- Aphelocoma californica/woodhouseii woodhouseii (Baird, 1858)
- Rocky Mountains foothills, from N Utah/S Wyoming south through NW Chihuahua and W Texas, sometimes ranging farther into that state.
- Blue of neck with dull grayish hue; back grayish brown. Undertail coverts blue. Bill heavy but straight, hardly hooked at tip.
- Aphelocoma californica/woodhouseii texana Ridgway, 1902 – Texas scrub jay
- Hitherto only known from Edwards Plateau (Texas); area and extent of possible contact with woodhouseii undetermined. Possibly this subspecies at Caprock Escarpment, where species settled in the 1950s.
- Darker than woodhouseii with hint of breast collar. Lower breast with brownish hue, large white patch on lower belly. Undertail coverts white; in adult males usually with some blue feather tips. Back quite brown. Young birds conspicuously paler than in woodhouseii. Heavy, fairly blunt bill.
- Aphelocoma californica/woodhouseii grisea Nelson, 1899
- Sierra Madre Occidental, primarily in Chihuahua; intergrading with nevadae at NW of range.
- Lighter and larger than woodhouseii, with a hint of a blue collar. Undertail coverts white. Long wings and fairly short, heavy bill.
- Aphelocoma californica/woodhouseii cyanotis Ridgway, 1887 – Blue-eared scrub jay
- Lower Sierra Madre Oriental, Mexico, from S Coahuila to Tlaxcala; generally separated from texana woodhouseii; range adjacent to grisea in S Chihuahuan Desert. Apparently replaced by Mexican jay at higher-altitude woodland towards S of range.
- Larger and duller than woodhouseii. Back brown with blue tinge, sometimes quite bluish. Supercilium faint and small. Underside qhite light; lower belly white. Undertail coverts dull white. Bill and wings as in grisea, young birds browner than texana.
The name of this subspecies commemorates the American explorer and collector Samuel Washington Woodhouse.
Sumichrast's scrub jay, Aphelocoma (californica) sumichrasti
- Aphelocoma californica/sumichrasti sumichrasti (Baird and Ridgway, 1874) – Sumichrast's scrub jay
- From Distrito Federal southeastwards through Veracruz, Puebla, and Oaxaca.
- Bright blue head color, with blackish ear patches. Faint white supercilium. Back grayish-brown, blue towards the tail. Light gray streaks on throat; traces of a faint grayish or grayish-blue breast collar. Thighs smoky gray. Remiges and rectrices dark dull blue. Large, with very long wings. Heavy, slightly hooked bill.
- Aphelocoma californica/sumichrasti remota Griscom, 1934 – Chilpancingo scrub jay
- SW Oaxaca and central Guerrero. Apparently separated from sumichrasti by Rio Balsas valley.
- Duller and lighter than sumichrasti. Largest of all western scrub jays.
- A Etymology: Aphelocoma, from Latinized Ancient Greek apheles- (from ἀφελής-) "simple" + Latin coma (from Greek kome κόμη) "hair", in reference to the lack of striped or banded feathers in this genus, compared to other jays. californica, Latin: "from California".
- BirdLife International (2012). "Aphelocoma californica". IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2013.2. International Union for Conservation of Nature. Retrieved 26 November 2013.
- Curry, Robert L.; Peterson, A. Townsend & Langen, T.A. (2002): Western Scrub Jay (Aphelocoma californica). In: Poole, A. & Gill, F. (eds.): The Birds of North America 712. Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia, PA & American Ornithologists' Union, Washington, D.C. Online version, retrieved February 25, 2007. doi:10.2173/bna.712
- Clayton, N. S., Bussey, T. J. & Dickinson, A. (2003). "Can animals recall the past and plan for the future?". Nature reviews. Neuroscience 4 (8): 685–91. doi:10.1038/nrn1180. PMID 12894243.
- Raby, C. R.; D. M. Alexis, A. Dickinson and N. S. Clayton (22 February 2007). "Planning for the future by western scrub-jays". Nature 445 (7130): 919–921. doi:10.1038/nature05575. PMID 17314979.
- Clayton, N. S., Dally, J. M. & Emery, N. J. (2007). "Social cognition by food-caching corvids. The western scrub-jay as a natural psychologist". Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological sciences 362 (1480): 507–22. doi:10.1098/rstb.2006.1992. PMC 2346514. PMID 17309867.
- Dally, J. M., Emery, N. J. & Clayton, N. S. (2006). "Food-caching western scrub-jays keep track of who was watching when". Science 312 (5780): 1662–5. doi:10.1126/science.1126539. PMID 16709747.
- Correia, SP; Dickinson, A; Clayton, NS (2007). "Western scrub-jays anticipate future needs independently of their current motivational state". Current biology : CB 17 (10): 856–61. doi:10.1016/j.cub.2007.03.063. PMID 17462894.
- Clayton, Nicola; Emery, Nathan and Dickinson, Anthony (2006). "The rationality of animal memory: Complex caching strategies of western scrub jays". In Hurley, Susan and Nudds, Matthew. Rational Animals?. Oxford University Press. pp. 197–216. ISBN 0198528264.
- Scrub jays react to their dead, bird study shows: 'Funerals' can last for up to half an hour. Sciencedaily.com (2012-09-11). Retrieved on 2013-03-22.
- Emslie, Steven D. (1996). "A fossil scrub-jay supports a recent systematic decision". Condor 98 (4): 675–680. doi:10.2307/1369850.
- Rice, Nathan H.; Martínez-Meyer, Enrique & Peterson, A. Townsend (2003). "Ecological niche differentiation in the Aphelocoma jays: a phylogenetic perspective". Biological Journal of the Linnean Society 80 (3): 369. doi:10.1046/j.1095-8312.2003.00242.x.
- Beolens, Bo; Watkins, Michael (2003). Whose Bird? Men and Women Commemorated in the Common Names of Birds. London: Christopher Helm. p. 329.
- Madge, Steve; Burn, Hilary (1994): Crows and jays: a guide to the crows, jays and magpies of the world. A&C Black, London. ISBN 0-7136-3999-7
Names and Taxonomy
Comments: Formerly considered conspecific with A. COERULESCENS and A. INSULARIS (see AOU 1995). The three groups of this species may represent distinct species: A. CALIFORNICA (California Scrub-Jay), A. WOODHOUSEI (Woodhouse's Scrub-Jay), and A. SUMICHRASTI (Sumichrast's Scrub-Jay) (AOU 1998).