Sunday, October 26, 2008

Local Jay Birds and the Steller's Jay

Corvids, don’cha just love ‘em? I do…and just discovered the names ‘jay’ and ‘magpie’ are somewhat interchangeable. Who knew? I find that these birds have a distinctive walk; slow and purposeful and
sort of pigeon-toed.

They are considered the most intelligent of the birds having demonstrated self-awareness in mirror tests (Magpies) and tool making ability (Crows) — skills until recently regarded as solely the province of humans and a few other higher mammals. Corvids are found worldwide except for the tip of South America and the polar ice caps.

Corvidae family relationships are not well established; the all-black crows and ravens of the genus Corvus seem most closely related, while the various species of jays, including the Clark’s Nutcracker, are a mix-mash more closely related to magpies. I’ve seen Black-billed Magpies, Stellar Jays and Blue Jays at my feeders…but Gray Jays are around; I wonder if they’ve been in my yard. Also seen around these parts are Western Scrub-Jays, Pinyon Jays and Clark’s Nutcracker. There is a Mexican Scrub-Jay, as well…though I cannot find mention of it in the area. As stated, crows and ravens are also members of this family, but we’re only working on jays this time.

As is my habit, I’ll cover the birds I might see here…including as much ‘unusual’ information as I can find. I am no expert and include references below.

Jays, like the Steller's Jay to the right, are several colorful species of passerine, or perching bird. They are somewhat large for songbirds (as passerines are less accurately called), with sturdy, thick bills and strong legs; they’re loud and every bit as impertinent as their name implies (jay). Most passerines are small in size, but they have a larger learning ability than most birds; especially the corvids, which may even learn to mimic human speech.

Jays are omnivores and eat anything from insects to fruit to carrion though nuts and seeds are most important to their diet. Western Scrub-Jays and Gray Jays are just as apt to eat a spider as a french-fry, but some members of this diverse family, notably Clark’s Nutcrackers and Pinyon Jays, will undertake substantial movements in search of specific tree seeds. Most members do not migrate however, with the exception, primarly, of the Blue Jay.

Corvid numbers are healthy, in spite of losses to West Nile virus. Many are expanding their territories and in spite of hundreds of years of persecution as pests, clearly show no ill effect on their population. This species has long been known for cleverness but recent studies have shown they have even more intelligence than formerly known; even having the extremely unusual animal ability of recognizing itself in a mirror. Sexes look alike.

As I am wont to do, I’ve gone on too long and too far. I’m going to have to break this up; we’ll discuss seven jays over the next few days; one per post. We’ll discuss only jays I’m apt to see here; they will be Stellers’ Jay, Blue Jay, Pinyon Jay, Western Scrub-Jay, Gray Jay, Clark’s Nutcracker and the Mexican Jay…which I may or may not ever see. I’ll include at least one photo and try for a video clip of each bird.

Steller’s Jay

When I lived in the off-grid cabin a few years ago, at the edge of the San Isabel Nat’l Forest, I saw many more Steller’s Jays...though they do visit here, too. The cabin was at about 9000’ whereas I’m now at only 7000’. I live near the river surrounded by large trees with pasture land all around, so this jay, which lives in coniferous and mixed woodland with open areas, is happy here, too.

The Steller’s Jay, (Cyanocitta stelleri), is closely related to the Blue Jay and is native to western North America and has a long, shaggy crest. While its body is quite blue, it’s head and upper body are nearly black; though there is much regional variation. Northern birds have more blackish-brown colored heads while southern birds become more and more blue-headed. Against this dark crest the bird has light, vertical streaks, like eyebrows, on its forehead, a silvery-blue breast and with darker barring along deep, blue wings and tail. It is the only crested jay found west of the Rocky Mountains…but when identifying, note that this bird flattens its crest when flying.

Steller’s Jays are normally nonmigratory, although populations that breed at high elevations typically move to lower elevations during the winter…but breed lower than do Gray Jays. Periodic irruptions of large flocks (mainly young birds) bring this jay into areas and habitats not normally occupied.

Like most jays, this one feeds from trees and shrubs and on the ground. Its diet includes a variety of seeds, nuts, berries, and fruit as well as smaller invertebrates…eggs and nestlings are hunted as well. Up to a third of their diet is animal-matter; they appear to be major predators of other species’ eggs. As one would expect, acorns and conifer seeds are a staple during the winter time. While somewhat more reticent than the Gray Jay, Steller's nevertheless quickly becomes accustomed to campsites and human providers. These intelligent and opportunistic birds are quick to take advantage of new food sources, including bird feeders, especially those full of peanuts. They cache extra nuts, making sure that the food is covered from all directions.

Steller's Jays form monogamous, long-term pair bonds. They remain together year round. They typically nest in a conifer, and both members of the pair help build the nest. The nest is a bulky cup made of twigs, weeds, moss, and leaves, held together with mud. The nest is usually lined with rootlets, pine needles, and other fine material, often with bits of paper adorning the outside.

The Steller’s Jay has learned to imitate the call of a Red-tailed Hawk as it approaches a feeding area, which causes other birds and prey creatures to vacate post haste. Clever bird! Generally its calls are varied and include rattling and guttural sounds too numerous to list. Notably, its alarm call is a harsh nasal ‘wah’, a rapid ‘shek shek shek shek’ or the most common very harsh, unmusical, decending ‘shaaaar’. Listen here.

Tell me this sweet little fat (indoor) cat doesn’t know exactly what it would like to do with this bird…hungery or not:

This is a better shot of just the jay…filling it’s craw for the trip home:
Photos from Wikipedia


Anonymous said...

We have MANY Jay Birds on our 5 acre property. We have lately heard a clicking sound coming from them. I have seen them do this myself. It almost sounds like an empty spray can w/the lead ball inside being shaken, then they kind of pop up and own. Has anyone else heard this?

Beverly said...

Jays are able to produce an extensive gradation of sounds, as well as mimic other environmental sounds…and they are quite vocal. Their ‘vocubulary’ is huge and defies categorization.

One call, described in an article on The Birds of North America – Online , is the ‘rattle call’; a series of rapid, dry, raspy clicks, often with a charp, crisp click and the beginning and end. It may be given as a long rattle of two to three seconds, or a succession of shorter rattles …usually accompanied by bobbing.