Steller’s Jays – an invitation uphill

Steller’s jays, along with lakes and the sky, provide the striking blues of our western forests.

Summer arrives, and the welcome late rains will yield to it.  The oaks will dry and their denizens go quiet, whispering to their hatchlings, panting in the shade, living at the ends of the days.

Uphill the temperatures rise less.  More water remains in the soil and plants.  Conifers retain more brightly the green keys to life, and a different set of animals finds home among them.  It’s a good time to visit.

Steller’s jays are perhaps the noisiest, most visible birds of our coniferous and mixed forests, and they are one of the most strikingly beautiful, too.  Their sapphire and Egyptian blue feathers darken, from shoulders up, into the black of a late summer evening, broken by two blazing blue shooting-star eyebrows.  Their black crests flame up above inquisitive eyes.  Their bills, like those of all their relative crows and jays, are hefty, multi-purpose tools, capable of both dexterously weaving a nest and bluntly smashing a pine nut.

Vocally, Steller’s Jays are versatile, well equipped for their social and environmental conditions.  They can softly whistle and cluck with a mate.  They can purr and growl.  They can shout to their family flock, an almost-musical chok-chok-chok call, and scream at predators.  They mimic a wide variety of birds, squirrels, and mechanical noises, and often set bird-watchers to seeking the hawk whose call they just produced.

They are adaptable birds, and readily learn the caloric value of a human picnic.  Most people seem to have learned that feeding wild animals is not good for them, but jays don’t need an invitation, and can help themselves to even unopened packages of chips or trail mix.  Please keep your food unavailable!

The jays typically live in small flocks, where they practice the communication and collaboration that all social beings need to prosper–the sharing of food resources and mutual defense.  Within that structure mated pairs take increasing priority and leadership nearer their nest.

Male and female select their nest site together with stylized dance and feeding routines, and then share the nest-building, typically tucking it against a conifer trunk.  They both care for their young, about a month from egg-laying to fledging, and then continue to support the young birds.

The adults stay on their nesting territory year round, except that they may migrate downslope during heavy storms.  They eat what they can find–insects, nuts, human refuse, eggs and nestlings of other birds.  They bury nuts for winter feeding, and will rob from the winter stores of acorn woodpeckers where their ranges overlap.  They remain paired year to year, and probably for life.

Being beautiful and clever makes Steller’s jays a pleasure to observe.  It does not protect them from the changes in our time.  Like most songbirds, the jays have declined by about a third in the last half century.

Dan Greaney

Dan Greaney has a long history in outdoor education. He has worked as a naturalist with the National Park Service and in outdoor schools serving the East Bay and Tulare, Sutter, Los Angeles, and Shasta County Offices of Education. A long-time birder, he currently currently serves on the board of the Wintu Audubon Society.

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