Meet the Jays

A follow-up to my 6/9/20 posting “The June flora and fauna report”.

The apricot cymbidium orchid I’ve called Cuppy (in #4 in that posting), aways the last to bloom, finally came to an end on 6/24, extraordinarily late. The orchids will now put their energy into their root systems and into shoots that will spring up when the rainy (and cool) season begins in late November.

Then there was the bird feeder (#3 in that posting), which on 6/9 had not attracted any birds, nor had the birdseed spread out as a lure, on the ground near it and on the fence tops. But as the days wore on, I came to be adopted by a pair of California scrub jays — big, often noisy (though not for me), territorial, seriously clever, and amenable to human company (they are corvids, like crows and ravens). They are also crazy fond of peanuts (which my birdseed provides) and acorns (which they can get from the California live oaks that are all over the place here, and in which they are probably nesting).

Photographic records. Cuppy on 6/8, still hanging in there:


The bird feeder, viewed from inside the house, today (6/27):

(#2) Cuppy, now devoid of flowers, can be seen through the feeder; to its right, a planter of enormous callas, not yet in bloom; to its left, a pot of wild strawberries, currently bearing its tiny fruit heavily; other cymbidiums arrayed around these; in the foreground, a big silver Echeveria (species unknown), with bits of several other other succulents also visible; in the background, a freshly trimmed ivy-covered wall (with a shallow strip of garden at its base

That’s what I see out my window when I’m laboring at my worktable.

And then, a California scrub jay, or scrub-jay, in a National Audubon Society photo, looking characteristically inquisitive:


Lots about the birds later, but first an account of my unfolding relationship to them.

Jay days.

— first sighting of a jay on 6/12, weeks after the bird feeder was installed

— 6/13, the jay was back feeding from seed on the ground

— by 6/17, the jay was back daily and on that day discovered the feeder

— around this time, my helper Kim Darnell noticed that a jay was regularly on the sidewalk outside my house or in the crape myrtle tree on the street; clearly this was now its territory

— then at dawn yesterday, 6/26, a jay appeared in the feeder, and a second jay alighted on the ground, to snarf up birdseed there — oh I had a pair — and neither of them seemed to be at all concerned about me visibly moving around inside house

— later the temperature was moderate and I had some energy between naps, so I undertook to do a long-needed shearing back of the ivy on the wall (left to its own devices, it will overrun the whole patio grotesquely); so I was clipping away noisily when the pair of jays returned, about five feet from me, while I was making this amazing racket, but they paid me no nevermind, one in the feeder, one on the ground, and when the one in the feeder found a particularly excellent peanut bit it flew down to the ground to feed it to its partner

— a bit later, after my exertions provoked terrible dyspnea, and I sat in a patio deck chair for five minutes, sweating and wheezing and panting and doing breathing exercises to recover, one of the jays perched on the other deck chair, about two feet from me, cocked its head, and studied me intently for maybe 30 seconds, which is a long time for a bird; I assumed it was on the verge of begging for, or maybe insisting on, peanuts, but in any case the experience was eerily intimate, and I spoke to it in a friendly way, explaining that I was out of peanuts (not to mention acorns) but would try to do my best to get some soon (which in fact I’m working on)

I should note that jays are not just cute seed-eaters, but are truly, voraciously omnivorous, consuming all sorts of other creatures, up to and including cannibalizing their own kind. This is raw nature, even scarier in a creature with an astounding memory and (like other corvids) the ability to do a non-trivial amount of problem-solving reasoning. We should be grateful that they’re not a lot bigger than they are.

Oh yes, I have no idea which is the female and which the male; handbooks just tell us that the sexes are indistinguishable (to us; clearly, the birds have their own ways of telling).

About the birds. Basic facts from Wikipedia:

The California scrub jay (Aphelocoma californica) is a species of scrub jay native to western North America. It ranges from southern British Columbia throughout California and western Nevada near Reno to west of the Sierra Nevada. … The California 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.

More entertainingly, from the Birds and Blooms site “Meet the Jays: Blue Jays, Steller’s Jays, and Western Scrub-Jays” by Kaitlin Stainbrook:

Whether you think they’re brilliant, bullies or both, there’s plenty to discover about these clever corvids.

Jays are the loudest and flashiest of the Corvidae family, which also includes crows, ravens, and magpies. They’re also considered to be among the most intelligent species of the bird world. Most jays have strong bills and feed on all sorts of food, but these birds especially love peanuts. Although at least 10 species live in North America, this spotlight is on the three most likely to visit your backyard.

These are two crested species, the Blue Jay (found almost exclusively east of the Rocky Mountains), and the Steller’s Jay of the West; Western, or California, scrub-jays are (see #3) crestless.

Western scrub-jays are common in parks and woodlands across coastal California, but the species also lives inland, where it presents with paler, grayer markings. Like their cousins, they’re omnivorous, meaning they eat both insects and plant material. They typically bury their favorite food, acorns, for later. To identify a western scrub-jay, look for a white throat and a gray back. Westerns go off on their own to breed in isolated pairs instead of staying within a large flock as Florida scrub-jays do. Nests, built by both parents, are cup-shaped and made of twigs and moss.

Then, from Julie Taaffe, a long, entertaining, and wonderfully literate article about the California scrub jay, on the Nature in Novato site (that’s Novato CA, in Marin County), “The Scrub-Jay: In Defense of the Blue Squawker” by Jack on 5/30/19. The piece resists summary or brief quotation, but it rises in defense of the scrub jay on many fronts.

In particular, it notes that the astoundingly loud and grating calls of the bird are in fact alarm calls; like all alarms, they’re maximally loud and noticeable. My scrub jays have never given an alarm; they are silent, indicating that they are comfortable in my territory and don’t view me as a threat.

It also notes that in caching acorns for future consumption, jays bury them widely, so that the birds are a major vector in the spread of oak trees. The result is a strong tendency for jays and oak trees to cooccur geographically.

Meanwhile, they’re going to aggressively drive off smaller birds, to protect their territories. A family of jays is not what I was expecting when we put up the bird feeder (I was thinking of smaller, cuter birds), but that’s what I got and they are providing lots of satisfying moments in very difficult times.

One Response to “Meet the Jays”

  1. arnold zwicky Says:

    More corvid intelligence, from yesterday (6/28). Got my buzzcut refreshed by Kim Darnell and her clippers, which entailed my moving out to the patio and getting wrapped in a giant towel, so that wisps of my superfine silver hair didn’t get all over the place on my clothes and in the house. I remarked to Kim that if it were just me, the scrub jays would be greedily snarfing down birdseed a few feet from me, because they accept me as part of their milieu, whether I’m on the patio or inside the house (where they can see me through the window) — but they haven’t accepted her. (Corvids in general are very good at recognizing individuals — other birds and other creatures, including humans — and remembering their past experiences, good or bad, with them.)

    Eventually Kim left. And about two minutes later both jays were back on the patio, pecking away at the birdseed, while I typed away on my computer, just on the other side of the window from them.

    I then realized that they must have been watching us the whole time, from some spot in the trees where we couldn’t see them. Then as soon as the coast was clear, they swooped in. In fact, except for the hair-cutting interlude, the jays were on the patio, again and again, throughout the day, from 6:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.

    I see that the birdseed mix that came with the feeder is designed for cardinals, nuthatches, chickadees, and jays. We do have nuthatches and chickadees, but no cardinals in this part of California. Not that *any* bird has a chance against territorial jays.

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