Summit Outside – Steller’s Jay: not your ordinay blue bird
If you catch a glimpse of a large, iridescent, blue bird flitting around in the trees, it is probably a Steller’s Jay.
This striking bird has a long, prominent, shaggy crest on its head and a long tail. The front of its body is black, and the black extends midway down its back with the wings a sparkling or iridescent blue.
This jay is named after the German naturalist Georg Wilhelm Steller. I had always thought it was called “stellar” jay with an “a” for its brilliant coloration.
The Steller’s Jays are found in the western portion of North America, at elevations of 3,000-10,000 feet. They completely replace the blue jay in most of those areas with some hybridization in Colorado. Steller’s Jays are generally considered a year-round resident, but some migration does occur in the fall and spring. They inhabit coniferous and mixed forest wilderness spending much of their time exploring the forest canopy, flying slowly and gracefully with long swoops of their broad wings.
The Steller’s Jay has been described as bold, inquisitive, intelligent and noisy.
They can often be seen sitting quietly in treetops, surveying the surroundings. They come to the forest floor to investigate visitors and look for food, moving with decisive hops of their long legs.
They have complex social hierarchies and dominance patterns. They are very social birds, traveling in groups, sometimes playing with or chasing each other, or joining mixed-species flocks, often instigating mobbing of predators and other possibly dangerous intruders.
Steller’s Jays form flocks outside of the nesting season and often fly across clearings in single file.
They are opportunists. Looking for handouts they will frequent campgrounds, parklands and backyard bird feeders and will steal unattended picnic items. They might ask boldly for handouts with loud, raspy calls and they are especially fond of peanuts.
This jay has been known to pound on hard nuts with their bills to break them open. Steller’s Jays can carry several large nuts such as acorns and pine seeds at a time in their mouths and throat which they bury one by one as a winter food store.
Their diet is about two-thirds plant matter and one-third animal matter and consists of a wide range of seeds, nuts, berries and other fruit; small reptiles, both snakes and lizards; eggs, small rodents, and nestlings and they occasionally can be been seen attacking and killing small adult birds and robbing their nests.
Steller’s Jays are loud and can keep up a running commentary with numerous and variable vocalizations. They are mimics and can imitate birds, squirrels, cats, dogs, chickens and some mechanical objects.
Notably, the alarm call is a harsh nasal “wah.” The juveniles are the alarm bird of the flock and when they sound the alarm all the other birds take cover.
The jay in imitating the cry of the red-tailed hawk and red-shouldered hawk, causes other birds to vacate feeding areas. They have been also known to gang up on a local hawk to chase the hawk off the property. Observers have seen a hawk with its talons on the back of a Steller’s Jay. The Steller’s Jay squats as close to the ground as it can and screams, which causes the hawk to let go, and if it flies into a nearby bush or tree another jay will annoy the hawk by flying around it.
Some calls are sex-specific; females produce a rattling sound while males make a high-pitched “gleep.” When they are raising young or robbing nests, Steller’s Jays become very quiet and inconspicuous.
They form monogamous, long-term pair bonds and remain together year-round. They typically build a nest in a conifer, but sometimes in a hollow in a tree.
The nest is a bulky cup of stems, leaves, moss and sticks held together with mud often with bits of paper decorating the outside, and the inside is lined with pine needles, soft rootlets or animal hair and other fine material. The finished nest can be 10-17 inches in diameter, 6-7 inches tall, and 2.5-3.5 inches deep on the inside.
The eggs are oval in shape and a glossy, pale, greenish-blue with brown or olive-colored speckles. The clutch of four to five eggs is incubated entirely by the female for 17 to 18 days. Both parents feed the young.
They begin making short flights within a few days of fledging at about 16 days, and can make sustained flights by 30 days, which is about the time they can find their own food. The adults continue to provide some food for the fledglings for about a month after they fledge.
The oldest recorded Steller’s Jay was 16 years, 1 month old.
Northwest Native Americans have made many totem poles with the Steller’s Jay as a little look out bird perched right on top. There are stories specifically about the Steller’s Jay in mythology. “He is the message of hope in disrepair and the will to live. The jay is willing to teach you fearlessness, adaptability and survival but you must be willing to follow its lead.”
A group of jays has many collective nouns, including a “band”, “cast”, “party”, and “scold” of jays.
Breckenridge resident Dr. Joanne Stolen is retired from teaching microbiology Rutgers
University, and has taught classes at CMC. She is now pursuing a career in art, specializing in nature and many of the animals she writes about. Her work can be seen locally.
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