Jays dominate late summer forest birding
Special to The Union
The only Jay we see and hear in the neighborhoods above Penn Valley, is the dark-headed Steller’s Jay. Scrub jays are found in the lower altitudes. These beautiful blue Steller’s Jays with a dark crest and a vertical blue stripe running above their eyes are a force by themselves, frequently dominating the area near their nests.
Found in mixed pine forests from southern Alaska to Central Mexico, in California They are primarily a northern bird with a few scattered populations south of Kern County. Coastal populations are rare south of Moro Bay. In an era when so many species are facing one threat or another the Steller’s Jay distribution is unchanged from pre-settlement times. Even the West Nile disease hasn’t had a significant effect on them.
Mornings listening to them is like overhearing a couple’s conversation. The harsh squawks that currently herald their presence are only one part of their extensive vocalizations. They make a sound reminiscent of a creaking gate and one of a stick being dragged across a picket fence. My favorite Steller’s call that has deceived me many times is their uncanny ability to imitate a red-tailed hawk.
Steller’s Jays are non-migratory, spending their lives in essentially the same location with a few exceptions. The primary exception being they will move down slope from the high Sierras to more temperate altitudes like Grass Valley to over winter. The juvenile Steller’s Jays disperse from their nests within a few months of fledgling to relocate usually within ten miles.
Former Nevada County planning commissioner and retired teacher Kurt Lorenz relates in the Yuba Watershed Institute publication, Tree Rings, Spring 2008, his experience watching a pair of Jays taking turns knocking down mud dauber wasp nests from the eaves of his house. One bird would knock the nest to the ground and the other would pounce on it and consume the wasp larvae. Then they would rotate roles attacking other wasp nests as they worked their way around his house.
He also saw them fly and strike with their wings and shoulders hanging sugar pine cones freeing the seeds, which they would then consume. As he watched them feed they were joined by other Steller’s as a dozen jays joined in the feast. He feels that these jays spontaneously discovered these activities.
I suspect that Kurt’s Jays were a mated pair. Steller’s form monogamous pairs and there is no evidence that they separate or mate outside of their pair. Clearly, their opportunistic adjustment to sources of food suggests their intelligence, which pound for pound is thought to be as high as any animal.
Their behavior and voice implies a fierce determination to defend their nest and mates. They dominate in the close vicinity of their nest. But this dominance decreases as they move into other Steller’s territories.
They arrive at our backyard feeders like a bolt of blue with a raucous call from first one then the other. Other birds scatter and abandon the sunflower seeds to this pair of Steller’s. Surprisingly, they take a just few seeds each and fly away. The grosbeaks and finches are slow to return to their feeding perhaps somewhat shaken by the jay’s intimidating arrival.
Nature is never one-sided and these birds are taken by raptors such as Cooper’s Hawks, Goshawks and Red-tails. They will gang up on a predator attacking and chasing hawks as big as a red-tail in a behavior known as mobbing. However, every now and then a pile of blue feathers attests to the demise of a Steller’s at the hands of an accipiter hawk or even a great-horned owl.
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