Bird of the Month: Jays
Scrub-jay above; Steller's Jay below.
Photo by Michael Dorausch
...thief, scoundrel, outcast, jackal of the bush...
- William Leon Dawson, 1923 ornithologist, on the California Scrub-Jay
A dark bandit's mask across the face...body language says sullen...expression is stern.
- Pete Dunne, modern big time birder, on the same
Sung in a voice
Like that of the jay;
Even when I cry
You do not lend an ear.
- Oya No Urazumi
18th century kyoka poet
Jays have a reputation. If a person acted as our scrub-jays do, he might well garner similar epithets (thief, scoundrel, outcast) to those Dawson applied to them chiefly in recognition of their effectiveness at eating the eggs and young of other birds. Pete Dunne, in describing their merely physical appearance, only stated what most observers would consider quite accurate: they look like sullen, stern-faced bandits. And poets around the world have testified to the unmusicality of jay voices.
But true as these things are, it is important to recognize that these skilled observers do not reject jays in their entirety: Dawson speaks of certain of their deeds, Dunne of their appearance, and Urazumi of their public reception. Just because much of the world fails to lend an ear (or worse, lends a strongly unsympathetic one) to the voice of jays, does not mean you must do the same. They have much to recommend them:
- Are they bullies? They enjoy sunflower, defend their nesting territories, and are fairly large. Other feeder birds enjoy sunflower, defend their nesting territories, and are small. That accounts for a good portion of the difference. But one can even come to appreciate their policing attitude when less welcome visitors come around: we have seen jays harass feeder-bound squirrels until enforcing their departure, or eject a brown-headed cowbird attempting an unwelcome foray into the yard. In other words, it is not only the harmless, lovely finches that the jays harass, it is near enough everyone who enters their domain.
- Are they loud? Yes, but often to beneficial purpose. As a logical part of their policing duties described above, they tend to make a ruckus when someone unpleasant comes around. "Little takes place without his knowledge," says Dawson. And it is often to all birds' benefit that this is so: whether it's a Steller's Jay warning of a bobcat in a forested canyon or a scrub-jay advertising the arrival of the neighborhood cat, these warnings deprive predators of the stealthy approach which is their chief tactical advantage in their war on birds.
- Are they greedy hoarders? You may have seen a jay stuff himself full of some five or six peanuts or suet nuggets, only to fly off into the bushes, returning a moment later to repeat the process until the feeder contents are substantially diminished. (This can seem even more aggravating when he is making off with precious mealworms.) But this is because they evolved to cache food for consumption throughout the winter, specifically acorns, a good portion of which they fail to retrieve and which can then germinate and grow into future generations of oaks. Jays are indispensable to the dispersal of many oak species, and we are willing to forgive them a lot considering this magnificent service. If you love oaks, you owe some gratitude to the jays, chief oak-gardeners of California.
The stern-faced bandit: California Scrub-Jay by Risa George
Technically, a "Blue Jay" is a particular species of jay found in the eastern United States. Here in the Bay Area, we have two kinds of jays:
- Our most common jay and a familiar sight in almost all residential neighborhoods. They are generalists, much appreciating acorns, but eating a little of just about everything, including peanuts, sunflower, suet, and mealworms.
- Renamed by the ornithological powers in 2016, when the bird formerly known to your field guide as Western Scrub-Jay was split into our local California Scrub-Jay and an inland-Southwest species, Woodhouse's Scrub-Jay.
- Their caching of acorns has been the subject of much study. Among the most interesting tidbits are that they perform better than chance at refinding their cache sites up to 250 days later and sometimes cache upwards of 5,000 acorns in a season. It is speculated that this habit was a major influence on the evolution of their spatial memory skills, large brain size, and consequent high general intelligence.
- Some individual jays make a habit of stealing other jays' caches, and have also learned to observe who is watching them as they make their own caches. If observed by other jays, they will rebury their cache elsewhere. But other individuals apparently neither steal nor realize that they may be stolen from. Do you have wary and suspicious caching jays, or oblivious innocents?
- They aren't always unfriendly; in a unique symbiotic relationship, scrub-jays will land on deer to feed on ticks and parasites, as seen in the video below.
A tense showdown between an acorn woodpecker and a Steller's jay - local photo by Christine Hansen
- Found in moister, shaded environments, including both conifer forests and broadleaf, creekside woods with bays and live oaks.
- Larger and more handsome than scrub-jays, but generally dominated by their smaller cousins when they overlap on habitat edges.
- A talented mimic, particularly of hawks. So when you unexpected hear the piercing scream of a Red-tailed Hawk seemingly emanating mysteriously from the middle of the nearby bays, look for the Steller's Jay.
- A ready visitor to peanut, sunflower, and suet feeders in the appropriate habitat.
Feeding and Not Feeding
|As we suggested above, there is a lot to appreciate about jays and you should try not to reject them completely. If, however, they are dominating your feeders to an excessive degree, you may want to keep the following in mind:
- We hear the most complaints about jays during the summer months, when local numbers are boosted by recently fledged young and territorial aggression is at its peak. As we transition to the fall months from September onwards, your local jay population will likely shrink and become somewhat more peaceful.
- Jays will eat most bird foods, including sunflower, peanuts, suet, Bark Butter, and mealworms. Foods they will generally leave alone include Nyjer (for goldfinches) and millet (for ground-feeding birds). For non-jay-proofed feeders, focus on these foods.
- Caged feeders exclude jays (as well as squirrels, crows, and pigeons) and can be used to protect suet or seed. Most weight-sensitive squirrel-proof feeders are not sensitive enough to reliably exclude the much lighter jays, but a few models with individually weighted perches will shut them out.
- Other feeders are not comfortable for jays to use and will slow down their consumption and reduce their time spent on feeders. Upside down-suet feeders or "clinger-only" seed feeders force jays to hover or cling in uncomfortable positions while presenting no obstacles to natural clingers like chickadees, woodpeckers, or goldfinches.
Enjoy articles like this? Read about more birds in our Bird of the Month Archive.