The Ways of Steller’s Jays

As fall continues, my struggle with arthritis pain in my hips, knees and elsewhere have made moving quite difficult. Even short walks over impossible at this stage. As a young 30-something male, this is a hard reality to deal with. Soon, they’ll be getting a scooter that will greatly aid in my mobility — and then also comes the reckoning of becoming full-on disabled. With just a cane, I felt like I was half disabled. But now it’s finally time to swallow that pill.

So with all this time spent at home, I found myself incredibly bored with the same old Netflix routine. On some days, birds would come to feed at our bird feeder, mainly sparrows and chickadees at first. Between feeding, they would hide in the tree behind our apartment and chirp away happily. (The evergreen broad-leaf tree is now known as the Waiting Tree in our house for its avian purpose.) Chickadees have a delightful song. The sparrows nested nearby and raised their young, and our feeder turned into their local 7-Eleven. I nicknamed the sparrows The Gallaghers after the family in my guilty pleasure TV show, Shameless, since they tend to move about in a loud, chaotic swirl.

Dark-eyed juncos began appearing as well. On occasion, a rarer bird would show up, like the gnatcatcher. However my favorite was the Steller’s Jay. Much larger than the eastern Blue Jay, it appears like a cross with eastern jays and crows. This larger, darker Jay would land on the railing, look up at the seed bell from various angles, and then tried to knock the feeder off its hook and onto the ground, where it could readily feed on it. Most of the time they failed hilariously; but on occasion, after the smaller birds nibbled it down, they succeeded. I became fascinated by their character and intelligence.

A bit of research on the Steller’s Jay confirmed that they needed a ground feeder due to their size. So my girlfriend and I took an old bird feeder that the previous tenant left hanging offerees, remove the chains, and place it like a platter on our balcony table, filling it with seed and putting a couple ferns around it to make it feel nice and sheltered. The occasional Jay would come to peck at it, sometimes silently, sometimes squawking to announce their presence.

A Steller’s Jay eyeing peanuts. Credit: Tracie Hall

But further research revealed that Steller’s Jays go crazy for raw peanuts. About a month later, we got a modest sized bag of peanuts and began leaving a few each day in the ground feeder. The number of Jays visiting each day went from one to at least four. Our balcony gradually started becoming a major way-point for the local Jay bands.

We started noticing some really interesting phenomena as the Jays to a shining to our balcony. First, a Jay would often arrive on the balcony and squawk loudly, scaring away smaller songbirds. They also have the ability to mimic the calls of other birds. They are known to mimic the predatory call of the red-tailed hawk; I’ve also heard that mimic crows as well. They use these smoke and mirrors tactics to compete with other birds, but also at times to foster cooperation, as they seem to do occasionally with crows while scavenging suburban yards and alleys. Their dominance has unfortunately turned many songbirds away from our bird feeders.

A Steller’s Jay in British Columbia. Credit: Alan D. Wilson.

As I continued to feed the Jays, they have come to recognize me. We’ve developed a routine. In the morning they often post up throughout the evergreen canopy above, and seem to go into a feeding frenzy as soon as I come outside and begin throwing single peanuts onto the ground below. However, this competitive behavior isn’t always what it seems. One of the birds will swallow two whole peanuts and take off. But one of the other fast-acting birds to get the peanut perched up above and dropped it to another bird, presumably the Jay’s mate or other band member. Competition may take place, but there is also beautiful cooperation.

Jays mate for life and belong to closely-bound family units known as bands; and yet Jays can fly hundreds of miles from where they were raised, like feathery frontiersmen, particularly in the winter when they ramp up their foraging. For example, in my backyard, I found an almost entirely black Steller’s Jay, which belongs to the carlottae subspecies, native to the Haida Gwaii Islands of British Columbia, almost 600 miles from my backyard. Maybe this bird came this far to find some food, or himself — or a soulmate maybe?

In summary, in the past few weeks, I made lemonade out of the bitter lemons of lonely disability. Amateur birding is now one of my favorite pastimes, and every day up a little bit of food out for my feathery friends. It feels good to give back somehow. And becoming a bit of a backyard naturalist is key to understanding how our environment works and how we, as humans, can have an individual and collective impact.

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