Wednesday, January 16, 2013


Sue Coleman- Vancouver Island, Canada

In several blogs last year I told you about the Shaw 4-H Birding Club's project on crows. This year they are doing their project on the Steller's Jay.  The kids built a blind where they can observe the jays at feeding time.

The Blind

Each child is assigned certain behaviors to watch for, such as aggressiveness with other birds, their vocalizations, and what  they eat. And of course they record the weather, time of day, and other variables. This study helps the children in observation, preparing them for other aspects in their lives. I am grateful to a grandmother and a father who taught me at a young age to observe interactions in nature.

But what of this colorful, striking, noisy bird?  In the northwest we have a species different from other areas of the west. It is in the corvid family, the same as our friends the crows and ravens.

Aidan in blind

This jay is named after the German naturalist Georg Wilhelm Steller,  first discovered on a Russian boat in Alaska in 1741. In 1788 a scientist named the bird after Steller. He also named two other animals after him: the Steller’s Sea Lion (which lives locally in our cold seas) and the Steller’s Sea Eagle.

This striking bird has a long, prominent, shaggy crest on its head and a long tail. The top of its body is black which extends midway down its back with the rest of the body and wings an iridescent blue.

Photo- W. Ammann

Steller Jays love the coniferous and mixed forest wilderness spending much of their time exploring the forest canopy, flying slowly as if they float.  They can often be seen sitting quietly in treetops, surveying the surroundings. When the children first come to the blind, small birds immediately come for the food which we put out, but the jays hang back watching high in the tree tops.  After as long as five minutes, and  no movement in the blind, they soar down to the feeding area, landing amidst the smaller birds (sparrows, towhees, juncos).

The Steller's Jay feeds on insects, other birds' eggs and nestlings, nuts, seeds, bread, acorns, and berries.  They are also frequent visitors of campground picnic sites. They hoard food, such as acorns, seeds and nuts in caches around their territory for the dark winter days.

I have warned the children not to always believe what they read but to study more than one source of information for their studies. For example, many sites say that the Steller's Jays are found in the western portion of North America, at elevations of 3,000-10,000 feet. Well, we happen to be 50 ft. above sea level!
These jays 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 the mobbing of predators and other possibly dangerous intruders. We think we have two local families, the one at our feeder area comprises eight. Interestingly, some of the islands near us do not have any jays and the birders there are very jealous of ours!.

The Steller's Jay has been described as bold, inquisitive, intelligent and noisy. They have many vocalizations and can imitate the eagle, red-tailed hawk, even dogs, roosters, and certain mechanics, such as a lawn mower. They scold (when food is not put out on time), squawk, scream, whistle, and make other noises which would scare anyone walking in the woods who did not know this sound was from a bird.

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.”  For the NW Natives the jay reflects lessons in how to use personal power correctly and efficiently. They remind us to pay attention and not allow ourselves to be placed in a position in which power is misused against us. Those with jay as a totem need to heed this warning.

The Makahs tell a story about how the Steller's Jay (Kwish-kwishee) got its crest. The mink ( Kwahtie) tried to shoot a jay with an arrow but missed so the crest is ruffled to this day.

Duane Pasco- Poulsbo, WA
We will keep you updated on the project. At present the children are most interested in the way our local jays get along with other smaller birds- again going against most literature on the species.

Duane Pasco

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