On hearing the piercing cry of a red-tailed hawk, I looked up and saw one gliding toward us. I was leading a small group of birders during our annual Christmas bird count several years ago and we had just emerged from woods into a small glen. I then heard the same cry again and realized it wasn't coming from the hawk. When I swung around to face the direction the sound came from, I saw a Steller's jay flying toward a tree at the edge of the glen.
It was clear to me what had happened. Steller's jays are known to be good mimics of red-tails. This particular jay had seen the quietly approaching hawk and it had sounded an alarm by imitating the hawk's cry. Had this jay been able to muster other jays, they predictably would have mobbed the red-tail to drive it away, but no other jays appeared. Instead, this jay watched from a safe perch until the hawk flew on.
Jays are part of a larger family of birds known as corvids, which includes ravens, crows and magpies. Corvids are the smartest birds native to North America. Among the corvids, jays are best at imitating the sounds of other birds and they communicate with each other through a wide variety of vocalizations.
Steller's jays, like most other jays, thrive around people. You probably have seen them looking for leftovers or handouts in picnic areas and campgrounds or coming to your feeders.
Unlike various birds, such as western meadowlarks, whose numbers have dwindled locally as the human population has swelled, Steller's jays have been growing more numerous. Christmas bird counts in Sequim have recorded, on average, 24 Steller's jays in the 1970s, 50 in the 1980s, 120 in the 1990s and 251 in the 2000s. While some of this gain likely is due to having more birders in the field, and thus counting a few jays more than once, it is an impressive increase.
Pairs of Steller's jays form long-term bonds and pairs remain together throughout the year. They establish territories and defend them against predators (hawks and owls) as well as other Steller's jays. Male jays carefully guard their smaller mates during their fertile periods, warding off any would-be suitors. These jays, if long lived, make it into their teens.
Among the 10 jays found in the U.S., Steller's jays and their close eastern cousins blue jays are the only two with crests - which they can raise and lower. According to experts, their crests typically stay down during periods of resting, preening, foraging and even while courting. Raised crests supposedly indicate some sort of arousal or stress. Given the frequency with which crests are raised on the jays we see on our weekly Wednesday bird walks, one wonders just how much stress they may be under. Jays raise their crests fully upright during fights and while mobbing predators.
Steller's jays exhibit a wide variety of other behaviors - spreading and flicking wings and tails, aggressive sidling, hunchback posture and appeasement displays. Most of these behaviors show levels of arousal related to defending themselves and their territories or sharing food.
These omnivorous birds eat a wide variety of nuts, fruits, seeds, insects and arthropods, such as beetles. They also are nest robbers, devouring eggs and fledglings of smaller birds. One of their favorite foods is peanuts in the shell, many of which the jays cache in our forests for leaner times.
Who was Steller, you might ask? Georg Wilhelm Steller was a German naturalist on the ship of the Russian explorer Vitus Bering, for whom the Bering Strait is named. In the midst of a two-year voyage, the ship stopped for a single day in July 1741, at an island off Alaska to take on fresh water. Steller was allowed ashore, with a helper and a gun. He madly collected unusual critters and plants. A crested jay with a black head and blue body was one of his prized kills. It now bears his name, as do a majestic sea eagle (Asian), an eider and a sea lion.
Dave Jackson is "Our Birds" series editor and Web master. Send comments to him at email@example.com or 683-1355. Olympic Peninsula Audubon meets at 7 p.m. tonight, Oct. 15, at the Dungeness River Audubon Center. Jim Gift, of Sequim, will speak on "Birds of South Texas." All are welcome. Bob Boekelheide, Dungeness River Audubon Center director, offers an intermediate birding class starting Thursday, Oct. 23. Local Audubon birding field trips will be held Oct. 25 and Nov. 8. Details are on Web site www.olybird.org.
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