When I lived in New Westminster my sister-in-law, Pat, fed peanuts to the Steller’s Jays (Cyanocitta stelleri) in her urban back yard.
At that point I had no interest in birds at all, but I was intrigued by the jays that came by for dinner at Pat’s. So when I moved to Gabriola Island, I was delighted to discover these same jays in our backyard.
The Steller’s Jay, named after German naturalist Georg Wilhelm Steller, was voted the ‘most popular bird’ by BC citizens and officially named the Provincial Bird of BC in 1987.
In addition to this honorific, the bird has, apparently, one of the most frequently misspelled bird names in all of Birdland. (I assume the common misspelling is Stellar’s Jay; I still make that mistake when I’m not paying attention!)
Like all members of the corvid family, the Steller’s Jay habituates easily to humans and is smart. It communicates using a variety of vocalizations including “SHACK-Sheck-sheck-sheck-sheck” and “skreeka! skreeka” and the soft, breathy “hoodle hoodle”. The jay’s alarm call is a harsh, nasal “wah.” It also uses this to wake up sleeping humans when it wants a tray of peanuts. I finally woke up and bought a peanut wheel!
The erectile crest of the jay, one of its distinguishing characteristics, is another communication tool, used in conjunction with other body postures.
Steller’s Jays makes choices. It’s fun to watch them pick just the right peanut. They lift several, one by one, weighing each one to determine which is heavier and offers more bang for the buck. Very efficient.
Jays also plan for the future. In summer, when food is plentiful, they’ll carry several peanuts at a time in their mouth and throat, then bury some of them, saving them for winter.
This behaviour is called ‘cacheing’. Because they have remarkable spatial memories, the birds will be able to locate those peanuts months later – unless they’ve been dug up by someone else, such as our hilarious hairy resident Red Squirrel, who I call Q.
He’s not always quite so well-behaved …