Blane Klemek: The beautiful, boisterous Steller's jay
A beautiful species of jay exists in the Rocky Mountains. The bird, like our own blue jay, is skittish, boisterous at times, and crested. About an inch longer than the 10-inch blue jay, the Steller’s jay is a striking looking bird -- perhaps a tad bit more than the blue jay.
According to my go-to source for online avian information, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the name of the Steller’s jay is one of the most frequently misspelled bird names. As mentioned, Steller’s jays are beautifully plumaged and striking looking birds, so one could think of the bird as, well, “stellar” in appearance, as Cornell points out.
Rather, Steller’s jay is named for a person — Georg Steller — who was a naturalist on a Russian explorer ship and given credit for discovering the species on an Alaskan island in 1741.
As the story goes, “When a scientist officially described the species in 1788, they named it after him, along with other discoveries including the Steller’s sea lion and Steller’s sea-eagle.”
On my recent annual trip to the Rocky Mountains in northwest Colorado, it wasn’t until the last days of my two-week trip that I observed a Steller’s jay once again. A once-a-year observation for me, I so look forward to glimpses of this gorgeous species. The birds’ black heads and crests contrast vividly with their blue bodies. White markings are visible on their crests, as well as distinctive white “eye brow” markings and mottled white throat patches.
Interesting to note is where blue jays’ and Steller’s jays’ ranges overlap. As blue jay westward expansion continues, the two species are increasingly being observed occupying the same habitats, and in some cases interbreeding occurs, producing hybrids. But by and large, Steller’s jays are the true “western” crested jay, whereas blue jays are the eastern species of crested jay. Indeed, of all the species of jays, only Steller’s and blue jays are crested.
Steller’s jays belong to the large family Corvidae, also simply referred to as “corvids.” Diets are similar among most all of the corvid species, which are largely considered generalists. Feeding on a wide variety of food that includes nuts, berries and other fruits, seeds, and insects, too, also on the menu (as it is with blue jays), Steller’s jays are also known to prey on small animals, reptiles, amphibians, nestlings, and eggs. In fact, it’s why jays are often given a not-so-endearing label, “nest robbers.”
And also like our blue jay, Steller’s jays are attracted to backyard bird feeding stations for the always rich supply of high-protein black-oil sunflower seeds, corn kernels, other seeds and fruits, and suet as well. Bird baths, grit, and bowls of jam and jelly and mealworms will also attract both blue jays and Steller’s jays alike.
Steller’s jays, again like blue jays, have lingual pouches inside their mouths that enable them to “gulp” down and store several seeds, nuts, and other foodstuffs at a time in order to carry off literal mouthfuls of food for caching at various hiding spots throughout the forest. Next time you observe blue jays at your feeder, watch what they do. Steller’s jays do the same thing. What appears to be outright consumption of seed after seed is typically a jay that’s just filling its mouth, not its crop. You’ll see their throat grow and bulge from so many seeds.
Also of interest, Steller’s jays and blue jays are the only species of new world jays that use mud to build their nests. Something also similar between the two species is their fondness of mimicry. Steller’s jays can imitate the sounds and calls of other birds and animals fairly well, even some mechanical sounds. If you tune into the language of the blue jay you’ll hear many calls and sounds that resemble other species of animals. For instance, blue jays mimic hawk calls and Steller’s jays do the exact same thing.
Experiencing the sights and sounds of different environments helps us appreciate the astounding natural diversity present everywhere, including giving us a special appreciation of the remarkable similarities to lifeforms here at home. The attractive Steller’s jay helps drive this point home, as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.