On the wild side—October, 2011
by Tina Mitchell
A striking denizen of Colorado’s conifer and mixed woodlands, the crested Steller’s Jay falls in the same genus as the other crested jay of North America—the Blue Jay. Males and females look similar in the field. Colorado’s version of Steller’s Jays have black crests with dramatic silvery white streaks on their foreheads and white stripes above their eyes. These white markings distinguish our local subspecies from the more western subspecies, which have solid dark heads. (Just to be tricky, though, first-year juvenile Steller’s in our area lack of white markings on the faces until their first fall. Don’t be fooled!) The mantle, back, neck, and upper chest are dark gray, contrasting strongly with the black face and long black crest. The belly, wings, and tail are a striking blue with delicate black barring on the wings and tails.
All jays are members of the intelligent Corvid family (along with crows, ravens, magpies, and nutcrackers) and have complex communication strategies. For instance, you can figure out quite a bit about what’s going on for a Steller’s Jay just by looking at the position of its long crest. If it’s lying flat, the bird is relatively relaxed—foraging for food, preening its feathers, or otherwise at ease. A more elevated crest signals some kind of arousal, such as a competitor, or stress. If a predator or other danger enters the area, the crest heads to a completely upright angle. A bit like a mood ring, without all the colors (for those of you old enough to remember mood rings…).
The dark colors of the Steller’s Jay blend in well among the shadows of the dense coniferous woods of the mountains. In these woodlands, Steller’s Jays are general omnivores, eating many insects in the summer (including hornets and wasps, plentiful this time of year as they try to get in your house!!), and even small lizards and rodents. And of course, they gratefully frequent seed and suet feeders, announcing their arrivals and departures with their loud “shook-shook-shook” calls.
Colorado has three other common jay species: the stunningly nomadic, noisy, and at times wearing-out-their-welcome Pinyon Jays; the local Western Scrub-Jays; and the high-altitude Gray Jays. (A few Blue Jays make appearances in our area, but they primarily frequent the Front Range and the eastern plains.) Pinyon Jays can be fiercely irruptive in our area, dropping from the skies in vast numbers during certain years (such as in the summer of 2010—do NOT get me started!) and not appearing at all in other years. In our area, though, it’s not uncommon to see Steller’s and Western Scrub-Jays hanging out at feeders. But Steller’s Jays are what is called “site-centered dominant”: Mated pairs are socially dominant over all other individuals near their nests, but that dominance drops quickly as they move away from their nests. As a result, Steller’s often appear much more skittish at feeders than do the more consistently dominant Western Scrub-Jays.
Steller’s Jays are typically nonmigratory, although some groups move to higher elevations for breeding and return to lower elevations for the remainder of the year. Steller’s also become quiet and stealthy during breeding season, so one can’t always know if they’ve moved elsewhere to raise their young or if they’ve just stopped making appearances and announcing themselves while the kids are young. Young Steller’s leave the nest after about 16 days and the parents continue to feed them for a month or more after that. Family groups often remain together into the fall and winter.
Their genus name—Cyanocitta—has Greek roots: kuanos (meaning dark blue) and kitta (a chattering bird), which reflects the noisy nature of these birds. The species name—stelleri—honors Georg Wilhelm Steller, a German botanist and medical doctor who lived in the 18th century and collected this specimen on a trip to Alaska. The common name “jay”—which applies to several loosely related species—may be onomatopoeia of the harsh call of the Blue Jay.
Finally, when is blue not really blue? When it’s a feather! In most feathers, colors such as red, yellow, and black result from pigments—the same things that give crayons or paints their various hues. But blue feathers have absolutely no blue pigment. Instead, the structure of any blue feather creates a complex optical illusion, so that light is simply reflected to our eyes as blue. But if you crushed a Steller’s Jay feather—or any blue feather, for that matter—you’d see that its pigments are really just a brownish-gray. Considering the many shades of blue in the avian world—Indigo Buntings, Mountain Bluebirds, Blue Grosbeaks, Steller’s Jays, to name just a few—yet another amazing aspect of feathers comes to “light.”
You can see more photos and hear some of the vocalizations of the Steller’s Jay here.