BC’s Opportunists – The Steller’s Jay

July 1, 2013 | Angus MacKinnon

The Steller’s Jay, our provincial bird, may not migrate thousands of kilometers every year, and they may not have a wingspan the size of a car, but these boisterous, aggressive birds are one of the smartest and most charismatic in our area.

Steller’s Jays are easily distinguished from other birds in the area, having a stunning royal blue colour with a black crest, and sometimes blue or white markings on their forehead.

As anyone who has spent time in Tofino will know, these birds are cunning creatures that will steal your lunch if neglected for even a matter of seconds. However, conifer seeds are the main food of the Steller’s Jays diet; their narrow, strong beaks are ideal for extracting seeds from cones. Steller’s Jays have also been known to eat fruits, insects, nuts, invertebrates and several other items, depending on availability.

Unlike many other animals that gorge themselves when food is available, and go without food in times of scarcity, Steller’s Jays plan ahead. They cache food in the nooks and crannies of the forests, including indentations in bark, holes under rocks, in the ground, and countless other hidden crevices coniferous forests provide. Steller’s Jays also have a reputation for being nest robbers, eating the eggs or newborns of other birds. Because of their caching, and being generalists, Steller’s Jays rarely run out of food.

Coniferous forests also provide Steller’s Jays with important nest habitat. Steller’s Jays build their nests on stable, flat conifer branches approximately 2.5 – 3 meters above the ground, out of reach of animals that may prey on them. Their nests are made up of a combination of twigs, feathers, grass, dry leaves, animal fur and roots, and are cemented together with mud.

There’s a good chance that while walking through our coastal rainforests you will encounter a Steller’s Jay; however, even if you don’t see these impressive birds, you will probably hear them. While their most common call is a high pitched “sheck sheck sheck” call, the Steller’s Jay has the uncanny ability to mimic a variety of other birds and animals, including Red-tailed Hawks, squirrels, dogs, cats and chickens. They often use this ability to mimic other animal’s noises to their advantage to disperse other birds from a feeder. Steller’s Jays have even been known to mimic car alarms. These sophisticated approaches to manipulating other animals, including humans, exhibit a high-level of intelligence that is common among Jays and other birds in the Corvid family (e.g., Crows and Ravens).

As easy as it would be to dislike Steller’s Jays for stealing your food, or waking you up in the morning with their abrasive call, these opportunistic birds are widely adored and to many people, a highlight of the wildlife in Clayoquot Sound.

Angus MacKinnon is a summer intern at the Raincoast Education Society. He is a student at the University of Victoria studying Biology. When Angus is not studying or leading a rainforest walk he can be found surfing, cooking, or canoeing.

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