Strictly for the Birds

Part 1: A Friendly Bird

If you read this page regularly, and I’m told there is one of you out there, you will have noticed a tendency toward the eclectic in the choice of topics. It would not be surprising, then, for people to suspect a certain eccentricity at work. I’m probably about to confirm that suspicion. A few years ago, I held frequent conversations with a particular Steller’s jay that visited my deck rail for peanuts—they are the blue birds with a black head crest. I will call him (her?) J, but more about those conversations later.

Put out peanuts and Steller’s jays (Cyanocitta stelleri) are likely to appear before long. I’ve never seen an explanation of how they know there is an edible nut inside that pale, elongated shape, but know they do. The bird that first discovers the meal alerts its fellows with a particular repeated squawk, not that they are particularly keen to share, but it seems a social obligation for them to perform. Then, duty done, it’s every bird for himself. Sometimes, the call does not bring others and the lone discoverer has the pick of the food on display; at others, a feeding frenzy develops. Steller’s jays have territories, like many birds, and both males and females will defend a territory. Perhaps we are housed on the overlap between two territories, because it seemed clear that sometimes two different groups of birds were involved, and the first group to arrive made efforts to drive off the interlopers or at least harass their feeding.

I noted that, given time, a jay would pick up first one shell, then others, appearing to make very specific decisions about which nuts to take. It was not size that counted; the key feature seemed to be weight. Sometimes, a bird would partially swallow one nut to accommodate a second in its greedy beak. Humboldt State University, in California, has carried out a number of research projects on Steller’s jays, and what I observed is far from unusual. In one study, they found that selection of peanuts typically correlated not only with weight, but also the condition of the shell—both indicators of the nut’s potential for storage, as caching food is another Steller’s jay habit.

When there was little competition, I saw early nut selections taken to nearby trees, shelled and eaten, but with appetite assuaged, a bird would take a whole nut and seek a good hiding place, hopping around and finally tucking the nut under a tussock of grass or among the roots of a tree stump. It isn’t uncommon for the bird to place a leaf or pinecone on top of the nut to hide it (or maybe mark it). I have seen birds store their nuts in the fork of a tree branch, distinguishing between nuts saved as a temporary expedient to consume when time allows and those worthy of longer-term storage. Often, a bird will glide some distance away from its fellows so as to hide its nut unobserved. Less courageous birds that are more diffident about landing on the deck rail will follow them and steal the nuts when the owner has departed; squirrels do the same. Humboldt researchers found a close correlation between the distance a bird flies to cache its food and what other birds are feeding—the shortest distance when alone, further when a mate was present, and furthest when birds from neighboring territories were around. Humboldt concluded that jays recognize and respond to social contexts when concealing food.

There were distinct differences in behavior: bigger, assertive birds would fly at smaller, shyer ones. Whether this was a difference of size, sex, personality or lack of familiarity, I could not tell, but some birds were very brash and bold, content even to daringly take a peanut from my hand, while others were very skittish indeed and could barely make it to the deck rail and then only to snatch at a prize and fly. Personality differences between Steller’s jays were also researched at Humboldt, where shy and bold birds were both also noted. Interestingly, they found no difference in successful mating for both shy and cocky birds, provided they chose a partner of the same personality type. “Mixed” marriages were less successful.

The commotion aroused by multiple jays feeding often draws crows or magpies (members of the same bird family) to the excitement. At first, when a crow or magpie took a peanut, they seemed not to know what to do with it, but apparently, after watching the jays, they too began to take nuts and shell them, and now they have no hesitation in cracking them open.

Is deviousness an indicator of intelligence? I have witnessed lone jays, partway through removing available peanuts to store, sit innocently in a tree when another jay, crow or magpie flew into the area. He/she would ignore the remaining peanuts only to renew the task once the other bird had departed. Both jays and magpies have a penchant for imitating sounds, including birdcalls. A Humboldt researcher recalls a Steller’s jay that would imitate the call of a red-shouldered hawk, the top bird predator in their area, to clear other birds from a bird feeder to his own advantage.

Steller’s jays enter into largely monogamous relationships and paired birds will often fly together except at nesting time. Jays are generally vilified for their harsh calls, but after dining on peanuts from our deck rail, one pair would perch in a tree close by and indulge in soft twittering sounds back and forth that I can only characterize as conversation, or perhaps marital bickering. I began to imitate their subtle sounds and no doubt the jays were nonplussed about this, as they would fall silent for a time, then ignore me. I was probably talking nonsense.

At the time, it was our practice to interrupt work in the afternoon and enjoy a break on the deck for a cup of tea. Whether it was one of the jays I had “talked” to, I don’t know, but not much later, a particular jay (J) would perch on the deck rail not more than 3 feet away, plump up its feathers and settle down to listen to our conversations, contributing the occasional quiet sentence of his own. This became a routine experience throughout that summer. The next summer, J returned, but he had injured a leg during the winter, the remains of which hung only by a sinew. Trapping for treatment might have been an option, but the leg didn’t seem more than an inconvenience and it detached at some point, as later that year, he was one-legged. That was the last year we saw J, so I imagine he fell prey to some predator or just didn’t survive the winter. We missed his companionable company and often recall his presence, eccentric though that may be.

Next month: Part 2: Something to Crow About


© David Cuin 2020