Jabbering Jays

Steller's Jay web

Steller’s Jay (Cyanocitta stelleri), Greer, Arizona, USA © Duncan Butchart, 2013.

A couple of hours’ drive north-east of the Sonoran Desert around Phoenix and you are up on the Colorado Plateau – high country defined by the Mogollon Rim and known as the White Mountains. The contrast of the two landscapes – cacti-crowded desert and conifer-clad mountains – is extreme, with totally different climates, totally different vegetation and totally different birds.

Being spring, the desert had been ablaze with flowers, but in the little village of Greer, at an elevation of some 2,500 metres (8,300 feet), there was snow on the ground and ice in the air. Being a resident of Africa (and one whose global birding exploits have invariably had a tropical bent) this was really my first time in genuine, wild, coniferous forest. Bear country! Mighty Ponderosa Pines perfumed the hills and valleys with their sharp scent, the largest Douglas-Firs rose above them, and Engelmann Spruce had their skirt of lower branches deep in the snow. Quaking Aspens – with their snow-white bark – formed ghostly groves among the dark greenery. Juniper bushes were overloaded with purple berries, but the naked oaks were bare of acorns as well as leaves. Slim, rusty-barked willows lined the banks of the Little Colorado River that rushed along at my feet.

Above my head, three or four little birds were moving restlessly among the pine needles, darting this way and that, before giving their family identity away as they used their long toes and sharp claws to clamber straight down the tree trunk, beak-first. Nuthatches – Pygmy Nuthatches to be precise. These little critters were prying into the bark and pine cones, seeking out whatever food they could. So hungry was one of them, that it landed within inches of me, to peck away at a fallen cone. A Mountain Chickadee and half-a-dozen Pine Siskins came into view before my attention shifted to some raucous jabbering coming from the willow scrub. Moving closer, I surprised a large, long-crested bird which jumped up into a small fir tree, raised its feathery peak up and own, then bounced off.

It was not alone. Before I knew it, I was surrounded by about 20 Steller’s Jays, feeding excitedly on a cache of nuts. Each jay darted down to seize a nut, then flashed back into cover with its bounty which was held down with one foot to be pecked open. These agitated bundles of cobalt, turquoise, charcoal and black scolded one another, and me, as they gathered their lunch.

Steller’s Jay is one of four jay species that I encountered in Arizona, with Western Scrub-Jay, Mexican Jay and the highly sociable Pinyon Jay all being predominantly blue in plumage. Belonging to the Corvidae family (and thus closely related to crows and magpies) jays are predominantly nut feeders and typically harvest and cache supplies to last them through the year.

Meanwhile, the unmistakable drumming of a woodpecker echoed through the forest. I left the boisterous blue mob to track it down.

Greer, Arizona, USA, April 2013

About Duncan Butchart

Duncan Butchart is interested in all aspects of the natural world, with a particular fascination for birds and their ecological relationships.
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3 Responses to Jabbering Jays

  1. graeme says:

    A great story. You took me straight there. I do hope the many desert folk you met during your wild west foray are able to access this wonderful refection.

  2. Sam Parsons says:

    Beautifully described – I’m quite envious! Always fondly remember the great excitement as a child if a jay came into the garden in London, as this was for me
    very rare, and by far the most exotic bird I ever saw.

  3. What a delightful read – thank you for sharing a taste of a place I am unlikely to visit

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