Bird of the Week: California Scrub-Jay

Happy Fifth Birthday to this Special Guy!

Photo Courtesy of San Diego Bird Spot

Species: California Scrub-Jay, or Aphelocoma californica

Family: Corvidae (Corvids)

Star sign: Gemini

Rating: 12/10

Ideal Date: Playing Hide and Seek

In the distant, bygone year of 2016, two new species of bird were born. After studies demonstrated that two subspecies of the now-unrecognized Western Scrub-Jay did not interbreed in places where they coexist, the American Ornithological Society split the bird into two new species, the Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jay, which lives in Mexico and southwestern desert, and today’s special friend, the California Scrub-Jay. Our boy is turning five years old! Good for him!

California Scrub-Jays share a fair number of traits with human five-year-olds. They’re constantly in motion, always hopping around and playing. They’re inquisitive about the world around them, and not afraid to assert themselves. They make friends of all shapes and sizes: they’ve been known to have a symbiotic relationship with Mule Deer, standing on their backs and snacking on the flies and parasites in their fur. And they’re loud. As naturalist W.L. Dawson so eloquently put it in 1923, “No masquerader at Mardi Gras has sprung such a cacophonic device upon a quiveringly expectant public. Dzweep, dzweep: it curdles the blood, as it is meant to do. It costs the bird an effort, no doubt, for the whole body moves in sympathy. Could anything be more saucy than the mocking bow of the California Jay, as he dips his head and jerks his tail and asks, Who the devil are you?” Indeed, there are few things saucier than these jolly jays and the little dances they do.  

In spring and summer, California Scrub-Jays mainly eat insects, but as the temperature dips, acorns become their main food source; the way they go about acquiring acorns speaks to the vast intellect this friend shares with its fellow Corvids.  Scrub-Jays store acorns in caches, and they can remember as many as 200 different caches! Not only have they been known to cache their food in anticipation of times of hunger — demonstrating an ability to plan for the future — but they also take the perspective of possible competitors into account when caching acorns, selecting locations out of sight of fellow Jays and, if there’s anyone else around when they cache their food, moving it somewhere else later. This kind of self-awareness is known as metacognition — that is to say, the ability to think about thinking — and California Scrub-Jays are the only non-primate, non-dolphin animal that we know of that have it! Frankly, as far as smarts go, this clever friend could probably give a kindergartener a run for their money!

Year round, these clever friends can be found in — you guessed it — California, as well as on the Baja Peninsula and here in the Pacific Northwest; you can often spot them up high, bobbing around while perched on wires or in trees. They’re slightly larger than robins, with stout hooked beaks. Their bodies are mostly blue with tan stomachs, white throats, and grey backs. There are patches of black around their eyes. You can differentiate them from Steller’s Jays — the other Jay species we have on campus — by their rounded, crestless and altogether unfluffified heads. As W.L. Dawson said, their call is a loud screech, more melodic and high-pitched than that of the Steller’s Jay, but just as loud and piercing. If you see one, make sure to wish him a happy birthday! He deserves it!


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