by Alex Forsythe
My family and I took a 3-week road trip out west in September, and what a time we had! We saw many of the national parks and monuments, from the majesty of Glacier National Park to the moss-covered rain forests of Olympic to the prickly flora of Joshua Tree National Monument. No one else in the family is a birder, and it seemed no other visitors at the parks were birders, either. While everyone else was commenting on the vastness of the Painted Canyon, I was running back and forth across the Canyon’s rim to get a good look at the Spotted Towhee flitting about on the ledges several feet down. Oh, sure, I appreciated the beauty of the scenery, but come on! There were lifers to see!
This Steller’s Jay is another example of our differences in interest during the trip. The rest of the family was taking photos of the beautiful mountains, pristine streams, and perfect meadows. I, on the other hand, was watching a Steller’s Jay hoping for the opportunity to photograph it up close. A family was having a picnic nearby, and the Jay flew in to convince the visitors to share the bounty. At first the family was a little perplexed that I was taking so many photos of them, but after a time they realized the bird was the subject of my fascination, not them!
Steller’s Jays hold a special place in the Jay family. They are the only western Jays to have a crest, the only western Jay to build nests from mud, and they have a great deal of variation in coloration depending on where they are located. Some have blue crests and backs, while others have black crests and backs. They are also varied in their calls; they can imitate other birds and other animals including dogs, cats and squirrels. They’ve even been observed imitating the sounds of machines! The esophagus is elastic and quite expandable, allowing the Jay to carry items as large as acorns. The food is often stored in hidden locations for the winter.
They are named after Georg Steller, the naturalist who first discovered them on an Alaskan Island in 1741. The vivid blue birds are rather common in the western states, and they’re easy to find in campgrounds and picnic areas. They’ve risen to fame and claimed the throne in Canada; in 1987 the Steller’s was voted the most popular bird in British Columbia and it became the official bird for the province. About 85,000 people cast their votes, and when the votes were counted, the Steller’s Jay had received over 2,000 votes more than its next nearest competitor: the Peregrine Falcon. The Jay is British Columbia’s only symbol to be adopted after a public vote.
This election year, any of the presidential candidates should be jealous of the Steller’s Jay’s success. He ran a clean campaign, and he didn’t take any PAC money, yet he won in a landslide! Well done, Steller’s! Well done!