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Let's Go Outside | Commentary by Evelyne Vandersande
| Thursday, Feb 14, 2013

evelynevandersande_mugIt is blue and it flies, but it is not a bluebird or a blue jay. Call it a Western scrub jay and you will become part of an elite group of bird watchers and regarded as a bird expert by all of your neighbors.

What does “scrub” stand for?

Scrubby plants that grow in the chaparral are perfect territory for the scrub jay: small bushes, pinion juniper forest and mesquite. But they are adaptable, using oak trees, home gardens and city parks. It’s easy to find them in our suburban environment.

They do not have the best reputation, because they steal eggs from other nests. But don’t be too angry at them. After much research, it was shown that only 1 percent of birds have ever done that. A  few bad seeds, I guess.

They can be aggressive toward other birds of the same size, trying to steal acorns from acorn woodpeckers and screeching loudly at birds coming into their territory. But they feed peacefully with smaller birds.

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Photos: Placerita Canyon Nature Center Associates | Click to enlarge

They have a good defense system: There is usually a sentinel guarding the area while a flock of scrub jays is feeding. If the guard sees something unusual, the screeching is loud and immediate. The whole flock might join in the screeching to protect themselves from danger.

They have been seen perched on mule deer, picking off their parasites while the mule deer wait patiently until the grooming is completed.

You might be surprised to know they have no blue pigment in their feathers.

The feather has thin layers of cells that do not absorb certain wavelengths of light. So, only the blue wavelength that is not absorbed is reflected, and consequently, that is the coloring that appears to us as the bright blue of the scrub jay.

We have many beautiful oak trees in California, and we can thank the scrub jays that spread the seeds all over. Eleven species of oak trees have become dependent on the scrub jay to disperse the acorns. They are good at that job – one jay can hide 5,000 acorns in a season. What is interesting is that they choose good acorns most of the time; only 10 percent of the cache is not viable to reproduce a tree. They store more food than necessary, so many seeds grow in the process. The jay can hide acorns up to 2.3 miles away from the original source – a record for any bird. They also eat berries and small animals such as frogs, lizards and insects.

Scrub jays will preen mule deer for the insects.

Scrub jays will preen mule deer for the insects.

The scrub jay has a high brain-to-body mass ratio, so it is a highly intelligent bird. You can understand how smart their behavior is when they are hiding their food.

I have observed them often at work. I would throw a handful of peanuts in the yard and see a scrub jay coming full speed, grabbing the peanut and hiding it hastily in the yard – while checking over his shoulder to make sure no other bird sees what he is doing. Step one accomplished. Then he would come back to each site to retrieve the peanut and do more serious digging and hiding.

They can remember 200 caches for long periods of time. It is unusual for a bird of this size to have the ability to plan for the future.

Do they have funerals?

Research has been conducted by the University of California, Davis about this behavior. Western scrub jays gather and call others to screech over the body of a dead jay, and these noisy “funerals” can last up to 30 minutes.

The answer is not clear, but it could be that they are trying to make sure all have heard that a crime has been committed and perhaps intimidate the predator with the cacophony. The jays themselves are the only ones that know for sure.

A male and female form a strong bond and build the nest together. They have one to two broods per year, with two to six babies. The eggs are incubated for 15 to  17 days. Family groups remain together for a year or two after the nestlings have matured.

That explains one thing: The scrub jay is not a gregarious bird and does not stay with other scrub jays. When you see them in a group, it is because they are in a family unit. This is when they have the feedings with a sentinel watching. This makes the “funeral” demonstration even more unusual, and it’s why research has been conducted to find a clear answer.

They are not only smart, but they also have a long life span. In the wild, they will live for about nine years – and remember, two broods a year with two to six 6 babies each time, so that is a lot of scrub jays.

The oldest known Western scrub jay lived happily right here in Castaic, in captivity,  to the ripe age of 19 years, and 8 months. It must be something in the water here in the Santa Clarita Valley. Its name was Aaron.

Scrub jays are easy to attract to your back yard. With some patience and daily repetition, they will learn to eat peanuts from your hand if you have time and perseverance. They are noisy but beautiful birds, easy to observe, and I think they deserve a better reputation. Give them a chance.

 

Evelyne Vandersande has been a docent at Placerita Canyon Nature Center for 27 years. She lives in Newhall.

 

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