EAST MEETS WEST
By Jeannie Marcure
One cold, overcast day last fall when our feeders were mostly filled with the brown and gray winter birds common to the Flathead, we were treated to the arrival of a couple of new birds whose bright feathers and noisy calls were reminiscent of the more tropical birds of the southwest. This welcome splash of color at our feeders marked our first visits by Blue Jays and Steller’s Jays. These two colorful Corvids are both year round residents of our area, with the Bigfork CBC recording 38 Steller’s and 18 Blue Jays and the Kalispell count recording 2 Steller’s and 35 Blue Jays. The interesting transposition of the numbers in the two counts is probably explained by the difference in the habitat preference of the two species.
Steller’s prefer to live in the coniferous forests of the mountains, while Blue Jays prefer hardwood thickets and are more commonly found along forest edges and in suburban areas. Both are omnivorous, eating pine nuts, seeds, berries, insects, other invertebrates, small mammals, birds’ eggs and carrion.
Steller’s Jays were first observed by the German naturalist George Wilhelm Steller in 1741 when, as the first white man to step on the land that eventually became Alaska, he visited Kayak Island near the present-day site of Valdez. Steller was employed as a naturalist by the Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg at the time and had accompanied Vitus Bering on his last expedition into the ocean east of Siberia.
The Blue Jay was originally considered an eastern bird and is a more recent arrival in our area. Its migration westward has been driven by loss of habitat in the more urban eastern United States, and the spotting of these colorful birds has become increasingly frequent, especially in more settled areas where they make themselves at home in the hardwoods offered by the urban landscape. In the areas such as ours where the two overlap, hybridization has been known to occur. In our old neighborhood at Happy Valley, it was common to see one or two Blue Jays with a flock of Steller’s during the winter and because of those visits, we soon learned to distinguish the calls of the two.
Blue Jays call “jaay, jaay” in alarm and in flock emit a softer “toolool” which has an almost bell-like quality. They are also skilled imitators of hawks. Steller’s most common call is a harsher “shaak, shaak, shaak.”
Steller’s and Blue Jays are the only North American jays with crests. Both are about 11-12 inches in size with Steller’s being slightly larger. With its black hood and dark blue feathers, Steller’s is easy to distinguish from the Blue Jay, which has a light grayish chest and white spotting on the wings and tail. If you only get a glimpse of bright blue before the bird takes flight, check out the tail feathers. Blue Jays have a band of white showing there, while Steller’s is completely blue.
The Steller’s Jay and the Blue Jay are the only North American jays that use mud in the construction of their nests. During courtship, the male Blue Jay chases the female. They prefer to nest in deciduous trees, with cottonwoods being a favorite locally. Both parents incubate the 4-5 brown spotted buff eggs and both share the feeding of the nestlings for 11-17 days after the hatch. Ritual feeding is part of the courtship for Steller’s. The male will also circle around the female in display. Both parents build the nest, preferring coniferous forests. The nestlings fledge after two-three weeks of parental care and the juveniles remain with the parents throughout the first winter.
Many people dislike Steller’s and Blue Jays because they are known to eat the eggs of other birds. However, in an extensive study of feeding habits, only 1% had evidence of eggs or birds in their stomachs. The largest part of their diet seemed to be composed of seeds and nuts.
I hope you get a chance to observe these colorful birds this winter. For those of you who live in Kalispell, offering a feeder full of those great Audubon oil sunflower seeds is probably the surest way to attract Blue Jays to your area. If you venture up to Glacier for some x-country skiing, keep an eye out for the more reclusive Steller’s Jay. We’ve often spotted them along Lake McDonald.