They arrive from higher elevation after senescent cottonwood leaves lose their grip and snowfall lays silent on the forest floor. Their sentinel calls begin with a warning whistle and build to a raucous “shaak-shaak-schaak.” The first of a feathered gang arrives to inspect us, swooping and gliding through the open stand of mixed conifers that surround our cabin.
Steller’s jays are a handsome blue-black bird with a distinctive crest. They have often been described as bold, intelligent, and inquisitive. I can also attest they are noisy and persistent. A member of the crow family, jays quickly become accustomed to human providers. We’ve counted as many as 14 individuals competing for a handout in the front yard.
Imagine a crowd of greedy relatives, elbowing and shoving each other for that last bite of clam dip, and you know how a flock of jays behaves at a bird feeder. Add a hungry tree squirrel to the mix and things really get interesting. Watching action from the warm side of a living room window is better than dialing up big screen TV.
Two seed feeders, one hung on a 20-penny nail tacked into rough bark of a tall fir and the other placed in the shelter of a maple tree, attract a year-round resident bird population that includes juncos, nuthatches, winter wrens, black-capped chickadees, and song sparrows. But it’s the high-calorie suet we put out each winter that mostly gets the attention of jays.
Our jays are not early risers. They often don’t show until my second cup of coffee. When they do, rooster fighting is in effect, as is constant shuffling for position at feeding stations, which makes it difficult to tell who is boss. Although two years ago, Nancy argued that her favorite, “mister white eye,” was the alpha bird.
The suet feeder hangs from a chokecherry tree a mere five feet from the cabin’s front window. Up to four jays squawk and compete for position on branches large enough to support their weight, while others root for displaced suet on the ground. One frosty morning led to me keeping track of their pecking order. How many bites of suet does it take to satisfy a jay before it gives up its place at the feeder? I wondered. Over the course of 21 events, individual birds poked, probed, and delivered jackhammer-like blows to suet 3 to 19 times for an average of 9 pecks per visit. Aggressive individuals held position for several seconds, scraping grease from their long sharp beaks on a naked branch and squawking at competitors between tilt-the head-back swallows.
Jays aren’t the only wildlife attracted to suet. More than once we returned after an extended absence to find the wire-mesh suet feeder dismantled and buried in the snow. My infrared LED camera revealed a masked marauder, i.e., raccoon, with a hankering for peanut butter mixed with beef fat.
In early winter 2010, a strange-looking bird joined our local flock of Steller’s jays. Sleeker than its cohorts, it had a white throat and chest that contrasted with a bluish-colored back, but lacked a crest. Was this serendipitous visitor a wandering gray jay, the so-called “camp robber?”
What followed were close-hand observations with three bird books in my lap, multiple calls to local experts, and confirmed identification of a western scrub jay. Our finding, the most “northeastern-most” sighting in Oregon at the time, attracted curious birders from miles away. During the following winter and spring, we often chanced upon bird lovers crouched in a stealth pose, sneaking down the wooded lane by our cabin with binoculars in hand. We’d invite them in, serve a hot cup of tea, and let them admire this special visitor from the comfort of a rocking chair.
From my journal, New Years Day 2010: The scrub jay balances on the front yard seed feeder like an acrobat in a high-wire circus act, jostling loose a handful of millet and sunflower seeds. One clawed foot holds fast to the bottom rim; the other grasps the wire cage that surrounds the half-empty cylinder of seeds. Several Steller’s gather on the ground below. Hopping on long legs, they peck the ground like a flock of barnyard chickens after a handful of seed corn.
The solitary scrub jay left us two years later, when a glaze of ice obscured view out cabin windows. Did it fly off to seek a mate, get eaten by a great-horned owl, or tire of delivering stray sunflower seeds to its less agile, dark-crested cousins? Only Mother Nature knows.