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A Bird in Hand

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Photo of Stellers Jay by Walter Siegmund Photo of Stellers Jay by Walter Siegmund

They might be blue, they might be jays, but that doesn't make them a Blue Jay

Sometimes when I am with acquaintances or friends the subject of birds might come up. Invariably someone will mention that their favorite bird in the area is the Blue Jay. Well, not wanting to be pedantic I just smile and nod. This is a response I’ve learned to use when it is best to keep one’s mouth shut! What I want to say, but don’t, is that there are no Blue Jays in North Idaho or the surrounding areas (with one exception, which I will address below). Granted, we have jays and some of them are blue, but that does not make them Blue Jays. Following me?

What these kind people call a Blue Jays is the bold and boistrous Steller’s Jay (Cyanocitta stelleri). This bird is unmistakable: a lovely blue body and wings matched with a head and shoulders shrouded in charcoal – topped off by a matching black crest. And that big, glossy-black chisel of a beak confirms that this colorful character is indeed a jay. Now pay careful attention to the individual birds that might be visiting (perhaps raiding is a better word) your backyard feeder. Using your binoculars you might see traces of white or blue on the forehead, around the eyes, or on the neck. Though not evident on all Steller’s Jays, many birds carry some of these unique marks. These telltales will help you to identify individual birds.

The Steller’s Jay call is most often a loud and distinctive ack ack ack staccato which the bird uses to announce its presence. (Click here to hear it.) The bird is also a mimic and it is not uncommon to hear it mirror the harsh shriek of a red-tail hawk or other large predatory bird. Reputedly the Steller’s employs this charade as a scare tactic to scramble competing birds away from feeder stations. Sort of like shouting fire in a crowded restaurant. Nothing like having the whole place to yourself!  

So why the possessive form in the bird’s name? The Steller’s Jay was named for the German zoologist Georg Wilhelm Steller, who was the first European to identify this bird, which he encountered in Alaska while working as a naturalist for the Russians during the 1740s.  

Another “blue” jay that might occasionally be encountered in our area is the Western Scub-Jay (Aphelocoma californica). This bird normally occurs no further north than the southern part of Idaho and would be best called an accidental in our area. This bird is commonly seen throughout the West. It is definitively a jay, sans crest. The body is predominantly blue, but typically with a gray patch on the back and with a white throat and belly, accented with an imperfectly formed blue stripe across its breast. There are a great number of sub-species, each a little different from the other, but all still typical jays in form and habits. Keep your eyes peeled!

So, here we have it. Two jays, both blue, but neither one a Blue Jay. But don’t lament, because it is probably only a matter of time before we have genuine Blue Jays in our area. The proper Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata) is an eastern bird, normally ranging no further west than central Montana. Note that it is from the same genus as the Steller’s Jay – Cyanocitta. The two birds are the respective east-west representatives of their genus. But it appears that the Blue Jay is slowly expanding westward into western Montana and central and northern Idaho. They have even been spotted spending the winters in Washington and Oregon. So it appears that it is only a matter of time before we have real blue jays in our neck of the woods.

There is one more jay the bears mentioning, the Gray Jay. The Gray Jay is a common denizen of our forests and is known to many of us as camp robbers, a fitting name for this little feathered thief! Like the Steller’s Jay and the Western Scrub-Jay, the Gray Jay is a member of the Corvidae family, along with crows, ravens, magpies, and many others. But it is only a distant cousin to the other jays in our area and forms its own genus, Perisoreus. It is a very unusual bird, in both habits and reproductive behavior, and will be examined more thoroughly in a later article.

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Author info

Michael Turnlund Michael Turnlund is a Sandpoint resident who teaches at Clark Fork High School. An avid birder, he's happy to share his knowledge of the area's avian wildlife

Tagged as:

birds, outdoors, Stellers Jay, Blue Jay, WEstern Scrub Jay, Gray Jay

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