BLANE KLEMEK OUTDOORS: Steller’s jays are very appealing to the eye
These Rocky Mountain species of jay, which are slightly larger than blue jays, possess a much more pronounced crest on their heads than blue jays have.
Since 2006 I have been making annual treks to the Colorado Rockies. I have come to consider “Colorful Colorado” as my home away from home. As well, the resident avifauna, once unknown to me, are now familiar feathered friends. Indeed, it won’t be long and I’ll be reacquainted with them once again.
One particular species of bird that I especially enjoy observing and listening to each year is the Steller’s jay. Named after German naturalist Georg Wilhelm Steller who supposedly “discovered” the bird in the 1700s, Steller’s jays are closely related to our own blue jay. Steller’s jays are also the only crested jay west of the Rocky Mountains.
Steller’s jays behave similarly to blue jays. Not only are they instantly recognizable as a cousin of blue jays, but they’re also noisy and anxious acting just like blue jays here in Minnesota are, too. These Rocky Mountain species of jay, which are slightly larger than blue jays, possess a much more pronounced crest on their heads than blue jays have.
Still, the Steller’s jay is as uniquely colored as blue jays are. Their conspicuous-looking blackish heads and upper bodies contrast vividly with their bluish lower bodies and tails. To be sure, Steller’s jays are very appealing to the eye.
Another interesting bird that many people might believe at first glance are our own black-capped chickadee, is the mountain chickadee. However, upon closer examination, mountain chickadees have white “eyebrows” above black eye stripes.
Both species share otherwise similar markings and coloration, such as black bibs and basic plumage color and patterns, as well as having similar sounding vocalizations.
And like black-capped chickadees here at home, mountain chickadees are social and friendly behaving birds that readily come to investigate anything that captures their attention.
Mountain chickadees seem delightfully indifferent to human presence and are a joy to have as company, though they usually will stay around for only a short period of time as they flit about, call to one another, and forage for seeds and insects as they come and go.
My favorite mountain bird is the Clark’s nutcracker. Related to jays, crows and ravens, the nutcracker is named after the explorer William Clark of the famous Lewis and Clark Expedition.
Like their cousin the gray jay, Clark’s nutcrackers are caching birds. They have extraordinary spatial memories that enable them to relocate in the wintertime most of the pine nuts and various seeds that they have hidden and stored throughout the summer and autumn months. Up to 33,000 seeds are cached each fall by a single foraging Clark’s nutcracker.
Pinecones are pried and hammered open by the powerful and sharp bills of Clark’s nutcrackers. So loud and distinctive are the sounds produced from this foraging activity, that one can readily hear the “knock-knock-knock” sounds echoing throughout mountain canyons.
Another unique feature of the Clark’s nutcracker is its lingual pouch, which is a pouch behind its tongue (blue jays have lingual pouches, too). The pouch enables nutcrackers to store many seeds, up to 90 depending on seed size, which they collect while foraging.
When their pouch becomes full, the bird transports its seeds to different hiding places—typically beneath the soil of exposed slopes. Clark’s nutcrackers can create as many as 2,500 caches of five to 10 seeds inside each cache.
Luckily for the forest, Clark’s nutcrackers don’t remember where all their caches are located. And so, leftover pine seeds are often a boon to a forest. If conditions are suitable, many of the cached seeds that are not found and consumed by nutcrackers or other animals will germinate and grow into trees.
Clark’s nutcrackers, as it turns out, serve an important ecological role with the forest and the pine trees that they depend on for their own survival. In the case of lodge pole pine trees, it’s possible that Clark’s nutcrackers are helping, albeit in a small way, to regenerate forests following catastrophic events such as insect infestations, fire and disease.
I will soon become reacquainted with these and other mountain birds. That I’m so privileged to walk amongst them throughout their mountainous retreats is not lost on me, as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
Blane Klemek is a Minnesota DNR wildlife manager. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.