Maybe I was just looking for a bit of color in the landscape last week, when I threw out some birdseed on the front porch. The snowstorm had rendered almost everything white, except for glimpses of the green needles and brown tree branches underneath the snow clumps. Almost instantly bits of blue descended from the trees, one by one, their wings flashing on the way down — three shades, at least, of blue, enough to dazzle eyes made somnolent by the white blanket. Disparaged for their aggressive behavior (like stealing food), with noisy raucous cries, yet today the Steller’s jays brighten my landscape, bringing some life to this frozen day.
Aside from their striking plumage, including the jaunty black headpiece that wiggles with every movement, the Steller jay (named for the German naturalist who first recorded it) is not a poster child for any kind of save-the-wildlife campaign. It’s a little too rude and argumentative, its movements, as it eats the seeds on my porch, are herky-jerky, not graceful. It has no beautiful bird song, like the meadowlark; in fact, its calls are more like fingernails on a chalk board.
Last fall I was hiking on one of the trails west of Boulder, when I saw a man carrying a tripod and camera, stopping often to scan the trees. Figuring he had spotted an exotic bird, perhaps migrating through, I asked him what he looking at. “I’m trying to see the Steller’s jay. I’m from the east, and we don’t have them,” he said by way of apology for wanting to see something so common in Colorado that most people don’t give the bird a second glance.
A little pushy, obnoxious, arrogant—maybe that’s how you get when you live at 8500 feet in the winter, where the cold and snow have pushed other birds to lower altitudes and easier conditions, where any food must be dug through the snow and nighttime temperatures hover around zero. These creatures survive where others can’t.
Known as intelligent birds, Steller jays have a complex social and communication system, with a variety of calls, postures and displays. They’re social birds, quickly relaying the news that a two-legged creature has emerged from her cabin and thrown out some apple cores. When I don’t have any food to share, I’m greeted with catcalls.
They’re survivors, tough, opportunistic, eating whatever comes their way, whether it’s seeds, insects or someone’s sandwich or potato chip left unguarded for a moment on a picnic table. They have a right to be a little cocky, to confidently flash their blue wing. Along with their compatriots, the magpies and ravens, they’ve earned my respect.
Strut your stuff, Steller!