The Voices of the Steller’s Jay

Depth and nuance. That is something I strive for when journalling and sketching. And spending time in nature, on my deck in the Santa Cruz Mountains, for instance, really deepens my understanding and appreciation of nature.

Depth and nuance. When the casual observer, if they are observing at all, will hear the loud call of the Steller’s jay they might describe their call as “jarring”, “annoying”, “unmusical”, or “head-splitting”. But spending time with these birds really makes you love the depth, variety, and dynamics of this western jay’s vocabulary.

For me, this comes with time and awareness. Depth of time and the nuance of the subtlety of sounds these birds produce.

One morning, when the Steller’s jays were thick around the trees near the suet feeder, I decided to log the different sounds the jays made during a 15 minute interval. I tried to give a name or a onomatopoeia facsimile of the sounds I was hearing. Purely a subjective and unscientific exercise but a fun one at that!

The jays were especially vocal and I could only wonder at the meanings of their varied sounds. Even ornithologists do not fully understand the meaning of all the Steller’s jay’s calls. Why, for instance, do they imitate the red-tailed and red-shouldered hawk call?

In the space of 15 minutes, I counted about 15 different calls. I scribbled down in those 15 minutes calls such as: Faster chirp, Red-shouldered Call, rusty huge (Old gear), One grunt, Alarm clock (old school), tri-chump, Accelerated tri-chump, shirk-shirk-shirk, Reep!, red-shoulder whisper, silent whispser-ramble, Reet-Reeet!, and Ray-gun.

The “Reet-Reeet!” call was the call that called attention to an avian predator is close proximity. This was most likely the local Cooper’s hawk. This warning call not only alerted other Steller’s jays of the threat but also other birds in the area that seemed to know the jay’s warning cry.

Pygmy nuthatches can be tough to photograph well in low light because they are always in constant motion and images contain lots of motion blur. That is not the case then the nuthatches are frozen.

A few days before I noticed two frozen pygmy nuthatches on and near the suet feeder. Upriver I heard the masses mobbing calls of the Steller’s jay. This seem to be a warning that there was a predator in the area. I wondered what makes a pygmy nuthatch freeze? Was this a response to a predator in the area, just to hold absolutely still.

This is the duality of the Steller’s jay. On one hand they are nest robbers and on the other, they are the avian warning system of the confer forest than saves other bird’s lives.

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