By Ralph Radford
Most of us can remember going to school and having to listen to some important message that boomed over the public address system, sometimes known as a “squawk box.” The message always seemed to be delivered in a loud, annoying tone, to grab your attention and wake you up from your afternoon daydreams.
The Steller’s jay (Cyanocitta stelleri) also has similar plans for you on your next hike through the lowland conifer trees. The Steller’s jay is a bird of beauty, with striking deep blue and black plumage and a long, shaggy crest. But with this beauty also comes a very harsh, noisy vocalization that will grab your attention, like someone scratching their nails down a chalkboard.
Steller’s jays are omnivores. Their diet consists of both vegetable and animal matter. They will eat seeds, nuts, berries and fruits. They will also eat bird eggs and nestlings, invertebrates, small rodents and reptiles. They appear to be a major predator of other species’ eggs. The Steller’s jay will take advantage of new food sources, including bird feeders. They cache extra nuts, hiding this food source from other animals.
A member of the jay and crow family, the Steller’s jay forms monogamous, long-term bonds. Pairs remain together year-round and typically nest in conifers such as Douglas-fir. Both members help build the nest, which consists of fir needles, sticks, twigs and mud. The female typically incubates four to five eggs for sixteen to eighteen days. The nestlings are born featherless, but after three weeks, they have the same color and look as their parents.
Steller’s jays have expanded into a wider variety of habitats and now are more common in towns. Two subspecies are found in Washington and are divided by the crest of the Cascade Mountains. They all have a charcoal-colored head and nape with a large black crest on top of the head. Most have white streaks on the forehead and chin, though some subspecies don’t have these markings. Body, wings and tail are a deep blue; bill and legs are black. This bird is about 11 inches long, but the females are smaller.
Steller’s jays are considered resident birds, but some migration does occur in the fall and spring. Some of the birds wander to higher altitudes in the fall, and higher elevation birds move downslope. The birds can be found year-round in forested areas throughout Washington, including the Olympic Peninsula.