Hey there, punk rock bird, with your spiked hairdo and white painted eyebrows. You certainly make yourself well known in these parts, or anywhere you land, whether in these coniferous forests or down the mountain in the oaks. There is no other jay like you, with your fashionable triangular crest and feathers standing high above your head, as if someone had combed them upright. In Truckee, I hear you in every season, whether you’re calling a descending shaaaaar, or a quick shek, shek, shek, shek, or chook, chook, chook, chook. Sometimes I hear a rattle or a nasal wah, wah. You project loud and clear. How I do love to listen to your squawking and shrieking. For me, it’s a ubiquitous Sierra sound.
Many people misspell your name as Stellar, which I understand. You’re impressive standing next to your bird brethren, being bigger and louder. But as stellar as you are, you were actually named Cyanocitta stelleri after Georg Wilhelm Steller (1709-1746), a German zoologist and botanist who discovered a variety of birds and sea life on an expedition (1741-42) from Russia to North America. Don’t get too boastful, though, you’re not the only one named after Georg. Other specimens include a mollusk, a sea eagle, a sea cow (like a manatee, hunted to extinction), an eider (a type of duck), and a sea lion. If you need to retain some claim to fame, you and the sea lion are the only Steller-related specimens found in California.
I’ve watched you around Truckee/Tahoe, gracefully gliding and disappearing into the depth of a tree crown. I’ve watched you strut on the ground, peck at seeds, and climb trees by hopping up branches with seemingly no effort. It’s impressive! And your blue color. Wow! It really is something. Or is it? I’ve read in many periodicals that you’re actually not blue, which seems preposterous. The deception has to do with the way your feathers are constructed, and the way light disperses. Hear me out.
Birds are orange, green, and yellow thanks to pigments, substances that give something a particular color, such as red in a robin. You have pigment too, but it’s brown. Simply stated, but not so simply explained, you appear blue because of the way light is refracted by your feathers.
According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, a blue bird’s wings contain tiny pockets, like a sponge, of air and keratin (a fibrous protein). When light hits these pockets in the feathers, all of the colors of the wavelength are absorbed, except blue. The blue color is caused by scattering light through modified cells on the surface of the feather barbs. Different shapes and sizes of air pockets and keratin make different shades of blue. Scientists call this a structural color as opposed to a pigmented color because it’s generated by light interacting with a feather’s three-dimensional structure.
I know. It’s shocking. However, it’s true of all blue-colored birds. Feel better?
Let’s look at some of your other fascinating features.
I hear you’re monogamous, you’re a true “blue” partner that equally attends to nesting duties and raising your young. You do most everything together, from building your cozy bowl-shaped twig and moss nest, cemented with mud, to feeding your four to five chicks. What an engaged parent you are! Until you’re not. After the 16 to 18 days of incubation, most chicks fly away after a couple of weeks, although there are those that aren’t ready to leave the comforts of home. Aren’t there always?
What I find most impressive about your family role is your devotion to your mate. Jeff Black, professor of wildlife at Cal Poly, Humboldt, recounts some of your faithful parenting duties. To begin, when your partner is developing the eggs inside her, you provide only protein-rich insects, such as nutritious meaty spiders. Then, you offer the same nourishment to your newborn chicks. Clearly, you know the diet that is most beneficial for the mother and hatchlings. During the nonbreeding time of year, you return to berries, fruits, acorns, and pine nuts. Overall, your diet is made up of two-thirds plant material and one-third animal matter such as insects and lizards.
To supplement your protein-enriched insect habit, you are an opportunist and will steal eggs and nestlings from other birds’ nests, as well as raid caches of Clark’s nutcrackers and other jays. When you’re not thieving, you cache your own goods, in the ground, under leaves, or in bark crevices to eat at a later date, like all jays. I also learned from Jeff Black that you are whip smart in practicing other means to gain sustenance — imitation. For instance, if you mimic the call of a red-tailed hawk (or other resident raptor), smaller birds will flee in fear, leaving a meal post at your disposal.
All in all, you’re a faithful partner and parent, a clever provider, and a bold protector. I’m glad to know you’re here all year, Steller’s jay. I, for one, love listening to your ahk, ahk, ahk. It’s part of what I expect to hear every day. As you live approximately 10 to 12 years in a territory of one to two urban blocks, I feel fortunate you have chosen my neighborhood to call your own. You have chosen to show off your plumage here, lit by light, a stellar bright blue.