Amos, of Scottish descent, never treated the jays to peanuts for free, never scattered them around like the average bird-feeding person. Not for free. Having driven a ten-penny nail into his deck railing, he knotted a length of cotton string to it, lined out a dozen peanuts and secured each with a half hitch.
The jays showed up expecting unfettered handouts. They can’t afford to waste time. They’re trying to make a living. The first arrivals grabbed a peanut like they’d grab any ordinary peanut and took off with it—or tried to. Bowled over on takeoff! What the hey? What’s the deal? A few more foiled takeoff attempts drove the point home.
Birds’ rigid beaks handicap them when it comes to facial expressions. They compensate, signaling their states of mind by voice, posture, and behavior. The bowled-over jays, screamed harshly, conveying their displeasure: “CHAT! CHAT! CHAT!” (#!! #*!! *!*) They hammered the railing, woodpecker style. One hopped back to confront the nuts, aggressively puffed up, and looking personally affronted.
From the jays’ point of view, a bonanza of peanuts lay before them. Why couldn’t these be carried away like other handouts around the neighborhood?
Pulling on the peanuts tightened the hitches, making things worse. The jays just wanted to grab one, hide it, and get on with life. Nope! Not possible here. Amos had ended the free lunch. So they fought the string, pecking and pulling, and possibly discovering the winning technique by accident. To succeed in loosening a peanut, a jay had to anchor it to the railing with its foot, then pry loose the encircling hitch using its beak as a sailor uses a marlinspike. That takes a bit of learning for a bird. For humans these were mere half hitches. For jays, Gordian knots.
Individual jays picked up the winning technique quickly. Others found it easier to whack holes in the shells on the spot, extract the two nuts, and leave the empty husks for someone else to untie. Either way satisfied Amos. Observing their struggles through his front window, he remarked, “Make them work for it. You don’t want to spoil “em!”
Steller’s jays are dark birds, the darkest of jays, blackish on head, back and upper chest, vibrant blue elsewhere. While not so contrastingly marked as their flashy blue jay cousins on the eastern half of the continent, they are equally striking in their intense blue finery. I remember my nephew on his first trip to Alaska, seeing a sapphire-like Steller’s jay flash by a window, jumping up in his excitement and exclaiming: “WHAT WAS THAT!?” Mention is made about their harsh, scolding voices. Almost a secret, they also have a sweet, gurgling song, but one infrequently sung, and then shyly, so one has to be close to hear it.
Watching the jays defeat Amos’s nailed-down peanuts got me thinking. If they can be taught to pry hitches loose, could I teach them to accept a peanut from my hand? What a thrill that would be—wild birds coming to hand! I set out to make it happen, but before talking about that, since we’re discussing Steller’s jays, here’s some background on Steller himself.
Notice that the birds’ name, Steller’s jay, has nothing to do with stars. It doesn’t have an “ar” ending. It’s “er” because they’re named after George W. Steller, (1709 - 1746) and so are called Steller’s jays. The personal honor given Steller by attaching his name to the species is enormously well deserved. Cyanocitta stelleri (Steller’s blue jay). When, as sometimes happens, the name is misspelled STELLAR’S jay, a disservice is done to the memory of a remarkable scientist. There’s a big story behind this short-lived man.
Steller, a German living in Russia, enjoyed only 37 years of life. In such a short span, how did he come to have a species named after him, especially when the nearest individual of that species lived in western North America, half a world away from St. Petersburg? Also, beyond the jay, additional species bear his name: Steller’s sea eagle, Steller’s eider, Steller’s sea lion, and the extinct Steller’s sea cow. These may be the most well known, but there are many others, plant and animal, as well as geographic place names. The story, greatly abbreviated here, involves one of the great expeditions of all time. For a much more complete account of the epic undertaking, on which some of my comments below are based, read the very informative Steller’s Island, by Dean Littlepage (2006).
The Second Kamchatka Expedition, a scientific and exploratory expedition under the command of Captain-Commander Vitus Bering, started east across Siberia from St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1732, with a number of objectives. Two of the most important were (1) Discover if a land connection exists between Russia and North America and (2) Chart the North American coast. Notice that this was the Second Kamchatka Expedition. Remarkably, Bering had already made the trip on a first expedition in 1725 under orders of Tsar Peter the Great. That expedition had also been charged to learn if a land connection existed between Russia and North America.
Having failed to answer the question beyond doubt one way or the other, Bering was sent back, this time with a much larger force and broader goals. He’d already pioneered a route across Siberia and so wasn’t heading into totally unfamiliar territory. Even so, the country was difficult, unmapped, roadless, little known, and fraught with obstacles. The second expedition traveled by horse and foot, building boats along the way to descend or ascend or cross large rivers and throwing bridges across lesser streams. The expedition traversed 4,000 miles from St. Petersburg to Kamchatka. For perspective, that’s over twice the distance traversed by Lewis and Clark. But unlike Lewis and Clark, the Russian expedition had hundreds of people, including soldiers. They hauled nautical equipment, cannons, tools, iron, hardware, rope, chain—everything except the timber needed to build two ships and a village upon their arrival at the Pacific.
Tsar Peter the Great had died shortly after the first expedition set out. Sometime before the second one his widow, Empress Catherine, following up her late husband’s efforts to modernize and Europeanize Russia, established a Russian Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg, modeled on the French Academy of Sciences. A contingent from the Russian Academy was attached to the Kamchatka expedition and thirty or more staff and scientists followed in Bering’s wake in 1733. They were to explore all of northern Russia.
Steller, an adjunct professor of natural history and mineralogy at the Academy, was late in joining the expedition, setting out FOUR YEARS after the others. Traveling lightly, Steller caught up with his wintering colleagues on the Yenisey River, not quite halfway across Siberia two years later. The two Academy leaders, scientists of higher rank than he, recuperating from setbacks and illness and soured on the hard life of the expedition, were happy to send Steller ahead.
Meanwhile, far to the east, the Captain-Commander neared completion of two ships at the frontier town of Okhotsk, a log settlement that had been enlarged on his first expedition. In September 1740 he sailed from Okhotsk across the Sea of Okhostk rounding the Kamchatka Peninsula to Petropavlosk in Avacha Bay, a sheltered bay on the east coast, opening to the wide Pacific. Bering is credited with founding the town and naming it after his two ships, the St. Peter and St. Paul. Steller, at this time had gotten as far as the west coast of Kamchatka and was studying its natural history as well as getting to know and study the native people, the Itelmen. (Steller, to the extent he was able, championed the native people of Siberia and Alaska, including founding a school for Itelmen children and later protesting to Bering about the Itelmens’ harsh treatment by expedition members.)
Steller got word from Bering to meet him in Petropavlosk. Keeping that appointment would be a feat in itself. The casual, understated way in which Steller reports some of his difficult travels reminds me of accounts of early travelers in Alaska: shooting downstream or bucking current, long portages, mushing frozen rivers, extreme weather—didn’t seem to matter. Steller had been summoned to meet with Bering, so, in February he crossed the Kamchatka Peninsula by dog sled. Bering, as Steller had anticipated, invited him to sail to America, promising him every aid in his work. He offered a golden opportunity for the eager young scientist. Steller signed on as mineralogist and physician.
On June 4, 1741, the two ships set sail on the North Pacific for America from the new settlement in Avacha Bay where they had wintered. Steller, a German, would sail on the St. Peter under Captain-commander Bering, a Dane sailing for Russia, and Bering’s second in command, a Swede, with a mostly Russian crew. One wonders about the language and cultural challenges.
The St. Peter and the St. Paul, captained by Aleksie Chirikof, sailed fruitlessly toward the southeast searching for a mysterious, non-existent land called De Gama Land. After two weeks, on June 20th the ships became separated in fog and rain during a gale. Giving up the search for each other after several days, the St. Paul sailed east, while the St. Peter sailed to the east-northeast for five weeks, eventually turning north. The two ships were never to meet again.
On July 15, with the St. Peter sailing north, Steller had a momentary glimpse between fog clouds of high mountains. He alerted the crew, but fog smothered the view before anyone else could get a good look. Nobody believed him. To his chagrin, Steller’s sighting was dismissed.
However, the next day, July 16th 1741, in clearing weather, the officers and crew on the deck of the St. Peter beheld spectacular snow-covered mountains glistening on the south coast of the great landmass that would later be called Alaska.
Steller chafed impatiently to go ashore. The passion, love, ambition, anticipation, and dreams of his life eagerly roiling through his mind must have snapped painfully to attention when the Captain-Commander refused him permission to board one of the two shore-bound watering boats. Bering, worrying about the development of contrary weather and impatient to sail for home immediately, would not risk unnecessary delays. More to the point, one suspects, he also held a grudge with Steller over prior disagreements. It could be argued that with the delay already necessary to obtain water, what harm would come of allowing the scientist to tag along? His mission and duties included observation of minerals and natural history of any newly discovered lands. Moreover, Bering had earlier promised him every aid in those duties. In any event, Steller protested vigorously to the Captain-Commander in front of the crew. Bering eventually relented, but only after threatening to sail away and leave the young scientist if he failed to return in a few hours.
Steller and his assistant Thomas Lepekhin, whom he called his “Cossack”, set off to make the best of their few hours of time. What to do first? Which way to go? Let loose for limited time on a new land, with everything to collect or observe, Steller madly scrambled over the rocky beach and into the dark fronting forest, making observations on the mineral, plant, and animal life and collecting specimens.
Although Steller and his Cossack did not see any Americans, they found evidence of their nearby, very recent presence—glowing embers, hastily concealed food cache, tools, and weapons. Steller, in the name of science, pilfered some of the stuff he found in a partially hidden food storage pit, including, as he noted, delicious smoked salmon. Later, given directions to the pit, the watering crew stole more stuff, but left iron pots, knives, pipe and tobacco, beads and other objects in exchange.
Steller hurriedly hiked alone about five miles along the beach and from an elevated vantage point saw smoke rising from a fire some distance beyond. Afraid to encounter the Americans without reinforcements, he hurried back, and sent word to Bering with one of the watering parties, asking for a few additional men. Bering abruptly responded: “Betake yourself on board quickly or be left ashore!” Or, as directly translated from German in Steller’s journal: “I was to get my butt on board pronto, or without warning, be left stranded.”
Meanwhile, Steller had dispatched Lepekhin to shoot and collect some exotic birds they had earlier observed in the dark forest. If I know anything about these jays, it had been a family group of four or five that made itself known by voicing harsh, scolding chatters and boldly flitting around in the understory, easy targets for a scattergun. Steller reported: “Luck, through my hunter, placed in my hands a single specimen which I remembered having seen painted in vivid colors and written about in the newest description of Carolina plants and birds.” That would likely have been a hand-colored copper engraving of a crested blue jay, part of a monumental 1731 work on wildlife and plants of the Carolinas, by Mark Catesby, English-born naturalist and artist (1683—1749). Catesby, Audubon’s precursor by about a century, had spent years traveling through present day Virginia, Georgia, Carolinas, and Bahamas, drawing and collecting specimens before returning to England to publish and complete his projects. Steller likely had viewed Catesby’s work at the Russian Academy of Sciences.
The Catesby’s engravings had come to Steller’s mind while he held the still-warm jay in his hand. The bird he held, while not identical to the subject of the engraving, belonged to a related species and, like the engraving, was crested and blue. Based on these facts and knowing no such birds from Asia, Steller declared that the expedition had indeed landed in North America.
Collections Steller had made thus far, including the jay, likely perished in the shipwreck. The name Steller’s jay stems from the observations Steller made on Cape St. Elias in July 1741.
The story of the St. Paul, under Captain Chirikov, will not be recounted here except to mention that they sighted land in Southeast Alaska on the same day, July 15, 1741, that Steller had sighted land 500 miles to the west. The St. Paul, suffering its own hardships and loss of men, made it back to Kamchatka.
As a side note, when Alaska was choosing its state bird, I thought the Steller’s jay would be a viable candidate, given the bird’s early history inextricably linking it, as no other bird, to Alaska. However, its range is not statewide but is restricted to the rainforests in the southern and southeast portions. So, if range were important, second on my list was the raven, intelligent, widespread, and omnipresent in Alaska native folklore. One cannot find a bird of wider range in Alaska (Ketchikan to Barrow to Attu Island to the Yukon, and all habitats from sea level to 16,000 feet elevation on Mt. McKinley). But certain prejudices exist against the raven as a harbinger or messenger of death and the supernatural as, for example, in Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven. In the end, school children chose the willow ptarmigan for the state bird.
huckleberry/blueberry, rusty menziesia, dwarf dogwood, false Solomon’s seal, and other plants. A ravine and small, jump-across freshet gurgles down one side. This habitat attracted Steller’s jays like the endless forest on the mountainside above the road and some of the neighboring lots that were similarly vegetated.
At least one small group of jays moved through the property daily: a family group, of two parents and four young. They owned the forest between the road at the top of our hill as well as the beach forest for an unknown distance each way from my studio as well as the forest immediately above the road for an undetermined distance. The farther from my studio, the fuzzier my awareness about their territorial limits, but I was certain about their regular use of the area 300 yards each way. Within this area they could regularly be found.
The fledglings learned to fly, at least clumsily for short distances, immediately after leaving the nest, mastering their abilities as their flight feathers rapidly lengthened. They remained in the vicinity of the nest for a few days, competing for attention when a parent came into sight by begging food and fluttering their wings. With both parents out of sight foraging, the young birds, extremely vulnerable to predators at this stage, settled down in quietude, fluffing their feathers, inspecting their surroundings, pecking experimentally at nearby objects like bark, buds, and twigs—perhaps picking up something edible by accident, a seed or berry or insect—in other words, learning. As the young grew and were able to keep up, the parents foraged more widely, ranging with the young in tow, presumably learning by observation and experience how and where to forage on their own. The fleshy, lighter color at the corners of the beaks of the young proved to be one way to differentiate young from adults.
My group—(I realize these birds weren’t “mine” but use the term “my” occasionally to differentiate jays with whom I was personally acquainted from those I didn’t know)—had a more or less regular beat along the beach forest. They loved the very edge of the fronting forest and its salmonberry thickets but didn’t use the beach itself much, aside from an infrequent flight to snatch a fly or harass an eagle at low tide. If they were not on our hillside foraging in the bushes for berries and seeds, they were searching for spiders among the beams and shakes of my studio. We usually knew when they had arrived at our place. We could hear them, even from inside. They’re not the kind of birds to be seen and not heard. While not as loud as ravens or crows, they can be loud enough and are not shy about people overhearing their communications. They always announced their presence, very likely in the same way they did to George Steller.
One spring, a pair nested under the sheltering studio roof atop one of the large projecting beams that I had salvaged from driftwood. About a foot square in cross section, it provided a flat, stable surface for a nest. Nine feet above the deck and open to view only from certain angles, I thought it a clever choice. The jays enjoyed almost total protection from rain and some protection from wind as well as predators. So uncharacteristically quiet and sneaky had the pair been about their comings and goings that I, embarrassing to admit, did not spot their precious building project until the young were hatched.
I knew the jays had a weakness for peanuts. Not a single peanut grows anywhere near Alaska, but they knew about them. They liked them enough to spend precious time hacking them free from strings. Clearly there’s enough energy in peanuts to make such effort worthwhile. So I bought a sack of peanuts, unshelled and unsalted, and started my project. At the outset, the jays, perhaps to their frustration, found the peanuts at my place harder to get than the ones nailed to Amos’ deck a hundred yards down the beach.
The next time a gang of jays moved through our woods, I stepped outside, whistling softly, “wheet-wheet-wheet!” while offering peanuts in my hand. That brought them down the hill in a hurry. Try whistling a robin down the hill and you’ll whistle all day. But jays are insatiably curious. They looked at the nuts with riveting interest but were not about to swoop down and land on my shoulders. I’m not Saint Francis of Assisi. They approached to about 10 feet, some closer, others hanging back, and perched on the overhanging spruce and alder boughs, cocking, their heads this way and that, eying the nuts and probably wondering if they could somehow get at ‘em without dealing with me. Had these been the much more trusting gray jays of Canada and Interior Alaska they likely would have come almost immediately to my hand. As my Uncle Bjarne once commented on those very “tame” gray jays, “They’ll damn near take food out of your mouth!” But Steller’s jays are not so trusting. On a scale of trust between the super-trusting gray jays and the much warier, more easily spooked blue jays of the eastern and mid-western states, I would place Steller’s jays about midway, more to the trusting side.
Whatever was going on in their minds as they regarded the peanut bounty in my hand, I could tell they were thinking. Jays are relatives of ravens and crows, the Rhode’s scholars of the bird world. They are far less predictable than the general run of perching birds, more curious, less programmed, and more opportunistic. Like their even brighter cousins, they’re willing and able to investigate and exploit opportunities that come their way. I inferred something of their intelligence from the way they studied the peanuts from various vantage places, first with one eye, then the other, sizing up the situation and weighing opportunity against risk.
Except for an occasional throaty clicking, they hopped back and forth among the branches in uncommon silence, trying to figure out what the deal was. Strongly drawn to the peanuts but repulsed in equal measure by the scary-looking guy holding them, the jays and I edged toward an impasse. Finally one, bolder than its compatriots, landed on a deck railing about twelve feet away. My stairway led down the hill over 80 steps to the beach studio so there were plenty of railings, the ones on this particular landing being the longest. The bold but ever-on-guard jay advanced slightly closer, about two feet closer, hopping toward me sideways. It wanted to get close enough to snatch the peanut yet keep its body as far from me as possible. Its ploy was to lead with its feet while leaning back sideways away from me. Each sideways hop closer raised its stress, so it hopped backward, then forward, then backing off again, the whole time maintaining clear airspace in case I made a hostile move. A move on my part was imminent as I tried to stifle a guffaw. Bursting out with it would have ruined everything.
This first attempt finished in a draw. The jays wouldn’t approach closer, and I wouldn’t surrender peanuts unless they got closer. Eventually, tiring of this game, the jays moved on and I went back to work. But I had an idea.
Somewhere in the stash of needful junk in my studio were three-foot long, quarter inch diameter wooden dowels. Setting one of them near the back door where it would be handy for the next jay visit, I filled a pocket with peanuts.
Hearing the jays carrying on next morning as they moved through the forest searching for food. I stepped outside, whistling softly, fully outfitted with dowel and peanuts. The jays, farther up the hillside, saw me and flew or glided down to the nearby alders, perching here and there to see if a better deal were offered this time.
In full view of their questioning eyes, and with a flourish, I withdrew a peanut from my pocket, displayed both sides of it like a magician displaying a coin before its disappearance and, holding the dowel in one hand, snapped the peanut onto an end. I might also have gestured to the snapped-on peanut with my other hand. By extending my arm, the dowel, and the peanut along the length of the railing, the peanut, while still connected to me by the dowel, was distanced six or seven feet from me. That was more like it. En masse the jays dived on the peanut, screaming stridently to intimidate each other. They converged in a flashing blue melee on the railing. One, leading by a fraction of a second, emerged with the prize and flew off. That started things. Seeing one of their number get away unscathed with a peanut—one that had been connected to me—the rest redoubled their efforts. Repeating the procedure, I emptied my pocket, snapping one peanut after another on the dowel and sending one jay after another flying off with a peanut or returning for another.
That was enough for the day. I retired to cut three or four inches off the dowel, repeating the peanut feeding party next day and getting the same result, even with the shortened dowel. The jays didn’t seem to notice that it had been shortened. Not to belabor recounting this effort, I shaved inches off the dowel on subsequent days and continued offering peanuts on the end of the ever-shortening stick. Before long the jays were taking peanuts from a dowel the length of a stubby pencil. Finally, even that was discarded. The back of my hand now rested on the railing with peanuts held in the palm. The jays came marching up boldly and taking them, some individuals more trustingly than others. A couple of the bravest stood next to my hand long enough to identify and grab the biggest peanut. Others, less trusting, adopted a “hit and fly” technique, snapping a peanut from my palm while airborne. I regarded this as impolite and annoying. Others hopped along the rail to my hand and as soon as they had snatched a nut, “escaped” with it in near-panicked flight. But progress had been made. Two weeks previously, their closest approach had been about ten feet. Now some were touching my hand. Progress, but I was determined to have them to perch on my hand.
So, continuing the experiment I raised my hand off the rail a little bit day by day. They got used to taking the nuts at their chest heights, some less politely than others. In their eagerness to get the nuts, some even brushed their feathers against my hand. Soon my hand was high enough that they had to stretch their necks, stand on tiptoes, and peer over the side to see the peanuts. Eventually my hand was too high for them. They couldn’t see its contents from the railing. Suspecting a trick, they flew from the railing up to the alder and looked down, checked to see that the hand actually contained peanuts. Then back to the railing, hop around, look at me, look at the back of my hand, fly back to the alders and so on.
This seemed to be evolving into another impasse. The jays had to make a living, but so did I. And I had a stone lithograph to finish. However interesting and pleasurable work with jays might be, my stone languished. Just as I decided enough was enough, my star pupil, the bravest of the group, hopped lightly up from the railing and onto my hand. It didn’t linger. Just grabbed a peanut and was gone. But I knew I had won. Or, at least was winning. What a moment! For a few seconds, that splendid wild thing, its lustrous feathers scattering back the blue sky, perched on my hand!
From that day things got better and better between the jays and me. Others soon learned. They watch one another covetously, and learn. Once the most courageous succeeded, others followed. Greedy for peanuts, they couldn’t watch their companions getting one after another and flying away while they perched peanut-less. All they needed was the courage to mimic the leaders. The first pioneering chance-takers soon had their imitators. Still, for some, the first time took almost too much courage. I remember one that flew up and grasped my finger with its feet but leaned so far back it was hanging upside down underneath my hand and had to keep flapping its wings to maintain its hold. The sharp nails digging into my finger were uncomfortable—not great-horned owl talon uncomfortable, but not as pleasant as having them stand comfortably on my hand.
While gaining their trust I’d been whistling softly at each step. Now, sometimes even when they were not immediately around but were within hearing, I could whistle them in. “Chat-Chat-Chat!” here they’d come, gliding into the willows with their pretty, feather-tip-turned-up glides, landing right in front of my second-floor studio window. I’d extend my arm through an open casement, and the jays were there on the instant, perhaps the fastest one on my hand, another on the ledge below the window, and the rest as an audience, hopping impatiently from willow branch to willow branch, waiting for the first ones to clear out so they could get their turn. Jays don’t really believe much in taking turns. Given an opportunity they muscle in. Remember those sharp nails? The perched bird always yields to the landing bird. Ever watchful for an accident, if a peanut dropped off my hand, they’d dive on it, sometimes snatching it in mid-air before it hit the ground. The one on my hand who had knocked it off would sometimes dive also, but usually others were already chasing it. The jay on my hand would just lean over to watch the fray.
The jays were not alike in their levels of trust. I got to know individuals, sometimes by a distinguishing mark but more often by behavior. Over time the most trusting individuals grew increasingly at ease on my hand, which usually offered several peanuts. One, who formerly had measured the nuts visually, now perched self-assuredly and sorted through them, picking up nuts one by one to test their weights, discarding the lighter ones. It would hold a nut and very lightly open and close its beak on the shell, “tippity-tip-tip.” I didn’t understand the purpose of the light tapping, but somehow it selected the most promising—I think heaviest—peanut. One jay affirmed a growing bond when it flew out of the forest, throat stuffed and bulging, landed on my hand, looked over the offerings and regurgitated a glob of devil’s club seeds, leaving them on my palm as a trade for two peanuts. I had become accepted, maybe even taken for granted.
The jays stay year around in Alaska, though they mysteriously absent themselves from the neighborhood for a couple weeks each winter. I don’t know why or where they go. Over time, generations of jays must have arisen and passed, but the culture of trust that had been established carried through year after year. At least one or two very trusting individuals, “star pupils” were on hand each year. I never repeated the initial training so they must have learned from each other.
When my peanut supply ran low I tried different offerings, including sunflower seeds and walnuts in the half-shell. These were acceptable, but the jays preferred peanuts. Besides, one day a jay picked up a walnut half by the edge of its shell in such a way that it tipped upward to block forward vision. The jay flew off like Charles Lindbergh in the Spirit of St. Louis. Lindbergh made it across the Atlantic without front windows on his plane, but he wasn’t flying through a spruce forest. I didn’t want one of my jays to go winging full speed into a tree trunk, so walnuts got scratched from the menu.
I mentioned that the jays were greedy. I think it was the same blind-flying walnut individual that first worked out a way to cargo away three peanuts per trip. First, it swallowed one in its gullet. Easy enough. Then one clamped in its beak. Still easy enough. Then, more uncertain, a third, also in its beak, but with #2 nut obstructing further closing. #3 was only jammed in, lodged in a tenuous friction fit. Flying away with that load, the jay appeared front-heavy and unbalanced. But even with three peanuts, it still had forward vision. I’m sure some of the #3 nuts were dropped in flight, much in the way, it is hypothesized, that the star shapes of oak copses on the prairies of Wisconsin and Illinois were established by blue jays dropping acorns when headed from one copse to one or another neighboring one, sometimes miles away.
The jays took more or less care in hiding their peanuts, depending on circumstances. When in a hurry to get more nuts, they’d fly to the ground nearby, poke a nut into the grass or moss, briefly look over their work, perhaps poke it farther in or add a twig or leaf for cover. That appeared satisfactory to them though it didn’t look very secure to me, especially when other jays had been watching. They’d also, when in a hurry, temporarily cache a peanut under the bark of a spruce or under a lichen or even in a fork in a branch, then retrieve it later for a better hiding place. Other jays frequently looted such visible temporary caches. Nothing much escapes their notice. When hiding a nut, a jay would often step back to inspect the hiding place.
I’ve seen a jay retrieve nuts a month or more after they were hidden. The jay would fly to a spot, cock its head to view the hiding place, perhaps adjust its position an inch one way or another, cock its head again and retrieve the stashed nut. This suggested to me that they carry a visual map of the location and specific details of the site in their memories. Clark’s nutcrackers, a related species, are known for hiding seeds in thousands of places and remembering and retrieving the seeds from thousands of the hides months later. Birds’ brains are largely devoted to vision. It is possible, though I have no proof, that they can take and store a visual image in their brain, much like one would take a screen shot with a cell phone, and retrieve that visual image later to aide them in retrieving hidden food. The background of this image shows a small area of what passes for our lawn. Dozens, maybe hundreds of peanuts have been hidden in this lawn. To human eyes, one patch looks pretty much like another. The jays must have a way of identifying very specific spots, maybe each only a few square inches. Otherwise they’d be probing the grass all day.
One day a new jay showed up, a stranger to the neighborhood. My arm was thrust out the window while my lithograph was being neglected, and I waited impatiently for the bird on my hand, my most relaxed and confident jay, to make up its mind. I’d even complained to it: “Make up your mind!” to which remark it paid no attention. It had been calmly sitting on my palm sorting through peanuts and testing them, monkeying around, rejecting and retesting them for four or five minutes. My arm was getting tired. Finally, its decision made, it managed to cram in the three best peanuts just when the unwelcome stranger arrived. Liking the looks of this cheeky fellow not at all, my jay tried mightily to yell at it. I could feel its effort as it strained and quivered on my hand. But, loaded down with all those peanuts, the first of which was jammed in its gullet, all it could manage was: “Whiss-whiss-whiss-whiss!!” Squeaky hisses! That’s all. No fearsome threat. The stranger, unimpressed, casually scratched the back of its neck.
I happened to be wearing a wristwatch at the time with a flexible metal band, the type of band that expands accordion-like. Realizing it couldn’t yell effectively with a peanut in its throat, my jay, keeping a threatening eye on the intruder, managed to shove the #3 and #2 peanuts shoved under my watchband! It next regurgitated the one in its gullet and squirreled that one under there too. Cargo unloaded, it immediately went on the attack and jumped/flew to the willow, screaming and scolding in hot pursuit. ‘Round and ‘round they went, jumping from branch to branch, the way only Steller’s jays can jump. (I once watched one evade a sharp-shinned hawk by jumping around in a crab apple tree with the hawk in deadly pursuit. The hawk eventually gave up and flew off.)
“Get out of here!” I think my jay screamed, while the intruder, equally skilled at jumping, merely kept a branch ahead, probably yelling back: “Make me!” No matter how vigorously it got chased around the willows, the stranger refused either to stand up to its pursuer or to be driven off. Finally, my jay seemed to feel it had made its point. Returning to my hand and keeping a challenging eye on the intruder, it carefully retrieved all three peanuts from under the watchband and took off to hide them. The stranger, not being part of the studio peanut culture, and not knowing it could share in my peanuts, soon left as well.
Reflecting on this amazing incident, I didn’t know what to conclude. Had my jay stuffed the peanuts under the watchband because of its complete trust in me, or did it merely regard me as a peculiar kind of tree, under the bark of which it could briefly stash its food?
Incidents like this gave me pleasure and insights into the world of Steller’s jays. But downsides also arose from this close-knit relationship with the black and blue gang. For one thing, individual jays started hanging around, more than I thought was good for them. I wanted to befriend them, not to have them dependent on me.
I’ve mentioned the jays’ intelligence. They’re smart. They also rise very early. In the summer, in Juneau, the sun rises around 3:50 AM and it’s light long before that, depending on cloud cover. Our apartment above the studio, with 45 degrees pitch roofs, featured four skylights, one of which was above our bedroom. The jays learned where we slept and started showing up at the skylight long before sunrise. “Tap-tap-tap! Tap tap-tap!” (“Here-we-are! We-want-nuts!”)
But the worst happened one June day when a skylight had been left ajar. An inquisitive jay (they’re all inquisitive) took it upon itself to enter the living room. Once inside, it quickly became disoriented, losing track of the narrow way back out. It panicked. Picture a living room with my wife Lynn’s white rug and white sofa. Picture a panicked Steller’s jay chock full of huckleberries--purple-blue STAINING huckleberries…
At one point, I’d been in Florida working on a sculpture project and had not returned to Alaska or been in contact with the jays for about two years. Lynn and I had come back to Juneau on a short trip to look after our home and studio. One sunny day I started to walk to town from the studio across the channel, a distance of about a mile and a half over the Juneau-Douglas Bridge. I’d just started out, had gone maybe 200 yards and had passed Amos’s place when I saw a Steller’s jay fly over the road, higher than they usually fly, and land on a tall utility pole on the far side. The jay turned about, leaned forward, and looked down at me. Could it be one of my jays?
I was wearing a sweatshirt that had been left in the Juneau studio for the couple years we were in Florida. Just possibly it still contained a peanut. Groping around in the pockets, I felt a few things: a nut and bolt? No—not that. A deer call, No. And—Yes! A peanut! Only one, left over from who knows how long ago. Good enough! I held it out and whistled. Without hesitation the jay pitched off the utility pole in a graceful glide, blue feathers flashing in the sun as it swooped low and up onto my hand. With only one peanut offered, there was no sorting to do. Still, the jay eyeballed the peanut critically. It was probably my imagination that the jay thought, “this is a stale and stingy offering.” But, finding it acceptable, the jay stepped on it, held it down with its foot, whacked two holes in the shell, picked off the crumbs on the edges to enlarge the holes, dropped the crumbs to the ground, neatly extracted the nuts, looked at me as if to say, “That’s it? Just one?” And with a final glance at the palm of my hand, now empty, flew into the forest. Just like the old days.
Several remarkable aspects of this event come to mind. First, the reunion didn’t happen at or near my studio, not on familiar ground where this jay had been accustomed to peanuts and me. Second, it recognized me from a distance and remembered me, so the recognition must be more than facial recognition. Third, at least two years had passed since we’d had any interaction. Fourth, without hesitation it had flown to my hand from 150 to 200 feet away, much farther than any previous dealings. Fifth, showing no fear or trepidation, it had perched nonchalantly on my hand for the length of time it took to inspect and shell the peanut and extract the nuts.
Here, unexpected, had come a reward out of the blue, one that warmed my heart and more than repaid the work and time spent training Steller’s jays 35 years prior. I’ve mentioned that star pupils among the jays materialized, year after year. This was one. With no slight intended to the memory of Georg W. Steller, I counted this particular bird a STELLAR Jay.
For more reading on Georg W. Steller:
Journal of a Voyage with Bering, 1741 – 1742, Georg Wilhelm Steller, edited by
O.W. Frost, Translated by Margritt A. Engel and O.W. Frost, Stanford University Press, 1988
Bering’s Voyages, by F.A. Golder, Vol. II, American Geographical Society Research Series No. 2, 1925
Georg Wilhelm Steller, The Pioneer of Alaskan Natural History, by Leonard Stejneger, Harvard University Press, 1936