Western Scrub Jays in our yard
Western Scrub-Jays are extreme hoarders with an amazing memory
We used to refer to the vocal and aggressive blue-colored birds in our yard as blue birds or blue jays. This is not totally incorrect because the Western Scrub-Jays (Aphelocoma californica) are the crestless "blue jays" of the Western lowlands of North America and breed in scrubby habitats. Their bird calls sound are harsh and raspy shrieks which set them apart from other chirpy birds, and that is why a group of jays are collectively called a "scold" of jays.
The Western_Scrub Jays, like other corvids, have a penchant for hoarding and caching food and hiding them in secret places. What is more amazing is that the jays remember each and every location of these food sources, when these were cached, and the content of their caches. These food are also re-cached to keep onlookers and pilferers confused, not to mention that the Western Scrub-Jays are also experienced thieves themselves, stealing from fellow scrub-jays. It truly takes one (Scrub-Jay) to know one (Scrub-Jay).
Join me in my pictorial story on how I became up close and personal with Mr. and Mrs. Jay in our yard.
All photos were taken by jlshernandez all rights reserved.
Our conspicuous backyard visitor - Looks around with sharp turns of its head - sometimes heard more than seen
This shot of the Western Scrub-Jay on a branch of a cherry blossom tree was taken with my Panasonic Lumix FZ40 with a Leica lens. It is not my best shot, but it will do for now. I tend to take a lots of pictures and then delete the ones I do not care for.
A happy pair just like two peas in a pod - Male and female look alike
These pair of Western Scrub-Jays stay together and work as a team with nest building unlike some species of birds. They are often seen perched in the bare branches of tall trees in our backyard, using these as lookouts for predators who may harm their young or steal their food source which they carefully hide.
Western Scrub-Jays are notorious for stealing baby eggs and baby birds and are one of the hummingbird's worst enemies. A jay is the prime suspect for thrashing a hummingbird's nest on a birch tree in the front yard. Scrub-Jays also like lizards, acorns, peanuts, berries, sunflower seeds to name a few of its omnivorous diet.
Western Scrub-Jay nest in our backyard - Two speckled eggs
I have observed a Scrub-Jay grabbing and breaking small twigs from our crepe myrtle tree which made the tree shake violently. Then it emerged with a twig between its beak and flew to a low thorny shrub planted in a hard-to-get-to area near the pool. It takes about 10 days to build a nest that is 6 inches across which is lined with rootlets and fine strands of plant fiber. Incubation ranges 15 to 17 days and is carried out by the female jay.
Because getting to this nest area entails a bit of climbing, I am not able to revisit the nest again. Surely Mr. and Mrs. Jay were all too glad to keep out intruders like me from the nursery.
So let's get to the meat of the story
How did I manage to take close-up photos of the Western Scrub-Jays without frightening them?
It all started by accident.
A colorful distraction that summoned the elusive Western Scrub-Jay - My photo opportunity of a lifetime
Many thanks to this colorful Red-shafted Northern Flicker Woodpecker for visiting our front lawn one morning. It was the first time I had ever encountered a bird that was dressed for a costume party. The woodpecker was busy pecking the lawn for ants and other insects. I had my camera aimed at this colorful character in my garden and was merrily clicking away when the assertive and vocal Scrub-Jay perched itself on the fence. I quickly panned my camera on the jay who was too distracted with the woodpecker to pay attention to this shutterbug.
Why is this blue and white bird seeing red? - It had spotted a Red-shafted Northern Flicker woodpecker on our front lawn
"Isn't she lovely", borrowing a phrase from Steven Wonder's song, truly describes the Western Scrub-Jay. I am assuming that this jay is female because it is smaller and more genteel than the other one. Its rounded head, wings and long tail are blue with pale whitish-gray underparts, a gray back, dark-streaked white throat and white eyebrows that accentuate its dark eyes. Overall length from the beak to the end of the tail is about 11 inches.
This was my first close-up photo of the Western Scrub-Jay which was taken from the window and the beginning of many to come.
Luring Mr. Jay with peanuts for more closeup shots
How I lured the Scrub-Jay for a photo shoot - They cannot resist the temptation
I had originally gone to the grocery store thinking that all peanuts were alike. But the peanuts made for human consumption, like the canned cocktail peanuts or packaged ones have salt, garlic, spices and other additives which were harmful to birds, squirrels and other wildlife. So I made a special trip to the local pet store and bought a 3 lb. bag of unshelled peanuts prepared just for wildlife and were not suitable for human consumption as per the warning on the package.
I made a trail of peanuts, about 15 of them, along the deck railing to see if I can get Mr. Jay to come over. My camera was all setup on a tripod indoors by the sunroom window. Professional birdwatchers and photographers would scream "sacrilege" at me shooting through glass. But this was the only way I knew to lure and summon Mr. Jay without hiding in the bushes with field glasses, binoculars, and keeping still so I do not frighten the bird.
Guess who was here first - Bright eyed and bushy-tailed - Mr. Fuzzy Wuzzy himself
This charming squirrel cracked open a peanut shell, sat on the rail and ate the nuts with wild abandon. It was a messy eater and left crumbs everywhere. It came back for seconds but decided to take the second peanut to the magnolia tree where it can eat in privacy. Squirrels are generally skittish and shy creatures.
It did not take long for Mr. Jay to make a grand entrance - As soon as it got started, it tirelessly came back for more and more and more
The peanut crumbs left by the squirrel quickly lured the Western Scrub-Jay who I am naming Mr. Jay. Leaving the trail of peanuts was a stroke of genius. Although, I must admit that I almost lost patience waiting, with my eyes constantly peeled to the windows with one finger on the camera shutter, just in case. Patience paid off with lots of amusing photos.
This is nuts! The ultimate predicament - The big one or the small one?????
With its bold short hops, the jay approached the peanuts, looked straight at me in great wonderment. It seems to be pondering who the anonymous donor is and why now? Why the sudden generous offerings of unshelled peanuts in the backyard after all these years? There must be a hidden agenda.
Western Scrub Jays get very excited over peanuts - And they make sure you hear them
Noisy and happy to find their favorite peanut treats.
It is a bait, of course. - Gotcha Mr. Jay
Mr. Jay grabbed the larger peanut, struggled a little bit to keep it in its mouth and then took off to another one of its many secret hiding places called caches. It came back to pick up the smaller peanut. It took the larger and heavier load first in case the pesky squirrel or some other birds swipes it first. It is a first come, first served basis when it comes to hoarding food.
A trail of peanuts just kept coming, and so did the peanut-grubbing scrub-jay
Grab and go - And hiding them in secret places
Mr. Jay worked feverishly to pick each and every peanut on the deck railing. Every time he grabbed a peanut, he would instinctively fly to a secret location in the garden --backyard, sideyard, frontyard. This behavior is called scatter caching or hoarding. And the Western Scrub-Jay is well-known for this kind of skill.
When all were cached, Mr. Jay came back and waited on the side to see if I would put out more. I was able to go to outside and replenish the peanuts with Mr. Jay looking tame and trusting. I must have placed over two dozen peanuts as baits, and the industrious Western Scrub-Jay came back for all of them. I have very quickly become Mr. Jay's trusted friend.
The peanut hoarding continued
Even the three peanuts I intentionally placed on top of the frog sundial did not escape the sharp eyes of the peanut-crazed Scrub Jay. This bird is really crazy about peanuts.
Looking for more peanuts - There can never be too many peanuts
Occasionally, the Scrub-Jay would pick up a peanut and hesitate for a second before flying off to a new storage area. This bird is no bird-brain. It can remember up to 200 locations of where it stashed away its food sources. More remarkable is that, the Scrub-Jay will relocate the stash if it suspected that some onlooker has seen the food source.
This Western Scrub Jay has a keen eyesight and will find peanuts anywhere in the yard. He will take several trips until all the peanuts are gone and hidden in many secret locations.
Mr. Jay was having a field day - There has never been days of plenty like this
As Mr. Jay was tirelessly making his rounds collecting the peanuts and hiding them, I was having a heydey clicking away on my camera. It was so much fun playing games with a bird who was trying to outsmart me.
When all the peanuts were gone - Mr. Jay came back to see if I would put out more
I have to hand it to this hard-working Western Scrub-Jay for grabbing all the peanuts, all 30 of them. That means 30 round-trips and 30 secret hiding places. Kudos to Mr. Jay for a job well done.
I got a good workout running around with my camera and chasing after the antics of Mr. Jay. I decided to call it a day.
Checking for pilferers and guarding the food source - Keeping the thieves and onlookers out
After a day of hard work, the Western Scrub-Jay perched on his favorite branch overseeing its many secret hiding places. It also is pondering on which other fellow scrub-jays' caches to raid. It takes a thief to know a thief.
Scrub-Jays are extreme hoarders and have a remarkable memory
Caching or storing food in every possible secret places - And remembering each and every location later
Researchers believe that Western Scrub-Jays are the only non-primate that behave like human, as in planning for the future. The jays can remember the location of hidden food up to nine months later. Western Scrub-Jays can also remember the how long perishable foods have been cached and retrieve these accordingly from their hiding places. These remarkable birds can recall up to 200 unique locations of stored foods.
Looking for a new place to hide the peanut - The scrub jay is a strategist extraordinaire
With its fast wing beats, the scrub-jay swooped to the top of the tallest tree in the backyard with the peanut tightly entrenched in its beak. It was strategizing a new cache location to store his favorite snack away from would-be pilferers who could be fellow scrub-jays or Mr. Fuzzy Wuzzy, the squirrel.
Caching the loot by the trunk of the marguerite shrub - A matter of hide and seek
Using its pointed beak, the Western Scrub-Jay quickly buried its loot under the groundcover. I spotted it scooting into a shrub and hiding one of the peanuts. Later on, I went to look for the cache but could not locate it.
Caching in the pineapple guava (feijoas) tree - Unusual place to hide a peanut
Mr. Jay planted the peanut in one of the branches of the feijoa shrubs which was abloom with colorful and tasty flowers. Unbeknownst to the bird, the sneaky squirrel was chomping away on the edible flowers while balancing itself on the branches.
Uh oh! Guess who has been watching the Scrub-Jay hiding its loot - It is not a secret anymore
It is not surprising to find the fuzzy squirrel busy eating the delicious edible flowers of the feijoa shrubs. Aside from the squirrels, most birds in the backyard go on a feeding frenzy mid-May when these beautiful flowers are abloom.
"How do I get away from that pesky squirrel?"
It is time to relocate the food supply - This is called recaching
When the Western Scrub-Jay suspected that his hidden food has been witnessed by a would-be pilferer, it would go back and relocate the food, in this case, the peanut. Since the groundcover is a melange of strawberry groundcover, ivy, and vinca minor, it was easy to tuck the lone peanut under the overlapping leaves. Because all Western Scrub-Jays are aware of this trick, it becomes a game of hide-and-seek amongst these hoarding birds.
OK, it is time for Mr. Jay to take a snack - This peanut is going into his stomach
All work and no play makes a dull bird
It's time for a snack.
Mr. Jay took a break and had a snack in his favorite picnic spot - Under the shade of an old marguerite shrub
The plucky Scrub-Jay retrieved a hidden peanut atop the Australian tea tree and took refuge under a yellow marguerite shrub to have a little picnic. Mr. Jay strategically tucked a peanut between the tiny branches of the tea tree so it could fly back to retrieve it. The tea tree was right across the marguerite shrub where the jay took a breather to enjoy his favorite nut. Mr. Jay used his powerful beak to hammer open the peanut shell while holding it down with its claws. This was worth all the work.
Empty peanut shells are strewn in the scrub-jay's favorite picnic spot
Fruits or nuts - which do the scrub-jay prefer?
Peanuts are better for caching because of the long shelf life. Berries only last a few days before going bad.
Fruit or nut? - Scrub-Jays are nuts about well, peanuts
I made another experiment to see if Western Scrub-Jays have a preference in their choice of food. So I put a peanut next to a fresh blackberry. With no further ado, Mr. Jay picked up the peanut and went its merry way to store it in one of the multitude of caches in the yard.
Well, he's back. Just needed to make sure he made the right choice. - Can't let good food go to waste.
Mr. Jay did come back to reconsider caching the blackberry, the only edible item left on the deck railing. He poked it with its beak for a few seconds and decided it had poor ROI (return on investment). Berries do not keep long after these are cached and therefore was not worth the effort, unlike peanuts which can keep for a long time. Smart bird.
"Meh, leave this blackberry to the crows."
Do not miss out on those once-in-a-lifetime moments - Get your camera gears ready
Interesting links about Western Scrub-Jays
- Western Scrub-Jay - Aphelocoma californica
Detailed bird profile of the western scrub-jay: appearance, foods, habitat, behavior and reproduction. Includes tips for attracting western scrub-jays to your backyard.