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Christine Pitto of Trail submitted this photo of a Steller's jay for the 2014 Oregon Outdoors Wild Bird Photo Contest.

An abundance of jays

For whatever the reason, we have an abundance of jays in the valley this year.

Please notice I said “jays” not “blue jays.” There are blue jays, and many jays are blue. But not all jays are blue jays.

The bird with the official name of “blue jay” lives in Colorado, Georgia, New York and most states east of the Rocky Mountains. We don’t have official blue jays in Oregon. Well, once in a great while a blue jay from the East gets lost and shows up here. This causes great excitement in the birding community, and it starts a small stampede to wherever the wayward bird has taken up temporary residence. No, we have no blue jays in Oregon … usually.

We do have gray jays. Yes, that is the official name. Take a hike in the high country around Howard Prairie or Crater Lake and a quiet family of these very tame and cheeky birds is likely to find you and tag along for a bit, hoping for a handout or maybe even to attempt a bit of larceny. They are also known as camp robbers, for good reason, and whiskey jacks. I have always wondered about the origin of the last name.

If you travel to southern Texas or points farther south, you can also find brown jays and green jays. Green jays are quite spectacular and worth the trip. But I repeat, we have no blue jays in Oregon.

OK, now that I have gotten that off my chest, back to the issue at hand. Where was I? Oh, yes … an abundance of jays. The jays I am referring to are Steller’s jays. These are the dark-blue jays with a black hood and a crest.

The other common jay in the valley is the western scrub-jay. Most just call it a scrub jay. I won’t get picky with this name. At one time this was its official name until some biologists running around with a DNA kit found there were really three and maybe as many as five kinds of scrub jays. Thankfully, they didn’t mess with our scrub jay, and we still have only one in Oregon. That could change, however. There has been talk of splitting off “Woodhouse’s” jay for those found in the southeast corner of the state. The scrub jay is the jay of the oak woodlands and towns. It is paler blue than the Steller’s jay and has a white belly and lacks a crest.

Steller’s jays have come out of the conifer forests in the mountains and taken up residence alongside the usual scrub jays. Every year some come to the valley floor for the winter, but the numbers aren’t huge and they usually return to the higher elevations by late March to begin breeding. Not this year. I suspect something is amiss with their usual food supply, but I haven’t a clue what.

Steller’s jays are quite personable and quite handsome, but they are not always welcome guests. They love nothing better than omelets and maybe a little ham. By that I mean they raid the nests of other birds, eggs and young. If you, like me, have an extra dose of jays in the yard, your robins are in for a tough year.

Stewart Janes is a biology professor at Southern Oregon University. He can be reached at janes@sou.edu.

 

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