YAKIMA, Wash. — A Yakama Nation biologist notes “an almost complete failure of Cascade Range conifers in the region west of Yakima to produce cones this fall, in contrast with last fall when almost all species bore a bountiful cone crop. This may mean Steller’s jays and other birds dependent on seeds from these trees may descend this winter to Yakima in higher numbers than usual to find food.”
This prediction seems to be spot on with these snazzy jays already being observed in Yakima by the end of September such as at the Yakima Area Arboretum. There, look for them at the feeding blind (just east of the compost pile in the northeast corner or among the many oaks east of the pond). We can expect more of these striking birds to settle into Yakima neighborhoods, particularly those with spruce, pines, oaks, and bird feeders in the coming weeks.
How to spot one: Here’s an easy bird to identify. Look for dark blue on its lower body and tail and blackish on its breast, head and wild “hairdo” crest. Though a no-brainer to identify visually, Steller’s jays are often first noted because they are noisy, frequently uttering a loud “shack...shack...shack”.
Where to look: Usually one finds this bird in the mountains, especially in conifer trees. They regularly visit campgrounds and picnic sites, hoping for leftovers from us two-legged creatures. They wander in fall to higher elevations, even to tree line. A small number inhabit Oregon white oak groves found in places such as the Oak Creek Wildlife Area. Their appearance in lower elevations in winter is irregular, and probably due to a shortage of food in the mountains.
Chow time: Omnivorous like us humans. Vegetable items, such as seeds from conifer trees (especially pines) are its mainstay. Acorns from oaks and other nuts and berries are relished, too. During the warm months, they take many insects, bird’s eggs (robbed from nests), and scraps from picnic tables (they relish almost anything you eat!).
Home life: Courtship activities include the male feeding the female. The nest is built by both sexes and is usually placed in a conifer tree. It is a bulky and ragged structure of twigs, roots, leaves, and weeds, lined with grass, then cemented together with mud. The female lays and incubates three to five eggs for about 15-17 days. During nesting these usually noisy jays become very quiet and inconspicuous. During this period, the male feeds his mate. After the young hatch, both parents bring food to the young.
The Steller’s jay is named for Georg Steller, German physician, botanist and zoologist. In the early 1740s he was on the Russian “Great Northern Expedition,” which was seeking a northern route to North America. From the Russian Far East, this expedition explored east to what is now Alaska. There and in Kamchatka, he was the first to describe not only the Steller’s jay, but also the manatee-like Steller’s sea cow (which was soon hunted to extinction), the Steller’s sea eagle, and an arctic duck, the Steller’s eider.
• Wildlife Moment, focusing on native wildlife, typically runs in Outdoors on the first Thursday of the month, with the cooperation of the Yakima Valley Aububon Society.