A June trip into the La Sals would not be complete without “a party of jays” showing up. These rowdy “avian keggers” are often well attended by these raucous, mountain-dwelling individuals. Five different species of jays may be easily located in the mountains.
The western scrub jay inhabits pinyon-juniper woodlands and oak shrublands in the La Sals. The scrub jays’ bluish upperside sports a brownish back and contrasts with the lighter underside.
Like many of their relatives, the scrub jays feed upon a variety of insects, seeds, nuts, invertebrates, and the eggs and nestlings of other birds. One fall while observing the hawk migration from the rim of Bull Canyon, we were treated to a steady stream of scrub and pinyon jays flying back and forth from their seed sources to their caches. Cached seeds provide a food source for the winter and early spring, and abandoned caches sprout to form another generation of seed-producing shrubs and trees.
Smaller than the scrub jay, the pinyon jay is appropriately named due to its close association with pinyons. These jays breed in the pinyon-juniper woodlands and construct a cup-shaped nest in the trees. Lined with soft materials such as grasses, bark strips, hair or wool, the female alone incubates the eggs. She relies upon the male to feed her during this time.
When the pinyon fledglings leave the nest, they may form nursery groups with other young pinyon jays called “creeches.” Adults and helpers feed the young, sometimes providing food for individuals that are not even their own.
When the pinyon seeds ripen later in the season, whirling masses of pinyon jays descend to harvest the nuts. Their raucous calls punctuate the air. The jays are able to discern and separate out viable seeds from the duds.
The other “blue” jay that occurs in the La Sals is the Steller’s jay, named after Wilhelm Steller. Steller was a naturalist who sailed with Vitus Bering on his ill-fated 1740-42 expedition to Alaska. Stellar had been studying blue jays in a field guide to North American birds and when he spotted a new-to-science species with a prominent crest he was convinced that the Russians had reached America.
Steller’s jays inhabit ponderosa pine and other coniferous forests at higher elevations. Although the Steller’s “shook shook shook” call is distinct, their imitation of a screaming red-tailed hawk is impressive.
Two other species of jays found at higher elevations in the La Sals are the gray jay and the Clark’s nutcracker. The dusky-colored gray jay is fearless of humans, often settling down right in the middle of a picnic table! Their bold actions may draw in other jays and has resulted in their appropriate nickname: “camp robbers.”
Clark’s nutcrackers are another raucous species that breeds in the mountains. Oddly, their breeding season gets going early in the year, often by March or April when snow may still be present. The birds utilize their caches of seeds to feed the nesting adults. With outstanding memory, these nutcrackers easily locate many of the hundreds of caches containing thousands of seeds that they buried the previous fall.
Something of a cross between a woodpecker and a crow, the nutcracker’s stout bill resembles that of a woodpecker, while its habit of walking on the ground is very un-jaylike. When Captain William Clark of the famed Lewis and Clark Expedition first observed this nutcracker, he placed the bird in the Picicorvus genus, which translates to “woodpecker-crow.”
The nutcracker’s stout bill is for opening up and extracting seeds from pine cones. Ornithologists have observed that Clark’s nutcrackers are either left- or right-footed when handling cones.
So if you are interested in observing some “rowdy” bird behavior, head up into the mountains and enjoy the jays of June.