scrub-jay Dessi-Sieburth

Western Scrub-jay | Photo by Dessi sieburth

Western Scrub-jay (Aphelocoma californica)

By Dessi Sieburth

The Western Scrub-jay is my favorite bird for many reasons.

First, it was the bird that got me hooked into birding. It was the first bird that visited my feeders, and I was surprised by is beauty and interesting behaviors. The Scrub-jay also taught me an important lesson about keeping your cat inside. When my cat was an outdoor cat, it killed a Scrub-jay, and from then, I kept my cat inside. I also like Scrub-jays because they are smart and tame. I was able to teach my favorite bird to take peanuts from my hand, hence naming the bird “Peanut.”

The Western Scrub-jay is the “Blue Jay” of the western lowlands. It replaces its eastern cousin, the Blue Jay, here in the West. It is deep blue overall, with a pale belly and brown back. Scrub-jays are hard to miss with their bright colors, boldness, and loud calls. About 20 different calls of the Western Scrub-jay have been recorded, the most common being a “weep weep weep” given in flight and a loud “shlenk”.

There are 3 well-defined groups of the Western Scrub-jay that may represent separate species. The coastal californica group is a dark blue above, has a well-defined blue breast-band, and is common and bold. The interior woodhouseii group is paler blue above, has an indistinct blue breast-band, a thinner bill, and is less common and shyer. The sumichrasti group, confined to southern Mexico, is similar to the woodhouseii group but has a thick and hooked bill like californica. The Western Scrub-jay was formerly grouped with Florida and Island Scrub-jays and considered one species, the Scrub-jay.

Scrub-jays are also very intelligent, like other corvids. Scrub-jays can plan ahead in the future, which only primates and dolphins can also do. They also have excellent memory and can remember the exact locations of 200 caches, as well as the item in each cache. Scrub-jays live in dry shrublands, oak woodlands, and pinyon pine-juniper forests. They are also common visitors to backyards and urban areas. Scrub-jays are absent in high mountains but can be found at some places in the low mountains like the San Gabriel Mountains. Western Scrub-Jays eat nuts, acorns, and peanuts as well as some insects. They may even eat small animals such as lizards and nestling birds, sometimes shadowing adult birds to find their nests.

Although Western Scrub-jays are still common, there has been a small decline recently. The West Nile Virus is affecting these birds. House cats are another reason for the decline. You can help protect the Western Scrub-jay by keeping your cat inside. Window crashes are another threat to these birds. You can prevent those by pasting paper hawks on your windows. You can also help provide food and habitat for this amazing bird by planting natives, especially oak trees.

scrub-jay beatrix-schwarz

Western Scrub-jay | Photo by Beatrix Schwarz

Published Western Tanager Vol. 81 No. 3 January/February 2015