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Know Your Neighbors: The California Scrub Jay

How great is he? Just ask him.

He’s a party animal who drinks too much, spills his food,  talks too loud, and laughs at his own jokes. He’s vain, pushy, and a potluck’s worst nightmare – always the first to arrive and the last to leave. Oh, he’s smart all right, and wants everyone within earshot to know it.

His wife is just as bad.  As for their kids, let’s just say the nuts don't fall far from the tree. None of them can hold a polite, normal conversation. They have to scream about everything.

“HEY, I SEE A CAT FOOD!”

“WOW, I SEE IT TOO!”

“I LOVE CAT FOOD!”

“ME TOO!”

They’re the Western Scrub Jay, and here in Altadena we have the subspecies California Scrub Jay. It's part of the family Corvidae, which includes magpies and crows. The scrub jay measures about 12 inches from stem to stern and comes in a lovely shade of Van Gogh blue.

Scrub jays are inquisitive, industrious, highly intelligent, and mate for life. When it comes to enemies, real or perceived, scrub jays may talk a good game, but they’re not fighters; instead,  they prefer to pester their opposition into submission, making sorties in pairs or jay gangs. Any animal that poses a threat can be a target – a hawk, an owl, your cat. You.

Like the crow, scrub jays have been observed using tools.  Also like the crow, they’re particularly susceptible to the avian flu West Nile Virus.

The virus appears to be rearing its ugly head once again. An infected crow was . Likely it's in our neck of the woods, too.

Not to sound like a defeatist, but the worst is, there’s not a whole lot we can do about it. Oh, a couple of things, and in these areas we should be most vigilant.

Since West Nile Virus is spread by mosquitoes, controlling the mosquito population is thus far the only way to have any impact.  Check your own garden regularly for hidden sources of standing water – flower pots, buckets, rain gutters, French drains, bird baths, pet dishes, yes. But also look for some areas of ground near the sprinklers where the water doesn't drain properly. Next, report standing pools or bodies of water you see on deserted properties, vacant fields, foreclosed houses and the like. Finally, report dead birds, as these reports can lead to locating a mosquito breeding ground.

The West Nile epidemic back in 2007 and 2008 had a disastrous impact on the whole corvidae family, and some estimates put the decrease in the scrub jay population as high as 30 percent. In fact, anecdotally, this is the first year I’ve seen jays in my yard in years. And it's really nice having them back again, demanding this and that and always telling me how great they are.

Every morning I shake out some of their favorite food – cat kibble.  I’ve tried substituting bird seed and sunflower seeds, but this just brought on a whole litany of early morning complaints. So I had no choice but to stock up on their favorites, like dry Kitty Chicken Nuggets or Tuna Surprise.  They say scrub jays can be trained; apparently, so can I.

Revvell June 20, 2012 at 11:44 AM
Something healthier for them are raw, unsalted peanuts in the shell. I used to feed critters cat food (yes, they LIKE it) yet, it's not healthy for them soo, on to peanuts.
Jean Spitzer June 20, 2012 at 02:30 PM
Out here we have blue jays. They are close enough in behavior that I don't really miss the scrub jays. But the noisiest, most demanding and seemingly contemptuous of lesser being's behavior (namely mine) are the grackles.
Natalie June 20, 2012 at 04:07 PM
How timely: as I was reading this my jays arrived at the door to ask for their morning shelled unsalted peanuts. There are three of them (as with modern children, I guess the kid never left home) and they can remove a large pile of nuts in seconds, hiding them for later. Poor squirrel: by the time he's nibbled one peanut, the jays have made off with the rest. They weigh the nuts and pick the heaviest to fly off with first. I hope my little Van Goghs will be safe from the West Nile virus, as I enjoy watching their behavior and testing their brains - so far, they've solved all the hidden peanut puzzles I've constructed for them.
Kathy June 20, 2012 at 04:38 PM
Hmmmm...I know a few people who could be Western Scrub Jays!!!
Karin Bugge June 20, 2012 at 04:48 PM
Me too, Kathy. Natalie, I want to hear about the peanut puzzles. Another little factlet -- scrub jays can do a perfect imitation of the hawk voice. Scientists aren't sure why, but perhaps it chases away competing species.
Catherine M. S. Cowles June 20, 2012 at 04:56 PM
Thanks for this witty read. We live near Eaton Canyon and delight in the variety of feathered and furry friends who live with us. I'll be looking for mosquitos havens.
Courtney June 20, 2012 at 05:53 PM
We used to leave them peanuts, which they buried in our yard. We know this because a few weeks later we had peanut plants in our yard. Also, when you feed them regularly, they sometimes walk into your house like a hungry restaurant patron peeking into the kitchen as if to say, "Um,...lady...where's my peanuts?"
Revvell June 20, 2012 at 06:03 PM
Yes, that they do. Ours fly like dive bombers over to the sun room when they see me there and then, if I don't feed them, they'll come in and get the peanuts themselves. Interesting thing is, they've not pooped in the house.
Angela Odom June 20, 2012 at 08:04 PM
Oh I love these little ones. They love hanging out in and underneath my Angel's Trumpet or atop my Gargoyle (Griffin). If I'm out with a camera and no dogs, they'll start up with a little Van Gogh Blue fashion show. Well now, I've got to go get the little cuties some peanuts. Love them!
Natalie June 20, 2012 at 08:22 PM
I try putting the food in shiny bowls (which they're wary of at first), in transparent tomato containers with lids (which they have to open), things like that. After a while, they manage to get at the food. There's a professor of animal behavior in Cambridge UK who studies these California scrub jays - I should ask her what IQ tests she's devised. But if anyone else has tested their intelligence, I hope they'll share it with us. Flying into the sun room is pretty smart.
doris finch June 20, 2012 at 10:28 PM
Here is an interesting link. Who know what goes on in their little but very complex bird brain? http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/03/120306072914.htm
Banjo52 June 21, 2012 at 12:01 AM
For a long time I've tried to follow orders and hate their eastern cousin (I assume), the blue jay, whose character is similar. They're just too gorgeous and interesting. The corvids, right?--they and brother crow. I used to hate the noise of crows too, until I realized all the serious poets had written a laudatory poem about them--AND I saw one crow driving off two turkey buzzards once.
Ron Rosen June 21, 2012 at 12:56 AM
I donated the corner of my door mat to a scrub jay family several years ago. Then they disappeared. Haven't seen any by my house in a long while.
Karin Bugge June 21, 2012 at 05:40 PM
The first time I noticed it wasn't just the cat who ate the cat food, several jays chowed down, but never together. As soon as one would leave, another would arrive. At first I thought they were chasing each other off, but no, apparently one jay would eat while the others stood guard.
Susan Campisi July 02, 2012 at 03:08 AM
Impressive factoids. I love the photos with the jay and the cat hanging out together.

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