Those Rapscallion Jays
Loud, raucous and playful, the jay birds of Texas demand to be noticed.
By Noreen Damude
Flamboyant members of the crow family Corvidae, Texas jays are an intelligent, sometimes raucous, in-your-face tribe, with heaps of attitude — at once revered and reviled. Most are permanent residents, fairly abundant in suitable habitat, and eminently easy to see. Imps of the perverse, they both beguile and infuriate. Indeed, their puckish antics may strike us as intriguing, puzzling or downright infuriating. At times arrant knaves and wily tricksters, at others, doting parents and eminent foresters — their true colors forever elude us. Despite their Jekyll-and-Hyde personalities, their lively colors, lifestyles and shenanigans never fail to attract our attention. And, for those who hold the blue end of the spectrum dear, they cannot help but please.
Colorful jays join ranks in the New World with their more somberly clad cousins, the ravens, crows, magpies and nutcrackers. Thought to be among the most intelligent of birds, jays and their kin cover every continent on the planet except Antarctica.
So what makes a jay a jay and not a cardinal, tanager or finch? Jays share several features in common with other corvids, defining them as such, and distinguishing them from other songbirds. Some of the principal morphological features, besides the large size and 10 stiff primary wing feathers, include circular nostrils concealed by stiff feather tufts; a bill that is long, slightly down-curved and overlapping the tip; strong feet, toes and claws, and legs strongly scaled in the front, and smooth behind. Males and females are dressed alike, in blues, greens and grays, with a dash of black and white, predominating.
Most jays speak in harsh, strident tones with ear-piercing squawks and shrieks, especially when danger draws nigh. Jays display a remarkably varied repertoire, with a few, such as the blue and Steller’s jays, reverting to soft, siren “whisper” songs to win over a reticent mate. Many are likewise excellent mimics, with hawk imitations a well-honed specialty, not to mention a dizzying array of sharp clicking, rattling and bell-like notes.
With jays, social behaviors often speak louder than physical descriptions. Most jays, such as the blue, Steller’s and western scrub-jay, are relatively sedentary. While migration is uncommon, jays inhabiting the northern limits of their ranges do move southward to escape the cold. Many jays, such as green, brown and Mexican jays, are sociable creatures, trooping about in large flocks when not nesting. A few, like the Florida scrub-jay and Mexican jay (though not the subspecies from Texas), nest in colonies or tend group nests. Others, like the pin-yon jay, maintain complex social organizations in year-round, multisized flocks. In fact, the range of the pinyon jay matches almost exactly the distribution of the bird’s favored food plant, the pinyon pine. Occasionally a collapse in food supplies will send “invasions” of these high-elevation seed-specialists down out of the mountains into the lowlands, both east and west.
Compared to the diversity of breeding strategies, courtship behavior is surprisingly uniform in jays. Pair bonds are typically reinforced by bobbing displays, courtship feedings and bill-tapping rituals. Most species include swooping and diving maneuvers, mutual preening and special vocalizations in their romantic repertoire. After pairing, jays normally become quiet and secretive. The male invariably helps the female build the bulky cup nest, made mostly of twigs and lined with soft fibers. He also brings food to the female, as she alone incubates the eggs. Never a deadbeat dad, he tirelessly helps her feed and care for the nestlings. Most jays nest in isolated pairs, but a few form large colonies. Many travel around in variously sized, frequently noisy, postbreeding flocks. These vagabond groups scour countryside, streets or forests for food as they recoup from the nesting season.
Though omnivorous, most North American jays rely heavily on acorns, nuts and pine seeds. Large, hard-shelled nuts never daunt them, as they secure the bulky item with their foot and stab or tear into it with their bill. Many jays are renowned for their efficient caching behavior. Come autumn, birds bury surplus nuts just under the ground surface in open areas, to be retrieved later when other food is scarce. Some species carry their booty in throat pouches, which they disgorge when they reach their hiding places. A larder overlooked has a better-than-average chance to sprout the next spring, thus replenishing the forest. Could oaks survive without the diligent cache-and-carry service jays provide to our disappearing forests? Some ecologists would say no.
Finally, jays have earned a solid place in American literature, language and legend. Such phrases as “naked as a jaybird,” “jaywalker,” “flighty as a popinjay,” culled from folk sayings and popular literature, illustrate stunningly to what extent jays strike us as notable “characters.” Author Mark Twain, when commenting on the blue jay’s intelligence and moxie, quipped: “It ain’t no use to tell me a jaybird hasn’t got a sense of humor, because I know better.” For Thoreau, the scream of the blue jay “is like a flourish of wintry trumpets … cold, hard, tense, frozen music … in harmony with the winter sky itself.”
For all the ambivalence jays inspire, they clearly earn their keep by performing valuable ecological services. By collecting and caching vast numbers of nuts, they promote reforestation of cleared land — thus providing additional habitat for a host of other woodland birds. As human cities and suburbs continue to grow, jays adapt and prevail. Their healthy population numbers and widespread distribution are ample testimony to their success. As any savvy business person knows, when it comes to survival, flexibility is the key — and the jays have it. While many bird lovers still rue the sight of a troop of shrieking jays, few can deny their beauty and versatility.
The state of Texas boasts seven of the possible eight North American jays; to wit, the blue jay, the western scrub-jay, the green jay, the brown jay, the Mexican jay, and the Steller’s jay, as well as rare cameo appearances put in by the pinyon jay. In fact, only one, the gray jay (formerly known as the Canada jay) has avoided a documented trip to Texas. Described in more detail below are short cameos of seven jay species that call Texas home.
Brash and flashy, blue jays are readily identified by their combination of jaunty blue crest, white underparts, blue wings barred with black and white-tipped tail, conspicuous in flight. Denizens of woodlands, parks and backyard gardens, they are common and conspicuous residents in the eastern half of Texas. Often boisterous and achingly conspicuous, they can just as easily slip unnoticed through the treetops. Always alert to what is going on around them, they sit sentinel in a live oak — on the qui vive — the first to sound the alarm at approaching danger. The ear-splitting ruckus they create immediately draws in a bevy of neighborhood birds to size up the risk. A frenzied mobbing and scolding ensues until the interloper, be it a roosting owl or an intrusive hawk, flies off in harried desperation. Anyone who has ever been dive-bombed by a backyard blue streak knows well how fiercely jays will defend their nest. On a lighter note, blue jays are gleeful and vigorous bathers, splashing about with more gusto than most other passerines. Sunbathing and anting (rubbing ants over the body to spread formic acid over the feathers) likewise appear to be intoxicating pastimes, all done in the rigorous pursuit of feather maintenance.
Dressed in stygian blue, the Steller’s jay replaces its closest relative, the blue jay, geographically, west to east. In Texas, birds haunt the dense coniferous and pine-oak forests of the Davis and Guadalupe mountains, where their dark colors blend in well with dark forest interiors. Like the blue jay, the Steller’s is a talented mimic, specializing in several calls of both hawks and loons. A devotee of picnic grounds, scenic overlooks and feeding stations, it is often found lurking about in search of handouts where people are gathered. The Steller’s jay found in Texas is the prettier inland form, graced with small spots of white on the forehead and near the eye. Birds forage mostly high in the canopy but will also feed on the ground. Well able to crack the hardest nuts, they are often seen pounding them relentlessly with their bills. Except when nesting, they live in flocks, birds often flying across a clearing one at a time, in single file, giving their low shook-shook calls as they swoop up to perch in a tall pine.
The western scrub-jay — the other common Texas blue jay — but without a crest, is a denizen of scrub oaks or pin-yon-juniper woodlands throughout the Texas Hill Country. Not as comfortable in urban settings as his cousin the blue jay, the western scrub-jay roams the pristine canyonlands, often in small family groups. Best recognized by their characteristic undulating flight pattern and shallow wing-beats, birds are blue above and grayish below. They are typically seen hopping along the ground or along the branches of trees or shrubs, carefully examining the twigs and leaves for edibles. Calls tend to be harsh and varied, and include a discordant sshrreeap and a fast-paced shek-shek-shek. While occasionally noisy and conspicuous, western scrub-jays prefer to keep within brushy cover. Curiously, they display the crow-like proclivity for snatching and hoarding bright, shiny objects, from bits of glass to silver coins. Unlike their close relative the Florida scrub-jay, from which they were recently split, western scrub-jays are solitary breeders.
The Mexican jay is a locally common resident of oak-clad mountainsides from Arizona to the Big Bend region of Texas. Plain dull blue above and a uniform light gray below, these highly gregarious birds live in noisy flocks year- round. They forage mainly in the oak forests on the mountain slopes, consuming a wide array of insects, fruits and seeds. They depend heavily on acorns, especially during the winter months, and are considered major agents of acorn dispersal. Mexican jays are stockier than the similar-looking western scrub-jay and lack the contrasting white throat with smudgy dark necklace. Their calls, though nasal, are softer than those of most other jays. The Texas population differs in a number of ways from the Arizona population, both behaviorally and morphologically. Arizona’s Mexican jays exhibit a surprisingly complex breeding system, with various members of the flock involved more or less in several nesting attempts at once.Texas’ Mexican jays, true conservatives, appear to be solitary nesters.
Unmistakably tropical, the green jay ranges south all the way to Ecuador, but enters our state only in South Texas, where it is fairly common in the Lower Rio Grande Valley. Here it lives in dense lowland thickets dominated by acacia, ebony and hackberry, but also frequents mesquite brush and oak woodland habitats a bit farther north. Around parks and refuges it can be very tame, coming to picnic tables for handouts. Elsewhere, it can be elusive and surprisingly difficult to see given its gaudy colors. Green jays tend to live in pairs or social groups at all seasons, communicating with each other via a bizarre array of staccato calls. It is another Texas specialty, found in the U.S. only in the Lone Star State. The green jay is popular with birders, and many birders make the long trek to extreme South Texas to get this gorgeous green, yellow, turquoise, tipped-in-violet-and-black bird on their life list.
The boisterous brown jay is our only really drab neotropical jay. This outsized, long-tailed tropical jay ranges as far south as Panama, but barely crosses the Rio Grande in the Falcon Dam area, where it haunts dense riverside woodlands. Typically somewhat wary and elusive, it troops about in small flocks. Dark sooty brown, paling to off-white on the belly, adults have black bills and legs. Juveniles, by contrast, sport contrasting yellow bills that reveal their youth. When alarmed or on the move, the brown jay’s voice can be shrill and explosive. Sometimes birders traveling south of the border curse them silently; their piercing screams warn every shier bird within earshot that a stalking birder with a life list approaches.
Pinyon jays might better have been dubbed “little blue crows,” given their relatively small size combined with their jay-like blue color, yet crow-like build, and their habit of walking, not hopping, while foraging on the ground. Pinyon jays roam the western mountains in highly organized flocks that can number in the hundreds of birds, feasting on the seeds of pinyons and other pines. Pinyon jays are social during all seasons, traveling in flocks and nesting in colonies. Pinyon jays are a highly irruptive species, entering West Texas at unpredictable intervals during fall or winter. Appropriately named, they feed heavily on the seeds of pinyon pines, and their distribution roughly shadows the range of these trees, as they are largely responsible for planting pinyon pines in most of their range.