Photo © Anthony Louviere
Smart and colorful, scrub jays reside in the western part of our state
by Louie Bond
Jays, those blue beauties we sometimes find at our backyard feeders, have a bad reputation for being obnoxious bullies. Large and raucous, these blue bombers swoop down with a loud cry and muscle out the competition. Their antics are impossible to ignore, but you might not notice the many species of jays that reside in Texas: blue jays, green jays, Steller’s jays, Mexican jays and scrub jays.
Only one of four U.S. species of scrub jays — Woodhouse’s scrub-jay — resides in Texas. If the Woodhouse name sounds unfamiliar, there’s a good reason. Until a few years ago, we called these pretty blue birds Western scrub-jays. But in 2016, scientists split that species into two with new names: California scrub-jay and Woodhouse’s scrub-jay.
“The California scrub-jay is much more colorful and contrasting than its inland relative,” Kenn Kaufman says in the April 2009 issue of BirdWatching, shortly after the change was proposed. “Woodhouse’s scrub-jay has a more muted pattern, and its behavior seems muted, too: Often uncommon and sparsely distributed, it seems shier and more elusive than the coastal bird.”
Woodhouse’s scrub-jay is a dusty blue bird set off by gray-brown and white, with a rounded, crestless head. You’ll likely first hear the bird’s bold cry (sometimes compared to the sound of a canvas ripping), then see a swift, graceful blur diving from a high vantage point to feed on insects, acorns, piñon nuts, wild fruits and berries.
Woodhouse’s scrub-jay can be found in piñon, juniper and oak scrub of the Trans-Pecos hills and canyons, and in thickets of oak and juniper on the Edwards Plateau. Some birds occasionally winter along willow-lined streams in Panhandle canyons. They’re not generally migratory, but retreat when their preferred habitat is altered. Before 1950 the scrub jay was unknown in the Austin area, but brush clearing forced a move eastward 100 miles to the cedar brakes west of Austin.
Many Texans who live in the city will be more familiar with blue jays than Woodhouse’s scrub-jay. While there is a family resemblance, scrub jays lack the blue jay’s distinctive crest and are more muted in color. Scrub jays and blue jays are both resourceful and intelligent — in fact, jays have a brain-to-body mass ratio almost as high as that of humans. They have excellent memories, and can recall the locations of dozens of food caches.