by Jim Chiropolos
I have often wondered which of these species is more assertive and my yard is proving to be a great location to watch the two species interact. Next to the house is a gully frequented by Steller’s Jays. The other side is more open with houses and favored by Scrub Jays, so the yard is a border used by both species.
When I hung a suet feeder, I was fascinated by the interaction. Both species used the suet feeder, but the Scrub Jays quickly asserted dominance and early on one caught a raiding Steller’s Jay and pinned its head against a tree branch with its talons. I was worried that was the end of the Steller’s Jay (it escaped). Since that time the Stellar’s Jays still raid the feeder but very quietly, fly in low, and use all the available cover. It’s interesting, the favorite Scrub Jay perches are all carefully situated with sight lines to the suet feeder and if a Steller’s Jay is seen, they quickly drive them away, squawking loudly. Based on this, I thought Scrub Jays were dominant over Steller’s Jays.
Three weeks ago, I noticed the Steller’s Jays start building a next in the wisteria, only 20 feet away from the suet feeder above the gully. Basically, the scene of their defeat by the Scrub Jays. Now completed, the nest is amazing, 5 feet up, and almost completely concealed. At one angle, I can barely see the Steller’s Jay’s crest poking out when incubating. The Scrub Jays know the nest is there too. Sunday opened to a noisy confrontation between the pairs of Scrub and Steller’s Jays, a loud squawking face-off on the driveway just below the nest. The Steller’s Jays were not yielding, and kept hopping towards the Scrub Jay pair 2 feet away. The Scrub Jays slowly retreated, followed by the Steller’s Jays. In the shrub next to the nest, I watched a Steller’s Jay do a Woodpecker imitation, demolish a small branch, with a Scrub Jay four feet away. That was the end of this round, a win for the nesting Steller’s Jays!
But why would a Steller Jay build a nest near hostile Scrub Jays? If they are not diligent, the Scrub Jays will raid their nest. Is a concealed nest more important compared to the near presence of an egg predator? Is this an inexperienced Steller Jay couple? For a food source – a Scrub Jay is dominant over Steller’s Jays, but the roles are reversed when a nest is involved. We walk our cats on a leash and we must have been characterized by the nesting Steller’s Jays as harmless, which is also interesting as we pass by the nest 15 feet away at least twice a day , and I also park my vehicle nearby (our cats are not crazy about a reduced walk area).
Also interesting is how the Steller’s Jays calls have changed during the nesting. No more of the “machine-gun” call, they are much quieter now. Several time a day, their favorite call is now an imitation Cooper’s Hawk call from the Monterey Pine over the nest. It’s a great imitation – it’s fooled me into looking for the local nesting Cooper’s Hawk!
Jim lives in the Orinda Hills with his wife Ann and two cats. The yard has a view of Mt. Diablo and every day, we enjoy the sunrise, birds and changing seasons from the yard during the daily cat walks.