The Camera Trap

Steller’s Jay on a Hidden Camera — What’s It Thinking?

December 17, 2019
steller's jay on camera trap
A Steller’s jay visits a dry stream on a hot day. (Photo by rprovost, iNaturalist CC)

A great deal has been written about the intelligence of crows and ravens, and for good reason. They’re charismatic, and it’s easy to anthropomorphize their behavior, to see something human-like in their use of tools and their family squabbles. The downside to this fame is that other members of the corvid family sometimes get left by the wayside, despite being ace students in their own right.

Steller’s jays look like they’ve mixed rococo and punk to create their own feathery aesthetic. With dark blue bodies and black head crests, they’re distinct, a flash between the trees throughout the Bay Area. They’re also not, to use the popular phrase, anywhere close to bird-brained. In a 2012 Humboldt State news article, a student, Will Goldenberg, reported viewing campus jays weighing scattered peanuts to determine which would have the largest amount of tasty food inside. In later studies, Goldenberg also faced up against the jays. Traps, used to safely study the birds before releasing them, had to constantly be changed. The jays learned how they worked, and weren’t about to be fooled again.

The birds are also consummate mimics, using predator calls to scare other birds away from feeders. They can even echo the call of a cat or a dog, which must be useful for securing a feeder or some scattered peanuts to themselves.

For iNaturalist user rprovost, the sighting of a Steller’s jay is slightly more prosaic. This camera is placed overlooking a year-round spring that becomes a winter-fed creek. The spring attracts a wide variety of animals looking for a drink — in the background, a squirrel shares space with the jay. A hundred feet away, the biome becomes chaparral and the land belongs to the scrub jays. Despite their proximity, the two species don’t interact, each sticking to their respective habitat.

There’s a lot of information we can garner about corvid intelligence even outside of a lab. Simply observing can say a lot, not only about the jays, but ourselves. When we see them weighing a peanut, do we see echoes of ourselves in the grocery store, carefully weighing a watermelon to see which one might be the juiciest? If we hear them imitating another bird, do we think it’s instinctual or a purposeful decision? It can be difficult to separate ourselves from objective observation, but maybe that can be okay sometimes. We want to protect these small reflections of our own humanity; there’s something endearing in the way the Steller’s jays avoid traps again and again. Perhaps they deserve to be up there with crows and ravens; move over, because blue is in.

About the Author

Elizabeth Rogers is a writer based on the Peninsula. She writes Bay Nature's monthly Camera Trap column.

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