Birding Column: Yosemite Steller's Jay Encounter

Mathew Tekulsky
The Birdman of Bel Air
January 20, 2004

Mathew Tekulsky writes a regular column about birding in his backyard and neighborhood in Bel Air, California. You can follow his encounters with the birds of the Santa Monica Mountains here on National Geographic News BirdWatcher every fortnight or so.

I had just hiked about one-and-a-half miles (2.5 kilometers) past Curry Village in Yosemite National Park, and I had arrived at the far end of Mirror Lake. Half Dome towered 4,800 feet (about 1,500 meters) above me, and Mount Watkins was reflected in the lake to the east.

I had just turned back on the trail when a solitary Steller's jay appeared on the ground below a bridge that crossed a narrow gap in the trail. The jay must have seen me, because he popped up onto the railing of the bridge in no time at all and just stared at me.

He followed me over to a rock on the side of the lake, where I had sat down to eat my lunch. Now, this Steller's jay obviously wanted to share some of my food, but I decided on this occasion to be strict with myself about not feeding wild animals in a national park (not to mention the fact that there are laws against doing this).

But the Steller's jay didn't want to take "No" for an answer, and he kept cocking his head and displaying his black crest in what could only be described as an inquisitive manner. "Where is the food?" he seemed to be saying.

At one point, he hopped up onto a rock just above my face and peered down at me as I munched on my sandwich.

"Well?" he seemed to be saying, "What's going on?"

I held firm to my resolve not to feed him, and I kept munching away. Finally, my lunch was finished, and the jay realized that he wasn't going to get anything.

He hopped over to a nearby branch and cased out the general area. Then, he did the most amazing thing. He hopped out into the middle of an open area of ground that was covered with damp, decaying leaves and loose soil. Positioning himself in one spot, he suddenly dug his bill into the soft topsoil (actually, it was his entire head!), and then withdrew his bill (or head) at such an angle that a big clump of leaves, soil, and whatever was buried in this mass flew off to the side of the bird.

He did this same maneuver about ten more times in the same general vicinity, with the end result being that he effectively dug a wide depression about six inches (15 centimeters) deep in this pocket of soil. He was obviously looking for insects and grubs in this detritus, and it didn't look as if he had found anything in this hole.

The jay contented himself with flying off to a nearby pine, and he worked his way up to a branch about 25 feet (7.5 meters) about the ground, stropped his bill a few times, and then he just sat there, taking in the general scene.

I marveled at this bird's ingenuity, and his ability to maneuver about the forest. I wished that I could stay there and live at this beautiful spot at the base of Half Dome and on the banks of Mirror Lake. But, alas, I'm a human being, and as such, I headed back down the trail to Curry Village and civilization.

Continued on Next Page >>


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