Birding Column: Scrub Jays Go Nuts for Peanuts

Mathew Tekulsky
The Birdman of Bel Air
November 25, 2003

The scrub jay is a fascinating fellow. He loves peanuts. Unshelled, shelled, roasted, unroasted. It doesn't matter. And my scrub jays know that I have peanuts, so they come to visit me all the time. I heard once that actor Jimmy Stewart enjoyed feeding peanuts to his scrub jays a few canyons to the east in Beverly Hills. I know exactly how he felt.

Now, scrub jays are very particular and persistent in their search for, retrieval, and storage of peanuts. I'll give you a few case studies here.

In the first place, a scrub jay is usually not content to take just one unshelled peanut and fly off, if there is more than one peanut lying around. In this case, the scrub jay takes the first peanut into his beak, holding it back in his throat as far as it will go. Then he tries to pick up the second peanut by clamping the outer part of his beak around the peanut. If he does manage to get two peanuts into his mouth, he will often try to pick up a third, pecking down on this last peanut time and time again, hoping to be able to just catch it enough on the tip of his bill that it will lodge there so he can fly off.

More often than not, he loses this battle and has to content himself with the two peanuts that are already in his beak. However, there are times when the scrub jay will choose one peanut over the other and then fly off. How he decides which peanut to take is fascinating to watch.

First, he picks one peanut up and turns it around in his beak very quickly, so he has a good grip on it. Then he drops this peanut onto the patio and picks up the second peanut, turning this one in his beak as he did the first one. If he likes this peanut, he'll fly off, but if he doesn't, he'll pick the first peanut up again and turn it around in his beak again. He may then drop this peanut and pick up the second one again, and then he flies off.

Now, why would he choose one peanut over the other? I think it's because of weight. The scrub jay is weighing each peanut in his beak, and, of course, he chooses the heavier peanut to fly off with, as this peanut will no doubt contain more nourishment for him as compared to the energy it takes to retrieve it.

I decided to test this theory, so I placed one small peanut next to a larger one and waited to see which peanut the scrub jay would choose. After picking up the smaller peanut, which only contained one kernel, the scrub jay dropped this peanut and picked up the larger one, which contained two kernels. He turned this second peanut around in his beak to get a better hold on it, glanced down at the first peanut, and then flew off, sure of his decision.

scrub jays are very much like wolves. They move around in a pack of five or six individuals, and there is usually a leader of this pack—the alpha male, I presume. The alpha male that visits my yard has me trained by now to give him peanuts at just about any time of day.

I wake up at the crack of dawn each day, and when I arrive in the TV room to eat my breakfast from a tray on my lap while watching TV, my alpha male scrub jay is invariably waiting for me, perched atop a chair just outside the sliding door to my patio. He hops from the top of the chair onto one of the arms, then back onto the top again, trying to make sure that I see him.

I see him all right, and I have to bring my tray back into the kitchen, put it down, return to the TV room, reach into my plastic jar for a peanut, open the screen door, and throw the peanut out for this fellow. He picks up the peanut, turns it in his beak until it feels comfortable, and then flies off down the canyon to store his treasure.

I know there's only so much time before he returns, so I drop two more peanuts onto the patio and race into the kitchen to get my tray and hopefully make it through breakfast before I have to throw out more peanuts for the jay.

Now, the jay is very patient, and he'll just sit there on that chair if he has run out of peanuts, and wait for me to throw out another. He rarely makes a sound, but sometimes, he emits a low, short chit… chit… chit… just to let me know he is there if he thinks I've forgotten about him or if I'm lying on the couch and facing in the opposite direction.

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