Birding Column: Mexican Jays' Dogged Pack Mentality

Mathew Tekulsky
The Birdman of Bel Air
April 13, 2004

The first time I saw the Mexican jay was in Miller Canyon, Arizona, just south of Sierra Vista in the Huachuca Mountains. I was staying at Beatty's Guest Ranch, which is really an apple orchard and bee farm tucked into a ten-acre (four-hectare) clearing in a valley 6,000 feet (1,830 meters) up into the mountains.

Now, Tom and Edith Beatty had a few dogs that ran loose about the place, and each of the dogs had his own doghouse, which was fenced in, except for an entrance area that was always open.

In front of each doghouse the Beattys placed a bowl and filled it with dog food, which the dogs were free to eat throughout the day.

The dog food that was in these bowls was the dry, chunky kind, just the right size to fit into the beak of a Mexican jay and provide it with a good bit of food value as well. And that is exactly what happened.

Throughout the day the Mexican jays would periodically land on the wire fence above the doghouse, make sure that the dog wasn't there, drop down next to the bowl of dog food, pick up a chunk of dog food in their beak, and fly off across the valley and into the trees, with their prize clearly visible to the observer.

Although it is in the same genus (Aphelocoma) as the scrub jay, the Mexican jay is a grander, more stately bird. It has a large mass, making it appear about as big as a crow, especially when in flight.

Like the scrub jay, the Mexican jay moves about in packs, but when they fly into an area, a group of Mexican jays appears more like a pack of wolves, compared to the cocker spaniel character of the scrub jay.

The next time I saw the Mexican jay was at Santa Rita Lodge. Santa Rita is a famous bird-watching site at an elevation of 4,800 feet (1,463 meters) in Madera Canyon in the Santa Rita Mountains, south of Tucson.

Here, a number of bird feeders have been placed in a long, narrow clearing that is ringed on one side by guest cabins. At first the Mexican jays landed in the nearby trees and checked out their approach route to the feeders. Then, when the coast was clear, they'd fly down to a hopper feeder and help themselves to some mixed birdseed.

I decided to have some fun with the Mexican jays, and I placed some unshelled peanuts on the ledge of the hopper feeder. I hoped (indeed, I expected) that the Mexican jays would react to the peanuts in the same way that the scrub jays in my yard in Bel Air, California, do—that is, with relish. They did.

In fact, over the next hour, the Mexican jays collected any and all of the unshelled peanuts that I placed for them on the hopper feeder or threw out for them on the ground.

When I got back to California, the scrub jays in my yard looked like miniature Mexican jays, but I soon got used to them and began to fall in love with them all over again.

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