June 15, 2014
If you’ve been to Yosemite, you’ve almost certainly seen them. Some visitors might identify them at first glance, while others may just settle in for the moment to watch “that blue bird with the triangle head” as it forages for acorns or (unfortunately) scours populated areas for crumbs. Coming to the west for the first time, I thought they looked like the standard blue jay of the East; only impeccably dirty. Perhaps it had been working as a chimney sweep or something. Regardless of first impression, the Steller’s jay holds its own as a remarkable bird here at Yosemite.
Undeniably, this is a bird of intellect and industry. They belong to the same family as crows, putting them among the ranks of the brightest birds in North America. Their vocal variations are phenomenal, with a repertoire that includes the calls of other species of birds, mammals like cats and dogs, and even mechanical objects. They’re also incredibly bold. Beyond bothering humans for food, they will even channel their aggressions towards successful ground squirrels, a spectacle that I had the joy of watching in the Indian Village behind the Yosemite Museum one day.
In the last several weeks, I’ve seen a wealth of these birds. Living in the Valley, they tend to fall into the realm of the unavoidable. In short, they are everywhere. But the most memorable of Steller’s jays is one that made my acquaintance on the Yosemite Falls trail. Those familiar with this trail will tell you that it’s not one of our easier adventures here in Yosemite. It’s a rugged and steep trail with a lot of sun exposure. However with the right preparation, it can win you some astounding views. Even as a seasoned hiker, I struggled with this one. I had plunked down at the end of one of many switchbacks, where I rested in the sparse shade and attempted to rehydrate. As I sat there sweating in the dust, a jay came flying up under the shrub.
He alighted on a branch just out of reach, and commenced looking me over. I informed him that he had no chance of receiving food from me, but I think that this might have been lost in translation. I will never forget the way he stared at me. He had the most bright, inquisitive eye. It was one of those moments where I felt I was looking into the eye of another intelligent being. In some ways, he seemed even more successful than I. I couldn’t help but notice that while I was out of breath, he seemed to have gotten here without a hitch. He was close enough that I could see each individual feather, with delicately organized black stripes throughout. This common bird was remarkably beautiful.
As I stood up to commence the hike, he flew away. What made this bird so different from all of the other Steller’s jays that I had met in the past? I think I have an idea. 94% of Yosemite is designated as wilderness. That means that if you hike away from the Valley in almost any direction, you are entering a wilderness area with fewer developments and services, fewer people, and more of a ‘wild character.’ Being on a rugged trail, and finding this bird who still maintained some level of fear, it seemed to be worth more as an experience. He was sizing me up on his own territory, not mine. There is the old saying “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” I like to think that here in Yosemite, it goes the other way. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, which went towards preserving spaces so that we may have experiences like this. I hope that wherever life finds you, that you may find somewhere wild to celebrate that great gift this year.