Incredibly Steller… Jays

June 15, 2014 Posted by: KG - Park Ranger (Yosemite Valley)
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.

Sketch of a Steller's jay

Yosemite Valley, Nature Scene, KG

9 Comments Comments icon

  1. July 19, 2014 at 10:56

    A couple of years ago I met a Steller's partway up the Four Mile Trail. He was watching me eat lunch and posing with his head tilted sideways. It occurred to me that this pose not only put him in a good position to scan the ground for spilled trail mix; it also looked like an invitation to hikers to spill some in his direction.

  2. July 15, 2014 at 09:01

    love your story, thanks

  3. June 20, 2014 at 04:48

    You gotta freaking respect common birds once in awhile.

  4. June 17, 2014 at 08:05

    Nice story about this bird my ancestor named Note: It is spelled with an "er" .

  5. June 16, 2014 at 11:44

    Excellent write up and sketch. I see a "Yosemite Notes" version in your future? Our future?

  6. June 16, 2014 at 07:49

    Beautiful piece of writing and observation....

  7. June 16, 2014 at 06:19

    Thank you......I always feel like I am in their territory and we are on equal footing.

  8. June 16, 2014 at 05:46

    Lovely story. I sometimes grow weary of stellar's jays--it's nice to step back of think of them anew. Thank you!

  9. June 16, 2014 at 04:34

    Great story. Maybe you met that guy before. Puts Stellar Jays in another light for me. So well written !!!

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Last updated: June 16, 2014

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