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BIRD TALK: Just don’t call them Blue Jays …

Cary Atwood
BIRD TALK
Scrub Jay
Submitted photos |

If you venture up and out of town, just above the floor of the Grand Valley, you will encounter the woodlands of what some term the “pygmy forest.” These stunted and gnarled looking pinyon pine and Utah juniper trees are well adapted to western Colorado and Utah. Deeply rooted, they can endure drought, sustained heat and cold. They are so long lived that studies locally have dated some pinyons at 600-700 years of age.

As you would expect, this forest of the arid West is a habitat for a unique population of reptiles, mammals and birds. If you visit this woodland, so abundant in Colorado National Monument, you will likely spot a number of different birds including groups of small gray birds known as bushtits. Another drab looking little bird, but with lots of personality, it has a crest of feathers atop its head and is known as a Juniper Titmouse. They fly in solo to gather a single seed from our feeder, returning again and again to the same branch where you can hear it shelling the seed.

By far the most visible year-round resident birds of these woodlands are the large blue birds that so many people refer to as “blue jays.” Yes, they are jays, which are members of the larger “Corvid” or crow family, but they have distinct names and unique behaviors that set them apart.

Pinyon Jays, sometimes know as Blue Crows, could be likened to teenagers; they are noisy, always travel in groups, and will eat everything in sight. It’s a good analogy as it describes their behavior of noisy, nomadic travel in groups of dozens to hundreds. They are an overall dusty blue, without distinctive color markings, about 10 inches in length, and have short tails. At our feeder over the past few weeks, they come piling in every morning pushing aside other birds, feeding vigorously and calling loudly. High-calorie nuts, which are actually pinyon seeds, are their main food. In the fall, especially during a year of plentiful nuts, the jays will carry them away, and stockpile them in trees and soil for winter. Some of the uneaten seeds eventually seed themselves and grow into new trees. In this way the Pinyon Jay ensures both its own survival and that of many animals that depend upon the tree and nut.

The Scrub Jay is the other blue-colored jay you will see in this habitat. Despite its similar color and slightly larger size of 11 inches, and a very long tail, their behaviors are very different, too. Unlike the wandering habits of Pinyon Jays, Scrub Jays are territorial within an area. They are commonly seen alone or in small groups, and with their quick wingbeats and stiff-winged sailing glides, they easily swoop into trees. I often marvel at their ability to fly low from tree to tree, hopping adeptly through the branches. Their diet is more varied than the Pinyon Jay, with seeds and insects making up the majority. If you don’t catch a good look at them, you will come to know them by their typical jay-like call — harsh, raucous and rising.

Filling in for Larry Collins this week, Cary is with the Grand Valley Audubon Society.


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