““Life Overlooked” refers to the humanistic goal of “overlooking” or shepherding animals and other life as well as the ways in which non-human species and human relationships with them are often overlooked or ignored…The goal of this project is to utilize the scientific and cultural knowledge of everyday people to create a data bank and place-based map about non-human animals and plants in the US, Canada, and Mexico as we enter an era of mass extinction.” (Life Overlooked website)
Below, you will find my transmedial journal on the western scrub jay, a microcosm of the aforementioned Life Overlooked. I chose the western scrub jay for a number of reasons, but mainly because I’ve been going through magpie-withdrawal. It’s been almost a year since I moved from Missoula, Montana back home to the deeper heart of the Cascadian bioregion (though Eugene, OR is much further south than my previous home of Bellingham, WA). Though bike commuting in white-out conditions in the middle of Montana’s winters was less than thrilling, I still have affection for its scapular yellow hills, the summer storms tumbling down the Rockies. And there are people I miss. But I found an animal-emptiness in me after the move, too: magpies.
I miss their intermittent raaks and rr-e-e-e-e, their sudden scolding paroxysms, the stutter-flight of the juveniles, the charged curiosity of their hop and head-tilt as they watch. There’s nothing like being watched by a magpie. It’s a frustrated fondness I have for them–to live in such close, but parallel proximity with something so obviously alive. I always felt…on the verge in their presence, close to something pivotal and cosmic and comic, but ultimately un-grippable.
And then I moved back and the magpies were gone. Eugene has crows, of course. And I like crows, I grew up around them–yet they aren’t the same. Colder, a bit more disdainful. But, as I soon found, Eugene also has scrub jays. I find them more crotchety than magpies, but they make me smile in the same way those other corvids do.
There’s a number of scrub jays that hang around my house, so I decided this bird journal (below) might best capture my evolving, corvic thoughts via notes taken from my garden-observatory. With the help of research, what I have here is, in its (probably) final iteration, a chronologically paced study that combines observation, poetry, sketches and scientific notes to craft a nuanced (though admittedly heavily etic) gloss of the western scrub jay.
BIRD JOURNAL, DAY 1
In the Garden:
I gardened (Brassicas: cabbage, kale, nasturtiums), the scrub jays heckled. As is their wont. They pestered me from the neighbor’s maple tree that overlooks our garden. They also seemed to enjoy the plum tree on the other side of our yard, by the pea shoots and the clothesline. However, the garden and its gardener (me) are too far from the plum tree for their taunting to be very effective…
Birds in the the corvid family (like the western scrub jay) can be found worldwide and range from crows to ravens to Clark’s nutcrackers (Peterson 284 – 285). The western scrub jay is a polytypic species composed of the following groups: californica, woodhouseii and sumichrasti (Delaney, online abstract). This particular Life Overlooked project focuses on the western scrub jay (Aphelocoma californica) as they inhabit the region in which this project was conducted.
The western scrub jay’s coloration is more vibrant than some of its other brethren: brown-backed, white-throated and blue-tailed, -winged, and -headed (Peterson 284). Its crestless and smooth-arched head differentiates it from other jays such as the blue or Steller’s. The western scrub jay is energetic and loquacious (it has around twenty kinds of calls), with a tendency for trickery. (Cornell)
Sounds of their calls can be found here, at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
BIRD JOURNAL, DAY 2
A Brief Thought:
There seems to be some confusion between the blue jay and the western scrub jay. My assumption is that people see a blue-feathered bird and assume it’s a blue jay. It’s a simple name, after all, with a simple meaning: a jay that is blue. Of all the North American birds that are blue, ‘blue jay’ seems (to me) to be the shortest and simplest–maybe it’s easier to recall than the others and has thus infiltrated our lexicon as a catch-all for cerulean birds. I’ve made the same mistake myself–I grew up calling the Steller’s jay a blue jay, despite the protestations of my father (an avid birder and former wildlife biologist).
BIRD JOURNAL, DAY 3
Scientific Notes (Habitat):
Western scrub jays make their home in a variety of places, ranging from parklands, regions of oak and oak-pine, as well as pinion-juniper, to riparian woodlands and residential areas (Peterson, 284). Geographically, they can be found in the far west of North America, most especially southern Mexico to northern Oregon, the west coast to central Texas (in the U.S.) (Delaney, abstract).
In the Garden:
The jays’ trees of choice in my own locale (that being the garden in which I conducted my journaling) were a plum tree and a honey locust.
BIRD JOURNAL, DAY 4
In the Garden:
My housemate replanted the carrots for the third time. After the first planting, the seedlings were plucked straight from the ground. The second sowing she pinned them in with row cover, but they, too, soon disappeared–despite the fact that the row cover hadn’t been disturbed. My housemate suspects the subterranean slugs that live in our raised beds, which is probably the likeliest explanation. Still, I wouldn’t put it past the scrub jays to have unpinned the row cover, scarfed down the carrot seedlings and meticulously rearranged the cover so that none of us would be the wiser. But I’m onto them!
Scientific Notes (Food and Behavior):
Scrub jays will eat most anything (Peterson 284), but seem to love nuts in shells the best. Scrub jays often cache their food, which could be one reason for their shelled-nut propensity (due to the shells’ storage qualities). At bird feeders, they seem to prefer peanuts, bird puddings, seeds and peanut butter mixes.
The intelligence of scrub jays can be witnessed in their animal-to-animal interactions and the cunning ways in which they procure food. House cats and chickens have both suffered from their schemings. Scrub jays have been seen sneak-pecking felines, while in another instance a chicken’s squawking created an unwitting, yet advantageous food source:
“One unfortunate domestic hen that gave a distinctive cackle before laying each of her eggs unwittingly trained Scrub-Jays to come pilfer her nest whenever they heard the tell-tale call.”
And one last glimpse of their hungry ingenuity:
“…wild scrub jays have been known to select strong forked branches and use them as a vise for holding hard-to-crack nuts (Savage, 110).”
BIRD JOURNAL, DAY 5
Funerary Limerick for a Scrub Jay (as told by a raven)
Drunk on wine of felled plums, my first glimpse
of your wings of blue, smoky your dance.
Little corvid, the sway
of your nebsome twiggy legs
held my ravenous hunger entranced.
We were kin, you and I, to the core
of our vintage blood coded in doors:
open beaks, closing claws
open heart, shuttered maws.
I was key, you were lock, I was beak, you were soft.
*Note: I actually wrote another poem before the limerick above. However, I liked it well enough that I’m going to make an attempt at publication. If it’s lucky enough to find a home, I’ll be sure to add a link to it here.
Scientific Notes (Behavior, continued):
Scrub jays are monogamous breeders and typically remain in pairs through the year, though they can occasionally be observed flocking in the winter, when the weather is cold or food is in short supply (Zimmer, 233 – 234). Before breeding, young Western scrub jays band with conspecifics, often mingling with Mexican or Steller’s jays (Dunn, 112).
Another interesting behavioral trait of the western scrub jay is the ‘funerals’ they hold for dead conspecifics, characterized by ‘cacophanous aggregations’ of the birds.’ All of this was illustrated in an experiment supported by the University of California Davis:
“Discovery of a dead conspecific elicits vocalizations that are effective at attracting conspecifics, which then also vocalize, thereby resulting in a cacophonous aggregation. Presentations of prostrate dead conspecifics and predator mounts elicited aggregations and hundreds of long-range communication vocalizations, while novel objects did not.”
Read an article and watch a related video here.
BIRD JOURNAL, DAY 6
Scrub jays in the media:
Scrub jays have a much smaller media presence compared to other members of their corvic brethren, such as the magpie or raven. However, the birds haven’t been completely disregarded–they appear in poems and a number of songs (though the type of scrub jay isn’t necessarily specified). With that in mind, I’ll settle this last day of the bird journal with a couple medial glimpses of scrub jays.
These interchanges of cellular ambrosia,
Awake this morning from a nightmare of dirty flooding
To find the blues and grays of the scrub jay
Swooping their lights through dawn’s green magnifications,
Its body of sky and water inside our own?
(From Roy Dean Doughty’s “Baptismal Voyage.” Click here to read and listen to the poem.)