Saturday, April 16, 2011

Turf Wars

In early Spring, the Cherry Tree
puts forth Robins and Jays
who disagree

Harsh screeches split the early morning air, a cacophony of loud voices from all directions.  I ran out on my deck, thinking that maybe the neighborhood crows had cornered another hawk (I'll share those pictures with you sometime, of the Red-Tail being chased out of Dodge last fall).  But when I got outside I realized that the voices were shriller and raspier than crows.  Most of them seemed to be coming from the big evergreen trees across the street.

And then, there it was.  In the cherry tree over my head, a flash of the richest, dark blue you can imagine.  Dark blue with a head and crest of black.  Steller's Jays.

I hadn't seen them in months, not since the last snowfall and freeze when one stopped by our yard looking for food.  And now, here they were, all over the neighborhood.  I counted at least half a dozen, but they were flashing around so fast it was hard to tell.  At one point, there were at least three in the big cherry tree over my head.  Three Steller's Jays in my yard!

Georg William Steller was a botanist, physician and zoologist who joined  Vitus Bering's second Kamchatka expedition, which landed on Kayak Island in Alaska on July 20th, 1741.  (You can find the Wikipedia listing here).  The Captain intended to stop only long enough to take on water, but Steller insisted on having more time to explore.  They were probably the first Europeans in Alaska, and Steller went on to name (after himself) at least six species of birds and mammals.  Of those species, the only one that isn't extinct or endangered today is the bird he originally called "The Steller's Crow" -- the loud, mischievous and beautiful relative of the eastern Blue Jay whose descendents were raising such an unholy ruckus in my neighborhood just yesterday.  

Jays are Corvids, relatives of Crows, Ravens and Magpies.  Highly intelligent, social birds.  I have been privileged to see them up close at the wildlife rehab center where I volunteer.  When you go into an aviary, most birds fly away from you, up to the corners of the pen, and most songbirds naturally gravitate to the open, wire enclosed side of the pen, where there is light and fresh air.  The Jays, however, quickly learn that the door in the back is where the people and food come in, and they are often waiting for you when you open it.  They will also look you right in the eye.  Only Crows, who in the wild are much more acclimated to people, are as willing to meet a human being on equal ground.  I know it's a hopelessly subjective, unscientific reaction, but when I look into the eyes of a Steller's Jay it's impossible not to feel that there is a quick mind there, asking the same kinds of questions about me that I'm asking about them.

On this day, however, the Jays were in trouble.  They were in such a state of agitation, leaping around so fast, that it was devilishly hard to get any photos of them at all.  The first Jay I saw in the cherry tree was quickly attacked by another bird who, after a brief struggle, won the day.  The Jay retreated and I swung my camera around to get a photo of the victor.  

It was a Robin.  A fat, pugnacious robin who had driven the Jay from the yard.  Maybe because it's spring, and Jays like other Corvids, are not above raiding the nests of other birds, or maybe just because the Robins were aggravated by the Jays' obnoxious behavior.  I've seen Robins join with Crows in harassing raptors -- especially Owls in the park -- but I've never seen a solo Robin attack a larger, more aggressive bird.

That was the only actual fighting I saw, but the noise that the Jays were making up and down the street made it seem like an epic struggle was raging.  Within an hour they were all gone from the neighborhood.  

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