Jun 23 2010
This western bird is “stellar” but that’s not how he got his name.
In July 1741 the German naturalist Georg Wilhelm Steller was given a single day to study North American species. Fortunately it was a long day with more than 20 hours of available light.
Steller’s opportunity came at Kayak Island, Alaska while on Vitus Bering‘s ill-fated last voyage. The expedition anchored for one day to take on water so Steller quickly went ashore to catalog new species. They headed home for Siberia the next day but became marooned on Bering Island where many expedition members perished. Steller’s specimen of the jay was lost but his description of it was not. The jay was later named for him.
Steller’s Jay (Cyanocitta stelleri) ranges west of the Rockies from Alaska to Nicaragua. It’s similar to the blue jay but its color varies from dark in the north to paler in the south. Inland birds have white flecks on their crests, coastal birds have blue.
I hadn’t realized they varied so much until peregrine fan Michelline Halliday sent me this photo of the male jay who claims her Seattle backyard. He and his mate raised their family nearby and are quite bold when Michelline comes near.
But that’s partly their nature.
Steller’s jays are highly social and hang out in groups which are dominated by a mated pair. The birds in charge are those whose nesting territory the group is visiting at the time. This means the dominant pair changes within the group as the group moves around.
I like to think of it as a progressive dinner party. As the diners move from house to house, the birds in charge are those who are hosting that portion of the meal. When everyone moves to a new location the new hosts take over.
And they sure are dressed in beautiful “clothes.” No wonder I get confused about the spelling of their name. Steller’s.
(photo by Michelline Halliday)