One mid-September morning I was totally surprised by a flight of Western Scrub-Jays trailing up the river like a squadron on a mission. It was so unlike the normal view of scrub-jays that dash from thicket to thicket or sometimes to the top of a small tree. This group seemed intent on forging forward like silent grim migrants, apparently bent on some destination. I counted 14 at the tail end of the flight while others had already gone by farther up the river. The Feather River was featuring "birds of a feather" indeed!
I pondered the peculiar passage. I could see scattered jays in their usual brushy places along the river watching the invasion of flying birds almost as if they were of a different family. Like Robert Frost, who spoke of a mysterious butterfly in his poem "A Tuft of Flowers," I, too, "Thought of questions that have no reply and would have turned to toss the grass to dry," but unlike the butterfly, the jays did not return.
I have seen meadowlarks bunch up for the winter when usually you see them in solitary situations, but never had I seen such a flock of scrub-jays. They do not fly gracefully, but flap in a burst of motion, then glide for an equal distance, appearing to be hesitant in their straight-forward progress. True to their name, they belong in the scrub where they go about the processes of life using their wings for only short bursts of flight from place to place.
Commonly called "Blue Jay," scrub-jays are one of two major species of jays in California, and they occupy the chaparral, whereas the Steller's Jay with the dark pointed crown on its head sticks to more forested places, often high into the Sierras. The true Blue Jay is a bird of eastern America.
What was going on here? Besides the assemblage of flying scrub-jays, there were other observations that made it an interesting bird morning. Already I had seen a Bald Eagle land in a cottonwood and scratch his beak with that huge yellow foot. An out-of-place American Avocet had winged by, and at the water's edge was a Spotted Sandpiper, bobbing up and down in its unstoppable manner. Mergansers were arriving, and a Great Blue Heron was draped along the edge like a shaggy paper bag. Autumnal things were happening, and I watched for the first of a number of migratory birds. Yellow Warblers had already arrived and fed heavily in the riverside foliage.
Then it occurred to me what was happening with those jays! Those were displaced scrub jays! The 8,000-acre Poe fire a few days ago had burned the scrub-jays' habitat some miles up the canyon, and they were looking for a new landing place! That was my theory. Make no mistake; no matter how much fire control advocates stress fuel reduction by removing ground brush, it is ultimately removing habitat, and the creatures that lived there either have to go up in flames or seek a new environment.
Newcomers are not always welcome. A pair of jays may claim a territory and resent any additional stress on the food supply and space. You can only find so many insects in a given plot, and one bird may consume hundreds of insects in a day. There is a limit on available food and a limit of how many animals may occupy a certain area. Habitat size is of critical importance and is especially vital to larger animals. It is the reason different birds patrol different levels of the vegetation. Like an unwritten law some birds, such as towhees, feed on the ground, while others occupy the middle canopy like Bushtits, and higher in the branches are areas reserved for warblers and kinglets. They cannot avoid the dictum of being where they have been destined to be and for which they were so designed.
I thought about the terror the forest fire must have brought to the jays as it ravaged their home niches. "Smoke, smoke! Fly for your life!" You know it is hard to leave a home that you are accustomed to using. It is a hardship to be forced into a strange land with shadowy perils and be exposed to the onslaught of predators and weather extremes in unfamiliar surroundings. Displaced human home owners who were burned out know that feeling of loss.
So the displaced jays must have found themselves together at the edge of the charred fields, and there they gathered to make a pilgrimage to new homes. The summer brown hills offer a limited amount of food, but ah!, the river corridor ... moist with green growth along the shores and plenty of insects and other booty. But where to land? The resident birds live there, and how many newcomers would they accept? Up the river. On to where they might find a niche. "On, sail on and on!"
In downtown Oroville on that same day during an art festival, a scrub-jay screamed from a street-side tree and was scrounging popcorn from the gutters. I wondered ... was that one of the newcomers forced into finding an unoccupied bird space downtown?
I could only speculate. We know so little of a bird's travels and how it perceives the world it lives in. A bird has no choice about the location of its birth. Out of chance comes its placement; out of chance comes its place of death, and the watcher can merely stroll by and "wander and muse and gaze on thee...."
I wondered where those last 14 scrub-jays would spend the night. Up around Lake Oroville? Will they go back to their place of birth when new growth replaces the fire-ravaged thickets of Yankee Hill in a few years? Certainly plants and animal life will return eventually to claim those blackened habitats, but in the meantime, the will is to live, and adjust to new surroundings, and fit in the best one can. "One must do what one can!"
© 2001 Rex Burress
September 15, 2001