by Rex Burress

Some of our bird friends are full-time residents that stay in the community year in and year out, enduring whatever whim of weather that nature gives us. One of those stay-at-homes is the Western Scrub-Jay that occupies the thickets in the Feather River landscape as well as the canyons of the Oakland hills and nearly all the land between mountain and ocean.

I saw a lone scrub-jay on a cool May morning down by the Feather River, sitting on a branch in a spot of sun but, after I stopped to study its coloration, there was a dash for the nearest thicket where the nervous bird could hide. Like many brush birds, scrub-jays are constantly shifting about, as if to pose a difficult target for a passing predator, and many, like the Belted Kingfisher and Green Heron, as well as the scrub-jay, don't like to be watched.

You see the hardy Aphelocoma coerulescens - the blue one - flash from a thicket, sometimes shrieking loudly like all jay species are prone to do. Its call of alarm often warms other animals that some dangerous creature is entering the forest. The eastern Blue Jay, known for its dark chest "V" pattern and lovely blue ... the first bird Roger Tory Peterson painted ... is especially vocal, even in the winter woods where its raucous call disturbs the cold, silent forest. They manage to make a living even where snow covers the ground, and, like the colorful Northern Cardinal, brighten the somber season. Owls and crows might dislike their noisy proclamations, however, and even the fox and the fox hunter feel the thrust of those shrill revelations.

Not all jays are noisy all of the time. In our backyard plum tree that became dense with leaves after a winter pruning, a pair of scrub-jays decided to build a nest. I don't know how wild birds and animals decide to pick a single place out of the millions of choices, but the female is silently sitting on a nest of eggs. She didn't even flee when I parted the branches; she was hunched there like a feathered pancake spread thin, the intermingled brown slash delightfully and deceptively disrupting the bright blue color that dominates the body.

I suspect there will be some noisy activity in "Jo's Garden," and blustery young jays will go hopping through the heather before long. The parents undoubtedly do their part in consuming countless insects, but they are also prone to pluck other small birds and eggs in an omnivorous existence. Daddy scrub-jay often pounces on Jo's bird feeder and greedily grabs a mouthful of sunflower seeds. They are rough on fruit trees, too.

The whole subject of jays - there are eight species in North America, all members of the crow family - brought up an intriguing series of informational interchanges on the reason for bird color patterns and the contribution artists have made to ornithology. In the late 1800s, eccentric artist Abbott H. Thayer proposed a theory that birds have colors and patterns as a form of protection he called "concealing coloration." In particular, he lectured that the blue of the Blue Jay, for example, was a flick of the blue firmament causing confusion to predators as it appeared like a segment of the sky.

Thayer contended that all animals in nature used some type of concealing coloration that he also called "obliterative countershading." There was hot debate in the ornithological world, as some thought bright colors were also intended to attract mates.

Abbott slunk away to Dublin, New Hamshire, disdainful of society, to a personal artist retreat where he produced some outstanding art, especially of angels with wings (what else for a lover of birds?!) and landscapes of nearby 3000-foot Mt. Monadnock, a term applied to the single remnant of a former highland. Nevertheless, he continued to converse with major scientists and artists of the day, including Theodore Roosevelt, who was dubious about Thayer's theories. Perhaps Thayer's tendency to sleep outside on the ground and keep wild animals for pets and concentrate on painting angels made Roosevelt leery. Eccentrics Mark Twain, Emerson, and Thoreau were fond of Thayer.

Among famous bird artists, Thayer inspired one of the greatest of all, Louis Agassiz Fuertes, and Fuertes fondly called him "Uncle Thayer," spending a year in study with him. In turn, Fuertes was the inspiration and teacher for artist George Sutton, and he also inspired Roger Tory Peterson - interactions that culminated in a great contribution to the birding world.

Abbott Thayer and his son Gerald published a book in 1909 on concealing color entitled Concealing Coloration in the Animal Kingdom.

Today, of course, we know the term as "camouflage." Thayer started the concept with his "concealing coloration" campaigns, but the word camouflage was not derived until 1915 when the French coined the term camoufler, or "to blind or veil," borrowing from Thayer and the art world to become the first to apply the usage of tangible disguise to military combat. Other countries followed the move, until even to this day, combat soldiers and their equipment are drabbed in concealing coloration around the world.

Look at sportsmen's catalogs and see the tremendous outlay of camouflaged clothing, camouflaged tents, and even camouflaged guns (I even have a camouflaged life preserver!), intended to "obliterate contrast by blending and mimicking the surroundings; creating disruptive patterns of color to flatten contours and break up outlines" - the very words Abbott Thayer applied to wild-animal concealing coloration! Camouflage is a word adaptable to bird watchers too. Cabela's feature a "camo" telescope, camouflaged boots, and camo face masks.

Abbott H.Thayer was born in the gold rush year of 1849 and died near his beloved Mt. Monadnock in 1921, "a flaring meteorite in the universe of creative artistic souls sympathetic to the wonders of nature," and inclined, like John Muir, "toward a desire to entice others to look at nature's loveliness with understanding."

© 2002 Rex Burress
June 2, 2002