The Jays of Oakland Camp

by Rex Burress

I wasn’t prepared for the latest Steller's Jay extravaganza at Oakland Camp this summer. Of all things – they had built a nest in the rafters of the busy veranda, just above the pool table in the fireplace room! There was noisy activity from 300 youths the week before when the jay babes huddled in the nest, dependent on the parents for food. Some said there were four, but by the time I arrived, they were in the fledgling stage, and I only saw two, and even those fluttering bombs soon descended to hop away and disappear next day.

Young Tony came to my cabin to ask advice as what to do. Should they try to catch the babe hopping on the patio and put it back in the nest?

"Sure," I said, indicating that the human odor on the bird wouldn’t cause the parents to vacate. "It might stay there for another day." I wanted a photograph of the unusual nest selection. But they had the wanderlust, and next day they were gone. People want to help out so badly when they see an innocent-looking baby bird faced with the rigors – and predators – of the world, but doing nothing is usually the best procedure.

Somewhere, the young jays that weren't caught by a hungry critter were crouched in some wooded place, awaiting some more food to be poked in their mouths by the alert parents. I saw another family that were more advanced, and even though their offspring were nearly fully feathered and flying, they were still food beggars. Along the trail a pile of pretty blue-and-black feathers indicated where a jay had met with a lethal member of the wildlife community, so no wonder the birds act nervous most of the time.

The Steller’s Jay is more of a hard-shelled armadillo than a bird. They are stern-looking with their sharp pointed head crest, and when one landed on my cabin porch railing where I was resting, it "clacked" onto the boards with its hard curved toenails more like a steel tool than skin-covered feet. I thought of Edgar Allen Poe and his poem "The Raven":  "...from whose Plutonian shore, perched upon my door forever more." The jay in year 2003 was actually looking for crackers that I had been tossing out, but it wasn’t a bird – it was a demonic being in bird feathers! The intensity of those eyes only a few inches away were almost terrifying, and the beak looked like a lethal dagger poised to pierce tender skin.

Steller’s Jays are hard birds, highly energetic, and raucous in their behavior compared to the soft birds like the delicate Downy Woodpecker clinging to the tree nearby, or the flimsy flycatcher watching from its post. Get up close to a jay and they are scary-looking with that explosive energy enabling them to go sailing through the forest screaming in a tone utterly unbecoming of a bird. Perhaps it’s because they’re in the crow family, and all of those crows, ravens, and jays are brash birds, totally unhappy with any human intrusion into their domain. They are all vocal – the alarmists of the arboreal heights – denouncing the presence of any intruder suspected of doing harm to their family.

The sheen on the Steller’s feathers is hard and metallic-looking, as if chiseled in stone, and so neat and well arranged are those appendages on the bird’s body that they look like a Volkus bronze. The pert tail is a balancing organ, enabling the constantly searching creature to bounce from limb to limb or be equally agile on the leaf-covered soil. I watched them constantly, since they kept an eye on my cabin, eager to spot those white crackers they quickly pounded to death. They had a route through the mountain forest around camp, anticipating places where campers were liable to toss a tidbit. "Clack." The feet. It would stare at cabin F and, if no offerings were available, go sailing away in a long glide, dodging limbs and leaves like a well-trained fighter pilot. I don’t know what the jays thought of the stray peacocks that had taken residency on top of the camp kitchen, but that intrusion didn’t deter them from making their rounds. Maybe a squawk of surprise, but they determine danger very quickly, so keenly sensed are their functions, vivid with health and energy. I am envious.

Perhaps the jay knows nothing of death, or cares little where it came from, but they do strive to protect their life as if life was worth living. What does a jay know of other countries ... or wars in faraway worlds ... or distant jay relatives in other lands? They live in the present with no thought of tomorrow ... as far as we can tell. Tomorrow will be a day of an early dawn and the daily search for substance of survival, and perhaps the urge to reproduce will make itself prominent in the course of the year. But of creators or gods they seem totally oblivious. What joy do they get in their existence? Art, aesthetics, recreation may all be merely frivolous expendables to them.

I know the Steller’s Jay will remain along Spanish Creek near the American Valley of Quincy when winter comes, somehow searching out the essentials of survival, thrusting its kind into the future. It is a hard bird involved in a hard life. Do they know what beauty they add to the somber woodland? Do they know what joy they give to the bird watcher ever eager to see them over and over again?

Down in the valley, kin Western Scrub-Jay pounces through the thickets of scrubby chaparral, in the Oakland hills of the Sierra foothills, seldom overlapping into the coniferous forest where the Steller's Jay lives. They recognize boundaries and other species, with perhaps a probe into a lesser bird’s nest in quest of an egg or infant. They are not choosy when it comes to meat - food.

I know the eastern Blue Jay is equally active and tough-minded in the Missouri woodlands - the saint or the scourge of wild places depending on your perspective. How I remember them dashing through the deciduous woods where snow might be clustered on the ridges. They were life in a dead world. Crows, jays, and ravens are birds of a feather.

The Raven
Edgar Allan Poe [Died October 7, 1849]

"Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!”
Quote the raven, “Nevermore ..."
"And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon’s that is dreaming ...”

© 2003 Rex Burress
July 14, 2003