"When you know a thing, to hold that you know it, and when you do not know a thing, to allow that you do not know it—this is knowledge." (from The Analects of Confucius)

Monday, July 19, 2010

Poe's Jay



Okay, that’s not exactly the name of this bird. But I’ll get to that in a bit. While in the Lake Tahoe area last month, beyond the dazzling lake, the hearty conifers, and the delightful driving style of California tourists (and I’m sure they loved mine), it didn't take long for me to notice one other ubiquitous feature of the area: the bird above.

Having grown up familiar with the scene of a half dozen blue jays bullying their way to the bird feeder, guzzling seeds like Vikings throwing back mead, I knew that unmistakable jay silhouette. Though the jay of the West, as you can see below, can be considerably more punk than the blue jay.

I actually started thinking of the bird as “Poe’s jay.” Even with that azure blue lower half, or perhaps because of the contrasting color juxtaposition, the smoky gray head and black eyes gave the bird, at least for me, a haunting quality that I thought Edgar Allen Poe would have appreciated. Add to this the fact that whether I wanted the bird around or not – like Poe’s raven – it seemed to just be there. Rather than saying “nevermore,” however, it had either an air-slicing repeating chirp or what I can only call a rattle-squawk. The bird’s utterances didn't leave me feeling forlorn; I felt like I'd just gotten a butt-chewin’.

The real name of the bird is the Steller’s jay, which is derived from Georg Steller, an 18th century German naturalist who was part of explorer Vitus Bering’s second expedition to the islands off of Alaska. (Steller’s observations of the fauna in the area led to several species of animal taking his name. In addition to the jay, there’s the Steller’s sea eagle, Steller's sea lion, and the now extinct Steller's sea cow.)

The Steller's jay, also known as the long-crested jay, mountain jay, or pine jay, is the only crested jay west of the Rockies. (There are apparently lots and lots of "jays".)

As for my raven connection, as it turns out, it made more sense than I realized. Jays are part of the family Corvidae, or more commonly put, the crow family, which in addition to the obvious includes ravens, rooks, and magpies. These birds are noted for their intelligence, as shown in self awareness tests like this one:



And mimicry abilities, as shown here with a Steller’s jay doing a red-tailed hawk.



And note also this raven experiment:



So, yes, these birds should capture our attention more for demonstrating intelligence than for being creepy or bitchy. Which I’ll be sure to make a note of the next time I have a chance to experience the Steller’s jay. And I’ll bring some peanuts.