Naturalist’s Notebook: The Secret Knowledge of Western Scrub-Jays

Text and illustrations by John Schmitt
July 15, 2008
artwork by John Schmitt

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Western Scrub-Jays are well known for their ability to remember where they have buried food items, often weeks or months after the fact. But their capable memories extend beyond just remembering where they hid an acorn: they also remember crime scenes and where their nighttime enemies might be hidden. For example, I’ve known Western Scrub-Jays to return repeatedly–over several days–to a site hidden in cover where a Cooper’s Hawk had consumed its prey, and there raise a din over a forlorn mess of feathers.

And scrub-jays often know where the local Western Screech-Owls nest or roost. As self-appointed wardens of their domains, they sometimes go to a known nest site in the early dusk and–with a zeal rare even for scrub-jays–shriek and fuss until it’s almost dark before slipping away to their own roosts.

I’ve crept in upon such dusk-time commotions, finding one or more agitated jays hopping about on branches opposite a cavity entrance, hurling the most venemous shrieks they can muster. But inevitaby the jays retreat before the advancing darkness, and sometimes, after enough time has pased and night has all but completed its conquest, a small owl’s face will appear at the cavity entrance–wide yellow eyes blinking.

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