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The Steward of the Oak Woodland by Interpreter Eric

Acorn-wielding bluebird perched on a branch.

The Steward of the Oak Woodland

You just found the perfect lunch spot under the shade of a massive, lush valley oak, the Arroyo Del Valle gently flowing, babbling over the smooth river rocks in the distance. You listen to the serene buzz of native bumble bees as they pop between neon orange poppies and shimmering yellow butter cups. The finches and robins gleefully sing their endless melodies in the canopy above. A pair of red-tailed hawks lazily circling above deftly ride the air currents, searching for their next meal.

You soak it all in… it's springtime in Sycamore Grove!

As your spirit takes in a full dose, your stomach rumbles.

California Scrub Jay: A Picnic Interrupted

You almost forgot you came here for a picnic! You carefully set out your lunch and unfold your napkin. This is it! It's been a long work week, and you finally found your Zen. Bliss. And then it happens. A streak of blue crashes down from the branches above, and you are ripped from your tranquility by the harsh, confrontational, screaming squawk of a California scrub jay!

He is relentless; he is pushy – impressively confident. Your perfect picnic is in peril as the jay hops around, threatening to steal your lunch as his own. What a pest! There is, however, much more to know about these picnic pirates, as the California Scrub Jay is the unintentional steward of the sprawling oak woodlands of California!

My Relationship with the California Scrub Jay

My relationship with the California Scrub Jay started long ago. 

A deer with two blue birds perched on its back.
As a kid, I had a distinct memory that has tied me to these jays forever.

Of their many calls, one of the more common calls is particularly raspy and aggressive, with an inflection that gives a sort of questioning quality. 'SKERRAA?' 'ERRAAA?' But as the jay was screaming at me, looking at me, cocking its head to the left and right like it was interrogating me, I couldn't help but hear… 'ERRAAC?' 'EERRRIICC?' What a wonderful dose of existential dread to hand over to an 8-year-old, to be taunted by a bird who knows my name!

Understanding the California Scrub Jay

If you have ever noticed that the various calls of scrub jays are aggressive – you aren't wrong! They can be very intentionally aggressive birds. When I sit outside the Sycamore Grove ranger office and eat my lunch, a jay will often swoop down to the low branches of the live oak I sit under to let out his series of angry calls, spooking all the other nearby birds to abandon their foraging and flee to safety.

I'm never sure who the intended target of this fearsome rapport is aimed at – me, the bringer of lunches, or the other birds, the potential competition for the crumbs! Either way – the California Scrub Jay uses all the tools at its disposal to secure its meals and has many tools.  

Appreciating the Intelligence of Corvids

Let's back up and see if we can't find a way to appreciate this abrasive bird.

After all, charisma comes in all flavors! The California scrub jay is a member of the illustrious Corvid family and inherits all that comes with it.

No surprise: they are incredibly smart animals! Scientists have run awe-inspiring studies on various Corvid species, notably crows and ravens, and uncovered their uncanny problem-solving abilities to learn, adapt, and memorize. Scrub jays also have their own set of intellectual superpowers, and they employ these abilities to enable very effective foraging habits. When it works, they remember.

Foraging Habits: The Scrub Jay's Adaptive Strategy

When there is little else to eat during the cold months of the year, a feast of plump red Toyon berries ripens across the oak woodlands of California. The Jays remember where the biggest and best crops grow. As the creek starts to dry in the summer, the last few remaining deep pools will harbor a first-come-first-serve buffet of tadpoles, minnows, and insect larvae with nowhere to hide. Even after years of flooding and continuous flow, the Jays will remember and pounce upon the opportunity once we re-enter a drought.

A blue and gray bird perched on a branch with green leaves in the background.

Memory and Resource Management

If you are not yet impressed, this memory superpower shines the brightest during acorn season.

Late summer, when the oaks' boughs sag down with the weight of their crop of acorns, the scrub jays shift their scavenging routine drastically, becoming hyper-focused on the task at hand. The plethora of spring and summer food sources will dry up shortly; they remember this, too!

A single California scrub jay will stash acorns across hundreds of cache sites in preparation for the bleak winter months.

Unintentional Stewards

This incredible feat of intelligence is, of course, not perfect.

The jays inevitably forget where some of their caches are. Or perhaps they did remember but were simply over-prepared--their hordes of food were too great, and they did not need to recover them all.

This fact cements their age-old symbiotic relationship with the noble oak tree.

Embracing Nature's Clever Sense of Humor

Have you ever wondered how an oak tree ended up on the top of a hill without any other oak trees?

An oak tree hanging on by the skin of its roots on a sandstone cliff face? How on earth did an oak tree start growing in my flower bed, next to the pitcher's mound, in the cracks of the sidewalk? It was very likely the work of the steward of the oak woodlands – the California scrub jay!

And how fitting these abrasive, aggressive, down-right antagonistic birds are unintentionally doing this! With all their cunning intelligence and self-serving wits, they accidentally plant the forest that will nurture an entire ecosystem of life for generations to come. Mother Nature sure has a clever sense of humor!

Come out and have a picnic at Sycamore Grove Park this summer! But please don't feed the jays... or they will remember you, too! 

Photo Credits: 

Bill Conaway