If you live in the western U.S. you probably have encountered the Steller’s jay in mountain campgrounds, urban parks, or at backyard birdfeeders. A raucous member of the Corvid family, this dark-crested jay is named for a unique individual: Georg Wilhelm Steller (1709-1746).
Discovery and Naming
The German Steller was a naturalist, zoologist, botanist, and explorer who studied at the University of Halle and University of Wittenberg, founded in 1502. At the Universities he studied theology and medicine before traveling to Russia aboard a troop ship treating the wounded as a physician. The Russians were involved in the War of Polish Succession, a Polish civil war that spilled across Europe. Steller eventually arrived in Russia in 1734 where he met the naturalist Daniel Gottleib Messerschmidt (1685-1735) who collected plants, minerals, and vertebrates in Siberia for Russian emperor Peter the Great from 1720-1727. Steller Steller married Messerschmidt’s widow two years after the Russian naturalist’s death.
Eventually, Steller joined the ill-fated Vitus Bering Second Kamchatka Expedition from 1741-1742, also known as the Great Northern Expedition. The expedition’s goal was to chart a sea route from Russia to North America. Bering, who was a Danish sea captain in the Russian navy, commanded the expedition which also included several members of the Academy of Sciences to conduct plant and animal surveys. Steller would also be included in the expedition as a naturalist on Bering’s ship.
In 1741, the expedition finally reached Kayak Island close to the shoreline of Alaska. Battered and beaten, riddled with scurvy, Bering stopped long enough to load fresh water and any provisions the crew could find, trying to return home before winter weather set in. During their 10-hour stay, Steller and a crewman scrambled around the island, collecting plants and animals or recording their observations. One of those observations was of a medium-sized, dark-crested jay that would eventually, in 1788, come to bear Steller’s name, the Steller’s jay.
The ship and Bering never made it home. They dropped anchor in a bay of Bering Island, but winds drove the ship into the rocks. The crew spent the winter trying to survive and Steller, who was knowledgeable about scurvy, helped many of the Russian sailors survive but the captain Bering died. After the winter, the sailors fashioned a small boat from the wreckage and sailed home to Russia. Four years after returning home, Steller died.
Steller on Land, Sea, and Air
Steller may have been the first European to set foot in Alaska. Though much was lost during the expedition, Steller did manage to return with bones or furs of several sea mammals and skins of birds that would eventually bear his name: Steller’s sea eider and the Steller’s jay.
Nowadays, there are several species of jay that are common in the western U.S.: Steller’s, California scrub-, Pinyon, and Canada jay. A rare visitor, the Blue Jay occasionally appears. The Steller’s jay is found from southern Alaska to northern Mexico and is the only crested jay, other than the rare Blue Jay, to occur in the west. With its dark head and shoulders, this jay lacks the white undersides of many of the other jays. There are some faint white markings above the eyes that may not be visible as the bird is moving about.
These jays occur in woodland forests at low to high elevations. Like many jays, the birds spend time exploring their environment in search of food or scolding hawks, owls, pine martens, and other predators. Their omnivorous diet includes seeds, acorns, berries, nuts, small rodents, bird eggs, smaller birds such as juncos or nuthatches, and different types of invertebrates such as grasshoppers and beetles. The birds are also known to cache seeds or acorns in tree crevices or buried in the ground which they rely upon during the winter. Forgotten or abandoned caches often sprout Common visitors to a backyard bird feeding station, the jays will take black-oil sunflower seeds, cracked corn and shelled peanuts which they may pick up, shake, and discard if they are not to their liking. Because of the bird’s omnivorous diet, they are attracted to suet, as well.
Gregarious and often seen in small groups, the birds may be loud and intrusive. Thomas Nuttall, a 19th century zoologist, wrote that Steller’s jay “are as watchful as dogs” harassing intruders. Mark Twain in his essay What Stumped the Bluejays wrote that “A jay hasn’t’ got any more principle than a congressman. A jay will lie, a jay will steal, a jay will deceive, a jay will betray; and four times out of five, a jay will go back on his solemnest promise.” This last description may come from the bird’s ability to mimic other animals such as red-tailed hawks, squirrels, chickens, and squeaky objects.
Long-lived, one bird that was banded in Alaska in 1972 was recaptured in 1987 in the same state. In honor of Steller and the jay, this bird was nominated as the Provincial bird of British Columbia, beating out several other finalists.