clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

The Verge Review of Animals: the Steller's jay

New, 6 comments

A blue, noisy coward

Daniel Plumer

This column is part of a series where Verge staffers post highly subjective reviews of animals. Up until now, we’ve written about animals without telling you whether they suck or rule. We are now rectifying this oversight.

"You might guess that the word ‘Steller' describes an exceptional jay," says a 2012 Audubon article on the bird. But you should guess again.

Steller's jays are the bird version of that person aggressively shouting nonsense on the street corner. They're the roommate who eats the lunch you packed the night before, and then denies it. They're every loud-talking, pompous, kleptomaniacal person you know, rolled into one admittedly stylish bird.

Steller's jays, also known as Cyanocitta stelleri, are often confused with blue jays, because their tail, wings, and most of their body are a brilliant cobalt. But blue jays are blue and white, while Steller's jays are blue and black. Black: like their souls.

Loud-talking, pompous, kleptomaniacal birds

They were first named by explorer George Wilhelm Steller in 1714, who spotted them while shipwrecked in what is now called Alaska. Since the obvious choice for a name, blue jay, was already taken, he named them (and several other birds) after himself. Steller's jays live in coniferous forests up and down Western North America, even stretching a ways into Mexico.

Odious as these squawkers are, let's start with some good things.

Steller's jays are part of the Corvidae family, which includes crows, ravens, and magpies -- and that means they're damn clever. Crows get most of the praise in the family for being smart; according to a National Geographic article, their intelligence is on par with primates, and they use "imagination and the anticipation of possible future events" to solve problems. While crows usually use their smarts to procure food, they can use them for their own manipulative pleasure, like to instigate cat fights.

They're basically garbage disposals

Steller's jays are not quite as bad as shit-disturbing crows, because they dedicate their overlarge brains for aggressive scavenging campaigns. These birds eat normal bird-in-the-wild food — nuts, seeds, berries, spiders, bugs, and even sometimes birds' eggs, lizards or small rodents. But they're also basically garbage disposals that won't turn down table scraps, according to Audubon, and unreal amounts of cat food, according to me. They can work in groups to outsmart humans and cats, and have good memories. It took them approximately 12 hours to learn that the plastic swivel-head owl in my garden is not a legitimate foe.

Another thing Steller's jays have going for them is their good looks. They've got sweet blue feathers and, arguably, the most on-point haircut (aka, crest) west of the Rockies.

Steller Hair Eric Ellingson, Flickr

You could play for Real Madrid with hair like that

Finally, they're pretty egalitarian. Both males and females build nests and feed young, and during courtship the males feed the females (free dates!).

So I begrudgingly grant them points for style and a charming sense of equality. When it comes to their intelligence, that's a wash; it's admirable how clever they are, but they use their brains for evil thievery, and I can't get behind that.

Now for the hard truths. First, Stellar's jays are noisy cowards. Although they have voracious appetites, sizeable beaks, and talons, a lone, chittering squirrel hero was able to keep multiple jays away from a bowl of peanuts. I'd guess the jays, especially when they scheme together, could take the squirrel. But what do they do? They simply screech in frustration.

And now we really get to the heart of my beef with them: their voice. Like most Corvids, the Steller's jay doesn't sing. It hacks and screeches, especially early in the morning right outside my window. It is the bird equivalent of nails on a chalkboard. Even Audubon, lover of birds majestic, strange, and pitiful, describes their call as harsh.

Am I being cold? Is it unfair to despise a bird for its call? I mean, it's not like it can do anything about it, right? Wrong! Steller's jays can actually do a spot-on impression of a red-tailed hawk, which, while not melodic, is an improvement. And yet they continue to screech.

"I just don't like the sound of your voice."

Once, in undergrad, I was talking on my phone while out for a walk. My meanderings took me into the path of an adorable-looking tiny old lady, who turned around as I was approaching and gave me a quizzical look. The sweet thing is lost! I told myself. So I put aside my phone and asked if she needed some help.

"No," she said. "I just didn't like the sound of your voice."

It was more shocking than offensive, and I believe I said, "Well, then!" because I can be a tad timid when caught off-guard. But now that I am eight years closer to her age (but still, like 70 years away from tiny-old), I get it. Not liking someone's — or some Steller's jay's — voice is enough of a reason to despise them.

The Steller's jay

Verge Score: 5.5

5.5

Verge Score

Good Stuff

  • Brainiac Corvidae family

  • Cobalt!

  • Hair game on point

  • Mimic red-tailed hawk

  • Males feed females in courtship

Bad Stuff

  • Annoying AF

  • Scheming

  • Steals cat and human food

  • Noisy cowards

  • Basically garbage disposals