Scientific Name: Aphelocoma woodhouseii
Family: Corvidae (Jays, Magpies, and Crows)
Size: 11 – 12 inches long; 15-inch wingspan
Weight: 2.8 ounces
Life Span: approximately 9 years
Woodhouse’s scrub-jays are fairly large with a long tail and slightly hunched-over posture. These birds are light blue and gray above with a gray belly. They have a whitish throat which forms a “necklace” and long, straight pointed bills. Their overall color depends on lighting, so that they can appear darker under certain circumstances.
Woodhouse’s scrub-jays appear very similar to other species of scrub-jays. However, scrub-jays found in other areas are brighter (California — Aphelocoma californica) or are more uniform in color (Mexican — Aphelocoma wollweberi) than Woodhouse’s.
Range and Habitat
Woodhouse’s scrub-jay is found throughout the Southwest and into Mexico. It does not migrate and is the scrub-jay species found in the Los Alamos area. These birds inhabit low scrub and pinyon-juniper or oak-pinyon forests but are also found in backyards and pastures.
Woodhouse’s scrub-jays are omnivores, mostly eating insects and spiders during summer along with some fruit. In the colder months, they switch to nuts and seeds. They will also eat small animals such as lizards, snails, and nestling birds as wells as eggs. They will come to feeders for sunflower seeds and peanuts.
Like other corvids, they store food surpluses in scattered caches within a territory. They appear to be able to plan ahead with regards to how much food and of what different types to store. They rely on their keen memory to later recover the hidden food.
Behavior and Social Life
Woodhouse’s scrub-jays are assertive, vocal, and inquisitive. Their call has been described as “harsh and scratchy”. They move about on the ground by hopping and lunging but can also be seen high up in trees or on wires or posts acting as a lookout. Their flight pattern consists of fluttering alternating with gliding.
Breeding pairs stay together year round and often feed each other. Such a pair will defend their territory, keeping other scrub-jays away by flying at them, calling, and occasionally pecking or grappling. During winter, scrub-jays often be found in flocks and will forage together in small groups.
Eating on the Ground
Unlike many other scrub-jay species, the Woodhouse breeds in isolated pairs, not cooperative flocks. Nests, build by both members of the pair consist of a thick-walled cup made of twigs and grasses and lined with rootlets and animal hair. Nests are usually 5 to 15 feet above the ground in a shrub or tree and well hidden.
The female lays from 1 to 5 eggs that are pale green blotched with olive or pale gray spotted with brown. The eggs hatch 2 to 2 1/2 weeks later. Chicks are fully gray when young, only turning blue as they mature. They will leave the nest about 18 days after hatching, though they are typically fed by both parents for another month. There is usually only one brood per year.
Gathering Nesting Materials
Woodhouse’s scrub-jay plays and import role in seed dispersal. They hide and bury seeds with the intention of coming back and eating them. However, if not retrieved, the seeds have a chance to germinate. In addition, jays also eat various insect pests like ticks and flies.
Interactions With Humans
The preference of scrub-jays for fruits and nuts, can cause crop production to suffer, particularly in orchards. In addition, they can serve as a host for West Nile virus leading to potential transfer of the virus to humans via mosquitos.
- Jays are very intelligent, having a brain-to-body ration equivalent to that of chimpanzees.
- These birds have been shown to remember the location of up to 200 different food caches as well as what is in each cache.
- Woodhouse’s Scrub-jays are mischievous and will steal acorns and pine cones from Clark’s nutcrackers.
- Scrub-jays can be secretive about where they bury their caches, looking around to make sure no other animals are looking.
- Woodhouse’s Scrub-jays will stand on the back of a mule deer and picking off ticks and other parasites to eat. The deer will stand still and hold up their ears to give the jays access.
- It is estimated that there are about 2 million scrub-jays in North America with 75% residing in the US.
- A group of jays can be called by a variety of names: “band”, “cast”, “party”, and “scold”.
- Pointed bills enable these birds to get pine nuts hidden between pine cone scales.
- Scrub-jays appear to have “funerals” upon finding a dead jay. They will screech for as long as 30 minutes, attracting other jays, and stay near the body for a day or two.