Colorado’s Jays

What is in a name? Nomenclature does not necessarily follow the rules of logic. Common names of animals might or might not be related to scientific names, and might or might not be intuitive. Let’s explore the names of five different jays that occur in Colorado. Members of the corvid family (Corvidae), they are among the smartest birds, and, I think, among the most handsome and entertaining.

The Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata), is a recent resident of Colorado, having expanded its range from the eastern United States only in the last one to two decades. Cyanocitta cristata can be translated as blue-crested chattering bird (kyáneos: Greek for blue, kitta: Greek for chattering bird, crista: Latin for crest). Chattering is an understatement, as it often announces its presence unabashedly and vociferously, with a clarion call, though its extensive repertoire also includes a lovely fluting melody. It is a great vocal mimic and seems to particularly enjoy posing as a Red-tailed Hawk, confusing other birds and birders. Its name is somewhat unfortunate, as there are a number of blue jays that are not Blue Jays.

Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata)/Blauhäher

Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata)/Blauhäher

The Steller’s Jay (Cyanocitta stelleri ) is dressed in darker shades of blue and black, and was first described by German naturalist Georg Wilhelm Steller (1709-1746), after whom the Steller’s Sea Cow and Steller’s Sea Eagle were also named. It, too, has a crest, which is more conspicuous than the Blue Jay’s, so I think that Cyanocitta cristata would be a more apt appellation than Cyanocitta stelleri, but I am afraid that I am a few centuries too late to submit a proposal to the naming committee.

Steller’s Jay (Cyanocitta stelleri)

Steller’s Jay (Cyanocitta stelleri)/Diademhäher

The Woodhouse’s Scrub Jay (Aphelocoma woodhouseii), also clad in blue, is a resident of dry scrub oak-juniper habitat. It was designated a separate species from the California Scrub Jay and the Island Scrub Jay only in 2016, all three of them having formerly been lumped together as Western Scrub Jays. Its scientific name pays tribute to Samuel Washington Woodhouse (1821-1904), American surgeon, explorer, and naturalist, and emphasizes the fact that it has simple hair, or simple feathers (in Greek, apheles means simple, and coma hair), because their feathers lack stripes or bands.

Woodhouse’s Scrub Jay (Aphelocoma woodhouseii)/Woodhouse Buschhäher

Woodhouse’s Scrub Jay (Aphelocoma woodhouseii))/Woodhouse Buschhäher

Completing the Colorado blue quartet, the Pinyon Jay (Gymnorhinus cyanocephalus) loves pinyon pine forests, and is the most gregarious among the bunch, occurring predominantly in noisy flocks. Its scientific name should trigger some neurons. We already know that kyaneos means blue in Greek, and can derive that kephalus means head, from words like encephalitis (an inflammation of the encephalon: the organ inside the head). Gymnorhinus tells us that it has a naked nose (gymnós: Greek for naked, rhinus: Greek for nose), as the base of its beak is featherless. This makes it singularly suited to probe pine cones heavy with pitch, which would mess up the feathers present on the beaks of other jays.

Pinyon Jay (Gymnorhinus cyanocephalus)/Nacktschnabelhäher

Last, but not least: the Canada Jay. Not blue! After being known as Gray Jay for many years, despite its scientific name Perisoreus canadensis, its common name was brought in line only in the summer of 2018. Other fun designations hint at its rascally behavior and include Whisky Jack and, very aptly, camp robber. No sooner do we stop for a picnic in the mountains than a few appear like gray ghosts seemingly out of nowhere. They are known to rummage through camps in search of edibles. The genus name is likely derived from the Greek perisōreuō (to bury underneath, or to heap up), and highlights the fact that they cache their food, which helps them survive the harsh winter months in their year-round high-elevation or northern boreal forest habitats, where they also lay eggs in freezing temperatures.

Canada Jay (Perisoreus canadensis)/Meisenhäher

Canada Jay (Perisoreus canadensis)/Meisenhäher

Blue or gray, flat-headed or topped with a crown, shy or companionable, I love all our jays and delight in observing them at the feeder, or out in the wild.

56 thoughts on “Colorado’s Jays

  1. Oooooh wie schön und niedlich sind die denn alle? Ich schmelze mal wieder dahin. Was für tolle Vögel und all diese schönen Aufnahmen. Und manche sind aus deinem Garten? Wie schön! Was für tolle Federn sie haben, wirklich wie ein Diadem!, und auch der Kopfschmuck, herrlich 🙂 Der Meisenhäher erinnert mich an unsere Schwanzmeisen, vom Kopf her, die Schwanzfedern sind ja wesentlich dünner. Vielen vielen Dank für diesen schönen ornithologischen Ausflug liebe Tanja. Ich hab mich sehr gefreut 🙂 LG, Almuth

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ich danke Dir für Deine ausgesprochen positive Reaktion, liebe Almuth. Es freut mich immer besonders, wenn jemand meine Begeisterung für Vögel teilt.
      Jetzt wo es auf den Winter zugeht, kommen die ersten drei der gelisteten Arten regelmäßig in den Garten zur Futterstation, so daß ich mich täglich an ihnen erfreuen kann. 😊
      Herzliche Grüße,

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Of all the Jays that you have listed in this entry, I have seen (and see them constantly) the Blue Jay and once, out west, I saw the Canada Jay. I would so much love to see the others! One day…..
    Kindest regards,

    Liked by 1 person

    • That would have been an amazing experience, Steve. They are so smart. Once I put out peanuts, it often takes less than a minute for one to appear, and once it trumpets its find to the neighborhood, it is soon joined by a whole group.


  3. What a delightful post! I love jays, too and although we only have one species here, (as far as I know) it is a pretty one and fun to watch. I didn’t know they liked to mimic red-tailed hawks until I was fooled by one. When I spotted him, I swear he laughed!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Tanja – I am so glad that I didn’t read this post until after I moved. I have a pair of blue jays (the one first described in this post) that live in my yard! I feel like I know a little bit more about my blue jay neighbors thanks to this post.
    Also I nominated you for three awards. Mystery blogger, Blogger Recognition and Sunshine blogger award. You can check these awards out by hitting the following link:

    Liked by 1 person

    • I am glad for your Blue Jays, Jill. You will fall in love with them, if you haven’t already If you can spare some peanuts (shelled, unsalted sold at any birdfood place), they will visit you every day, and you can really get a look at their gorgeous plumage, and get a feel for their amazing vocal range.

      I do appreciate the nominations for the awards, but might not follow through. Please don’t take this decision personally. I have been on the fence about the awards for quite a while, but am leaning toward staying award-free. I don’t have a good explanation, it’s really more of a gut feeling, and I think it is up to every blogger to make that decision. But I do appreciate your nominations!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Tanja – I have already fallen in love with them. They announce themselves as they come into the yard. I will pick up some peanuts the next time I am out running errands.
        No worries about the awards. I completely understand. I had been an awards free blog but no one seemed to pay attention. So I decided I would post them once a year as a kind of thank you and recognition for blogs I follow and enjoy. I do not take it personally if someone does not post awards on their site. Think it is up to each person to do what they want with them.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. You have a nice site, however “your” blue Jay’s only resemble in color, those where I live in Pueblo. “Mine” are not friendly to humans, live in a treed condo development with 40+ year old trees; screech obnoxiously and travel in packs, eating smaller birds into oblivion. Same behavior as the blue Jays of my youth in MN.


    • Thank you for your comment. I don’t necessarily like some bird behaviors either, but they can’t help themselves and merely act according to their instincts.

      Humans are far worse because we have a choice and often choose to do wrong.


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