For the Birds Radio Program: Steller and His Jay
When I was in Alaska, Russ and I spent a day in the state museum in Juneau. I must admit to a pretty spotty background in history, but I do get excited when I learn about ways that birds influence human history. At the museum I hit a goldmine when I came to a display about the Danish sea captain Vitus Bering, who was commissioned by Russia to explore the sea that now bears his name. It turns out that the naturalist aboard his ship, Georg Wilhelm Steller, realized they had reached a whole new continent thanks to a bird.
When their ship, the St. Peter, reached Kayak Island in July, 1741, a hunter on board was sent to find food and collect some specimens. Steller wrote in his journal, “Luck, through my hunter, placed in my hands only a single specimen, which I remember having seen painted and written about in the newest description of North American plants and birds. This bird alone sufficiently convinced me that we were really in America.”
Although the bird was clearly in the crow/ jay family and did superficially resemble a Blue Jay, there were enough differences that ornithologists decided it represented a new species, and named it. Steller’s Jay in honor of the naturalist who submitted the specimen.
Steller’s Jay is a handsome bird, worthy of launching a New World. It’s much darker than a Blue Jay, especially the dusky coastal form which would have been the one Steller collected. The crest and head down through the back and breast are brown, so dark that they almost look black, and the wings, tail, and belly are blue. There are a few tiny white feathers at the base of the beak, and the inland form has a bit of white above the eyes, but otherwise these are very dark, completely lacking the white belly, throat, and wing markings of the Blue Jay.
Like Blue Jays, Steller’s Jays are omnivorous, and both eat far more plant matter than animal. And both species abound in curiosity and intelligence. But unlike Blue Jays, Steller’s Jays are fairly quiet, and often fly in to check out people and mooch for food. When my family has camped in Yellowstone and other places in the west, Steller’s Jays have often visited our campsite and shared our meals. When Russ and I were hiking around the Mendenhall Glacier in Juneau, we shared a Pizza Hut stuffed crust pizza with one. I suspect that the reason Bering’s ship hunter brought back a jay in the first place was that the species is tame and curious enough to be an easy target.
That voyage of Bering’s came to a tragic end for more than the stuffed jay they brought back. The ship ran aground on Bering Island off the coast of Kamchatka. Many men were killed, including Bering himself, and the ship was destroyed. Steller and the other survivors managed to salvage enough of the wreckage to build a small ship. They presumably gave the humans who died a decent burial, but kept the stuffed body of the jay with them when they returned to Russia in 1742. It now rests in state-or at least in a museum drawer, on Vancouver Island in British Columbia, testament to the truth that curiosity kills more than cats.