For the Birds Radio Program: Green Jay
The first time I ever went to Texas, in 1978 with my husband Russ, we were both taken by the extraordinary and bizarre beauty of a Mexican bird that barely reaches the US in the Rio Grande Valley. The Green Jay, a relative of Nature’s Perfect Bird, has a tropical green back and belly, luscious greenish-blue upper tail, with brilliant yellow outer tail feathers and undertail coverts, and a head of brilliant purple, black and blue, with just enough white to set off the black eyebrow markings. It has such an unexpected bizarreness to the plumage, a wonderful clown-like aspect, that you can’t help but pay attention.
Green Jays, like Gray Jays and Steller’s Jays, are inquisitive about everything happening in their home ranges, and often approach close to people. Their curiosity pretty much guarantees that if you’re in appropriate habitat within their range, you’ll see them. They call as they’re flying in, making them even easier to notice. They’re omnivorous, taking a great many crickets and grasshoppers as well as fruits, and hop in for handouts from people who want to reward their curiosity.
Green Jays are sociable, and babies tend to stick with their parents for a full year before going off on their own. In the southern part of their range, in South America, the previous year’s babies help take care of the current year’s babies, but in the northern areas the young birds just hang on without any responsibilities, like a lot of American teenagers.
Green Jays are one species that has been noted using tools. They use thorns and other sharp implement to pull food items out of crevices. Birds of the raven family, including jays, crows, and magpies, are exceptionally intelligent, and so this is no surprise.
Green jays also have another interesting behavior—they occasionally engage in what ornithologists call “smoke bathing,” taking smoldering items into their beaks and rubbing the hot end on their feathers, which probably drives off or even kills parasites. Green Jays have been noted grabbing hot splinters from smoldering logs, and also basking in smoke until it permeates their feathers. Whatever it takes to keep their bizarrely exquisite feathers in order is well worth the effort.
When Russ and I were in Louisiana this summer, I took a couple of photos of Green Jays at the Audubon Zoo. It seemed sad to see them behind bars, but the birds at least seemed to be having fun checking out the people watching them, and were clearly healthy.
Jays are intelligent, and require a lot of interesting stimuli in their environment to be happy, so even though I didn’t get any photos of the ones I saw when I was in the Rio Grande Valley this month, and wasn’t nearly as close to them as I was to the zoo birds, I felt a lot better about seeing them in their natural world. Every time a family group of Green Jays flew in on this trip, I was every bit as delighted as I was when I saw my first one twenty-four years ago, on December 28, 1978. Somehow when a bird in a cage flies closer to the bars to get a better look at you, it doesn’t seem nearly as voluntary or spontaneous or delightful as when a bird notices you a quarter or half a mile away and flies right in to look into your eyes.
Northlanders who spend their winters in south Texas get to spend the season in the company of Green Jays. I don’t know that I’d want to spend a full season away from chickadees and Blue Jays, but Green Jays are sure worth a visit.