Until I moved to San Bruno, CA this last December, my interest in birds was purely a passing one. I was an apartment dweller in Sunnyvale, CA for the last 10 years, and for the most part only got to see the Anna’s Hummingbirds that visited our feeder, and the flirtatious Phoebe that on occasion would visit my windowsill.
Since purchasing a home in San Bruno and becoming an Audubon Society member for the first time, I’m taking more of an interest in how the birds in my new backyard are making their way through winter. Of particular interest was a Western Scrub Jay who had lost one of his feet. I speculated that it was probably from a cat, or that he had got it caught in something, but he had a very clever way of eating seed from my feeder. You see, my feeder hangs from our gazebo and swings – and as you can imagine the Scrub Jay had trouble balancing on it given he only had one foot. So, he would balance briefly on the feeder and scoop all the seed he wanted onto the ground, and then he would fly down and eat it, keeping an eye out for predators. I thought this was very clever, and I’ve been making a point of keeping my feeder filled while he’s still around.
The Western Scrub Jay, (Aphelocoma californica), also known as California Jay or Long-tailed Jay, is a species of scrub jay native to western North America, ranging from southern Washington to central Texas and central Mexico. Western Scrub Jays inhabit areas of low scrub, and are known for hoarding and burying brightly colored objects. They have also shown an ability to plan ahead in choosing food storage locations to maintain their future food volume.
In addition to learning the basic facts about Western Scrub Jays, I stumbled upon something that might tell me why my “lucky” bird had been so clever in acquiring his food source, in spite of his disability.
In a study done by the Department of Experimental Psychology, University of Cambridge, a group of Scrub Jays was “…given the opportunity to steal other birds’ hidden food caches; another group of Scrub Jays was not. The first group re-hid their own food caches if they were observed when first hiding the food. The second group, who had no experience stealing from hidden caches, did not exhibit the same behavior.”
According to the study, these findings were a major development in the field of animal cognition – that the Scrub Jays could demonstrate planning and have conscious thoughts that events might guide how they should behave in the future.
Thinking back to my footless friend, this made sense. His “event” was losing his foot, and his balancing act on my feeder was how he learned to secure food for himself. He had learned that he needed to adapt to survive.