National Geographic : 1933 Jan
CROWS, MAGPIES AND JAYS PIlON JAY (Cyanocephalus cyanocepha lus) When traveling in the far Western States at an altitude of from 5,000 to 8,ooo feet, where the sagebrush ridges and valleys are decorated with scattering juniper and pifion, if you should chance to see a compact flock of birds wheeling about the landscape it might be interesting to stop and examine them with your binoculars. It may well be that you have come upon a foraging party of "blue crows," which the books refer to as piiion jays. They are rather short, stumpy birds, thus being somewhat different in form from the typi cal jay. Unquestionably they are the most noisy denizens of the regions they inhabit. Pifion jays are sociable at all times of the year. To feed, they often gather in flocks of hundreds. When thus assembled, feeding on the ground, those in the rear continually rise and fly over their companions in front. In a kind of flattened, hooplike formation the flock goes rolling across the country. Loud chattering notes are contin uous, and an advancing company may be heard long before the birds come into view. Their notes are of many kinds. About the nest they are low and soft, soothing and reassuring. There is a single harsh, guttural, rasping call fre quently uttered as the birds fly about the trees. Also there are many squeaks and clucks and chatters which strongly suggest the sounds pro duced by the eastern blue jay. Because of the wild, unsettled country usually inhabited by piiion jays, and of the fact that they are erratic in their movements, and more or less local in their distribution, comparatively few bird students have been privileged to witness their nesting habits. Mrs. Florence Merriam Bailey, who has had long experience with birds in the western wilderness, has given us a picture of the season, location and conditions of their nesting, as seen by others. In part she has written: "In 1913, west of the Rio Grande, on the San Mateo and Gila River Forest Reserves. Mr. Ligon found them constant residents, wintering in flocks, nesting in colonies, roosting in thick tall pines, generally on canyons, and meriting the name of 'the most noisy bird in the southwest.' He says they nest generally from March I to 31, in gray live oaks among the pifions, though oc casionally in piiions, even where the oaks can be had. On February 10. 1913, he noted that the birds showed 'nesting inclinations, flying two and three together.' On February 17, while the ground was still half covered with snow, on the southwest side of Black Mountain in the Datil Forest, at about 7,500 feet, he found one nest about complete and others under construction, in scattered scrub oaks on a steep grassy canyon side. There were more than 50 birds in pairs and flocks mingling and scattering and flying about noisily. On March 3, he returned to the colony and found nests in almost all the scrub oaks of sufficient size, but never more than one in a tree. One, half completed, was in a juniper. The birds, slow to leave their nests, finally did so noisily. As it had snowed many times since his first visit, the nests were damp from melted snow. Nearly all contained four eggs, but one had five. The birds were continually going and coming to their feeding grounds, where the main body stayed bunched." Pifion jays breed chiefly in pifion and juniper belts in the mountains, from central Washington, Idaho, and central Montana south to northern Baja California, Arizona, southern New Mexico and western Texas, and from the Sierra-Cascade ranges east to the eastern base of the Rocky Mountains and northwestern Nebraska. CLARK'S NUTCRACKER (Nucifraga co lumbiana) Herders who drive their sheep to the higher grazing grounds in the Western States, guides who conduct hunting or fishing parties up to the great plateaus and about the shoulders of the towering mountains, and wandering miners, all will give you bits of conflicting information con cerning the habits of the Clark's nutcracker. From such men of the open one will hear much that, with patience, he can readily observe for himself, for these large gray and black-winged inhabitants of the wilderness will come to one's very tent door. Rarely they become so bold as the jays of the neighborhood, and they will not take as many liberties with your belongings, espe cially if you are at hand. However, they will come to the camp for food, and, with a little dis cretion, can be studied quite at leisure. The nutcrackers make a very pretty picture, walking sedately about, much after the manner of crows. Now and then they may be seen chas ing insects like a domestic hen, for they are al most as much at home on the ground as in the trees. They consume great numbers of grass hoppers and the large, wingless crickets of the mountains. At times they chase butterflies, catch ing them on the wing. They also cling to the sides of tree trunks and peck in the bark for grubs, as do the woodpeckers. They raid the cones of the pine trees for their seeds and feed on piiion nuts, which constitute a staple and very important article of their diet. The nutcrackers are birds of the mountain heights and in summer delight to play along the tree line. In many places they gather in the fir belt for purposes of nesting. Wheelock says of them: "Their nests were all rather bulky, com posed first of a platform of twigs, each one nearly a foot in length, so interlaced that to pull one was to disarrange the mass. Upon this, and held in place by the twigs at the sides, was the nest a soft warm hemisphere of fine strips of bark, matted with grasses and pine needles until it was almost like felt. This is stiffened, bound, and made firmer by coarse strips of bark around the outside, these also binding it to the twigs and helping hold it to the limb. So firmly is the whole put together and fastened to the branch, that no storm can move it from its foundations." The birds breed early in the year, when there is little travel in the heavy snows of the upper ranges, so their nests are rarely seen. Egg-lay ing begins in February or March. Incubation requires eighteen days. Their breeding range extends from southern Alaska, southwestern Al berta, and western South Dakota south to the high mountains of Baja California, Arizona, and New Mexico.