This weekend we headed to the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum for the start of this year’s free flight program. It’s a twice-daily program where the birds are flown unconstrained outdoors, and in between the morning (chihuahuan raven, great-horned owl, prairie falcon, ferriginous hawk, red-tailed hawk) and afternoon (barn owl, Harris hawk family) flights, we wandered into the small bird aviary, someplace we don’t get to very often.
I’ve been focused on large birds this past year, writing about shapeshifting common ravens and volunteering at the Tucson Wildlife Center (where raptors dominate the morning shift), so I’ve been thinking less about some of the smaller, less carnivorous species I also share the desert with.
The birds in the small bird aviary included one I mostly see when it’s trying to mooch my lunch from at a picnic tables and in campgrounds, the Steller’s jay.
Jays may be small, but they’re as much corvids as ravens and crows are, something this jay proved quite handily when lnhammer pointed to it and said, “The jay just buried a nickel.”
Of course it did. Like ravens, jays are caching corvids who like shiny things. When I told the docent about the buried nickel, she didn’t seem at all surprised. “The jay is fearless,” she said. “It’ll land right on your shoulder.”
A little later, near the entrance, I caught a glint of copper and saw the jay shove a penny edge-first into the dirt with its beak. As I watched, it set a rock over the penny and tap-tap-tapped the rock in place over its cache.
Then it pulled the rock aside, pulled the penny up, and … buried it again.
It repeated this at least a half dozen times as we watched, by which time quite a crowd had gathered. The jay was undaunted at being surrounded by so many humans. It just went about burying and unburying its small treasure.
Later still, I saw the jay pull up a dime. It had quite a bit of pocket change for such a small bird.
I was wondering just how often people really randomly lose small change in an aviary when I heard a woman say to her husband as she watched the jay’s caching and uncaching, “Quick! Do you have a penny?”
Clearly, this was a jay who knew how to work the crowd and earn its tips.
When I left the aviary it was pecking at the tag dangling from a woman’s jacket. Needless to say, no one was trying to stop it.
There weren’t any other jays in the aviary, but there were multiple species of doves and ducks, along with a single bright green parrot blending in with a tree’s leafy foliage as it quietly groomed itself.
Parrots, like corvids, are known for being smart birds. Doves are … not.
So I picture this jay and this parrot (even though I never saw them interact), surrounded by doves who–based on the evidence–can’t even choose wise nesting spots in a controlled environment designed especially for them, and I imagine the two of them realizing at some point that if they want intelligent conversation, pretty much all they have is each other.