Pen in Hand: California Scrub Jays: the noisy tree-planters | Lifestyle


One of the most conspicuous birds of the oak forests and mixed habitat in the Tehachapi Mountains is the California Scrub Jay (Aphelocoma californica). With their light blue and light gray coloring, loud calls and robust activity level, Scrub Jays are winged entertainers and hard to miss. They are also one of the most important tree planters in our wilderness.

The Nuwa (Kawaiisu or Southern Paiute) word for scrub jay is cho’ikizh, pronounced choh-EEK-iszh, and this is an approximation of one of the harsh calls made by these birds, which are about the size of American robins or Northern mockingbirds.

There are a pair of Scrub Jays that live near our home and they routinely swoop in to snatch peanuts, acorns, or any other nuts that we set out for them. When hungry, they can immediately consume the first few nuts they snatch, but they soon begin to cache them by hiding them in foliage or duff on the ground.

It’s this behavior that causes many seedlings to inadvertently do this – jays have amazing memories and retrieve most of the nuts they hide, but some seeds are overlooked. If something happens to the jay that hid them, all of the saved cache will remain unclaimed, and given the right conditions, some of them will germinate and sprout.

I mentioned this tree planting aspect of Jay’s behavior in one of the Tehachapi News features called Natural Sightings, where I use photos shared by readers and include accompanying information and context on the subject of the photo.

Jeanne Hamrick submitted photos of California Scrub Jays feeding on the seeds of Singleleaf Pinyon Pine Trees (Pinus monophylla) in Sand Canyon.

Well, this week I received an interesting comment from my friend Ross Eisenman, a wonderful former Tehachapi resident who grew up in Sand Canyon in the 1940’s and 1950’s. Ross and his wife usually attend the Tehachapi Vintage Car Reunion each year.

Walter and Edith Eisenman and their daughter Avis and three sons Ross, Miles and Bruce lived in Sand Canyon after World War II because Walter owned a small mining operation called M&N Mining Company with his partner Tom Murray. They quarried local sandstone, which was crushed and used on the flat, pitched roofs that were popular in Southern California in the post-war years.

Ross wrote to me: “Greetings Jon. In Natural Sightings about Jays and Pinyons you commented: “I often wish there was some way of telling which of the trees came from seeds originally carefully planted in the ground by a nut-storing jay.”

“Here’s a way to do it. When we lived in Sand Canyon, Bruce and I independently observed that pinyon seedlings grew out of scrub oak (Q. berberidifolia) bushes most of the time. These seedlings were planted by Jays. A favorite spot for sequestering pinyon nuts (or acorns) is under the leaf litter of oak bushes. There are few plants in Sand Canyon that produce leaf litter of comparable quality.

“Pinyon seedlings do best in the shade of nurse plants, such as Therefore, Jays are a mandatory partner in a three-species mutualism. Horse”

As Ross notes, many plants rely on the shade and shelter of so-called “nurse trees” or “nurse shrubs” to germinate and grow. Especially in arid and challenging environments, seedlings that are somewhat protected by established plants are more likely to survive.

I have observed that the jays in our area also like to hide their acquired nuts near the base of shrubs, mainly for the presence of foliage and perhaps also to avoid being spotted as they hide their little treasure. Jays don’t usually hide a seed when they feel like they’re being watched, even by their mate – they prefer a little privacy when stashing their future hunks of food.

So give the California scrub jays a little gratitude for the ecosystem services they provide: plant acorns and pine nuts, which may one day grow into long-lived trees that can provide shade, shelter, and more seed for future generations.

Have a nice week.

Jon Hammond has been a writer for Tehachapi News for more than 40 years. Send an email to