A Stellar Warning System

I began hiking down the Mono Meadow trail for my traditional fall equinox backpack. A cool breeze sang through the tops of the firs and pines. It’s an easy start for a backpack because the trail drops steeply downhill to a meadow. Coming out of the shadows, a coyote glanced over its shoulder and trotted down the trail ahead of me. After a dozen yards, it cut off the trail into the forest, and that’s when the noise began. A group of Stellar Jays spotted the coyote and raised their alarm cries. They followed it, heckling and harassing it as it worked its way along the side of the meadow.

Stellar Jay sits on a pine branch

Stellar Jay

The Stellar Jay warning system was a theme of my backpack this year, alerting me to wildlife every day of the trip. At my campsite, I heard the jays across a ravine from me making a fuss with similar vocalizations to the ones they had used with the coyote. Sure enough, after a few minutes, I heard a young coyote yipping from the same area.

The next morning the jays squawked again and a big adult coyote, probably a female (because they’re bigger than the males) came up out of the ravine. Although she didn’t see me at first, she soon sensed me and made eye contact, curious and confident. She turned to leave, but paused and looked back over her shoulder at me.

On the hike out, I heard jays making a similar racket, and I wondered if they were fussing at another coyote. I stopped and checked out the scrub. No coyote. This time the nuthatches had joined in the fracas, so I thought an owl might be the villain. I checked the trees, and high in a fir a big rust-colored hawk sat hunched next to the trunk. When I approached it flew off and so did the jays and nuthatches.

I hiked a little farther and the jays once again were crying out in warning. The hawk had relocated and it flew far away over the canyon when I approached.

Stellar jays are beautiful birds, but they are so common in this area that human residents tend to ignore them. The jays frequent campgrounds and picnic areas in Yosemite hoping for leftovers and handouts. Away from human congestion, though, they take on a wilder demeanor. They ignored and avoided me, neither fussing at my presence nor approaching in search of food, but my observations of them enabled me to experience wildlife, I might not have seen otherwise and to glimpse a little deeper into their world.

I was reminded of a passage I underlined in Thomas Fleischner’s book, Singing Stone: Understanding plant and animal lives requires focus on the smallest details and the largest landscape patterns–on both individuals and their interactions” (70).

I was glad I had the opportunity to see that first interaction between the jays and the coyote because it opened my eyes to the larger pattern for the rest of the trip. If I had dismissed the incident as just those noisy jays again and walked on by, my journey would to have been as meaningful.

Cover of Singing Stone

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One Response to A Stellar Warning System

  1. Debi Nelson says:

    Great and interesting article. I love watching Jays too but we have Blue Jays here in the Midwest! Our Blue Jays are also alarmists and I find most interesting the fact that they do not have blue feathers but the blue is only refracted from the sky! I see them up close and personal sitting in a ground blind just a few yards away and they can eat over a dozen kernels of corn in one ‘fly down’. Come check out my website and our national bird sitting on my shoreline at acabinbythelake.com!

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