Holmes on the Range for July 31, 2008

by Nelson Holmes

HUERFANO- Huerfano County is the center of a Corvid convergence; jays and crows I tell you, JAYS!  Yes, our county is a sweet spot where the crazed birder can check off the key players of an entire avian family in one (sorry folks) fell swoop.  The Corvids are a loud, intelligent and highly social family of birds that, in our county, can be found from alpine habitat above tree-line to the most arid and unforgiving reaches of the plains.  So, let’s run down this cast of characters from the high country to the low:

    The Gray Jay is our high altitude Corvid.  Mountain men and miners quickly christened this bird the “robber jay” for his boldness and curiosity.  We are at the southern end of this bird’s range.

    Steller’s Jay is the black-headed jay with the blue body who’s coarse, grating, call often echoes through wooded mountain canyons.

    Chasing his food resources from high to low is the Clark’s Nutcracker.  This bird, along with the Pinon Jay, has a bill adapted to tearing apart pinecones to get at the seeds.  Pinon Jays are the denim-colored birds with the maniacal call that will descend as a group in order to strip trees or empty feeders.

    The Western Scrub Jay, blue with a white eye stripe, is the one who secrets seeds in the ground and aids in the expansion of Pinon-juniper woodland.

    We shouldn’t forget our Common Ravens and American Crows.  In lab tests ravens were able to, non-verbally, recognize sets of up to seven objects faster than humans.  So put that in your anthropocentric pipe and ignite it!

    The valleys and riversides see the greatest abundance of the Black-billed Magpie.  This striking, long-tailed, bird builds enormous, orb-like, nest structures that can stretch three feet across and rivals any “dome” found at Libre.

    In town, the more cosmopolitan Blue Jay often turns up at garden feeders.  The Blue Jay is expanding his territory to the western side of the Great Plains with the expansion of suburban areas along the Front Range.

    And last, on the far eastern reaches of the county in the Yucca Grassland, is found the Chihuahuan Raven.  This is a serious score for any righteous birder; this bird is found only in a relatively limited area of the central, southwestern, United States.  This bird can be distinguished from the Common Raven by its heavier bill and the white at the base of its body feathers.

    Here we have as robust a palette of strident Corvids as any ardent birder might desire, and all in one wonderful spot.  So, should you know a “bird-nerd” with disposable income and an itch to notch the bulk of the Jay family off their “life list” in one trip, let them in on Huerfano County’s little secret.