They have names like City Flickers, Great Horned Owlets, Mac’s Magpies, Sitting Ducks, and Whooping Craniacs, but don’t worry. They’re not newly split bird species that you’ll have to learn to ID. They’re a few of the 81 teams of birdwatchers competing in the 18th annual Great Texas Birding Classic, which kicks off today, April 15, and runs through May 15.
Teams will count birds in local, regional, or statewide tournaments, as well as green tournaments. The ultimate goal: to raise money for conservation. Since 1997, the event has donated $806,500 to nature tourism and avian habitat restoration, enhancement, and acquisition projects throughout Texas.
One of the hundreds of species that participants will look for is our most colorful corvid, Green Jay. It has a distinctive blue and black head, green back, and green and yellow tail. The bird’s range extends from South Texas to Honduras, and although it has been expanding northward in Texas, in the U.S. the species has not been recorded outside the Lone Star State.
In 2013, readers of BirdWatching voted Green Jay one of the birds they want to see most. So, as the Great Texas Birding Classic kicks off, we thought you’d enjoy this list of 10 things you might not know about Green Jay:
Green Jay is one of many bird species that use tools. In 1981, University of Missouri biologist Douglas Gayou watched an adult jay insert a twig beneath a piece of bark to extract and eat insects. (A juvenile tried to get a meal in the same way but was unsuccessful.)
Gayou was the first to report tool use by wild jays.
Green Jay also has an unusual family system, Gayou found. After fledging, young birds remain with their parents for a year. While the parents raise a new set of offspring, the year-old birds defend the territory but don’t feed the young chicks.
Several weeks after the new young fledge, the adult male drives away the year-old jays, and the process starts again.
Gayou suggests Green Jay is on an evolutionary path toward cooperative breeding, a family system in which yearling birds help raise and feed their parent’s next offspring. Species that have developed cooperative breeding include Florida Scrub-Jay, Brown Jay, Mexican Jay, and so-called Inca Jay, the South American subspecies of Green Jay.
It is distinct from the northern bird not just in breeding strategies and range but also in plumage, habitat, and vocalizations.
The authors of a 2010 paper on the genetics of birds in the genus Cyanocorax say Green and Inca Jays probably are distinct species but that more research is needed before the matter can be resolved.
Green Jay’s range expansion in Texas during the last 40 years is, in a word, stunning.
A century ago, the species was restricted to the Rio Grande Valley. In the 1970s and ’80s, the northern edge of the range was near Kingsville, southwest of Corpus Christi. Since then, it has spread north and east, and today, it occurs near San Antonio — 225 miles north of the Rio Grande.
Green Jay isn’t alone. About 70 bird species are expanding their ranges north and east in Texas, according to a recent study by ornithologists John Rappole, Gene Blacklock, and Jim Norwine. They point to the warming climate as the likely cause and say the long-term consequences could be profound.
About Green Jay
Blue crown, black throat and breast, blue and black face, emerald back, yellow-green belly, yellow outer tail feathers. (ABA Code 2)
South Texas, Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, and Honduras. Inca Jay subspecies from Venezuela to Bolivia treated as a separate species by several authors.
Unknown but said to be increasing.