When a bird signals climate change

A movement in the backyard caught my eye, a bird with feathers that looked blue and lavender. I froze, wanting to scramble across the room for my camera with the zoom lens, but not wanting to miss it. It’s rare that we in the Puget Sound area see blue birds. We do see Stellar’s Jays, brilliant in solid blue with black-feathered heads, birds that are simultaneously breathtaking and utterly annoying, with a screech like fingernails on a chalkboard. They are quick and nervous, swooping in and out again before you know it.

But this bird was different. According to the Peterson Field Guide it wasn’t a bluebird, and Google Lens failed to match it up. A little more searching brought up photos of the California Scrub Jay. Bingo. And what a beautiful bird it is, when viewed on the Audubon Guide to North American Birds, where the photos are crisp and sharp (and not taken through an old window pane).

Why was this bird, native to the more southern parts of the Pacific coast, here in Puget Sound? Was it lost? Separated from its mate? According to climate change information on the Audubon page, the range of the California Scrub Jay is now stable, and marked “uncommon.” But birders throughout Washington state say they are seeing more of them. A 1.5 degree Celsius rise in temperature is predicted to increase its range here by 20 percent, and decrease it in California by 17 percent. That’s just the beginning, of course, with the ranges extending northward as fire, spring heat waves and urban density kick in, and temperatures rise.

As much as I loved to see this bird (and want to take a better photo of it), its general absence in my backyard now may be a reassuring sign. We can’t afford to get complacent, though. I know now that if I see more of these jays I should enjoy them, yes—but also know the alarm is screaming.