Steller’s Jay: What’s In A Name?

Steller’s Jay. Photo by Alan D. Wllson

Although I’ve been a birder since junior high (the term junior high should date me), I usually didn’t give much thought to the person a bird was named after. Of course, I knew about Audubon and some others, but didn’t really think much about the contributions of people like Anna Blackburne, an English botanist in the 1700’s (Blackburnian Warbler) or Georg Steller, an 18th-century German botanist, zoologist, physician, and explorer. (Steller’s Jay).

I remember first seeing Steller’s Jays in Northern California and how impressive they looked with their bold crest, always raised, and intense black and blue plumage. The North Pacific natives, the Makahs, tell a story about how Steller’s Jay – the bird the Makahs call Kwish-kwishee – got its crest. The mink, Kwahtie, tried to shoot his mother, the jay, with an arrow but missed. Her crest is ruffled to this day.* This is the only crested jay that lives west of the Rockies and like the Blue Jay we commonly see in the East, it expertly imitates hawks and has a raucous, varied call.

While recently reading Island of the Blue Foxes: Disaster and Triumph on the World’s Greatest Scientific Expedition, a spellbinding book by Stephen R. Brown, I realized that one of the scientific members of the expedition was Georg Steller, the namesake of the Steller’s Jay. Steller is considered a pioneer of Alaskan natural history and in addition to the Steller’s Jay, he is credited with discovering a number of animals and plants, some of which bear his name, either in the common or scientific name,* including: Steller’s eider (Polysticta stelleri), Sea otter (Enhydra lutris), Steller’s sea eagle (Haliaeetus pelagicus), Steller’s sea cow (Hydrodamalis gigas), Steller’s sea lion (Eumetopias jubatus), Gumboot chiton (Cryptochiton stelleri), Hoary mugwort (Artemisia stelleriana), Stellera L. (Thymelaeaceae), and Stellerite (a mineral in the zeolite group).

Sadly some of these animals are now extinct. One, Steller’s sea cow, is pictured here.

Steller heard about Vitus Bering, (Bering Sea, Bering Island) the Danish cartographer and explorer in Russian service, and an officer in the Russian Navy, who was leading what was known as the Second Kamchatka Expedition.

This immense 18th-century scientific journey, also known as the Great Northern Expedition, travelled from St. Petersburg across frozen Siberia to the western coast of North America. There were over 3,000 people involved and the expedition cost Tsar Peter the Great over one-sixth of his empire’s annual revenue, an estimated 1.5 million rubles.

This 10-year venture, led by the legendary Danish captain Vitus Bering and including scientists, artists, mariners, soldiers, and laborers, discovered Alaska, opened the Pacific fur trade, and led to fame, shipwreck, and “one of the most tragic and ghastly trials of suffering in the annals of maritime and arctic history.”** In the 18th Century the Russian Empire was already the largest nation and looking to expand its domain onto adjacent oceans. One of the goals of the expedition was a long-standing dream of the Russian Navy to map a Northern Sea Route from Europe to the Pacific.

Kayak Island

But after Bering’s St. Peter lost sight of its sister ship the St. Paul in a storm, Bering continued to sail east, hoping to find land soon. By reading sea currents and flotsam and wildlife, Steller insisted they should sail northeast. He was met with derision from the more experienced sailors, but after considerable time lost, they ultimately turned northeast and made landfall in Alaska at Kayak Island on July 20, 1741. As supplies of water dwindled, Bering wanted to stay only long enough to take on fresh water, but Steller was able to convince Captain Bering to give him more time for land exploration. He was granted 10 hours.

Although the crew never set foot on the mainland, Georg Steller is credited with being one of the first non-natives to have walked Alaskan soil. On this remarkable journey, Steller became the first European naturalist to describe a number of North American plants and animals, including a jay later named Steller’s Jay.

Steller’s jay is one of the few species named after Steller that is not currently endangered. In his brief encounter with the bird, Steller was able to deduce that the jay was kin to the American Blue Jay, a fact which seemed proof that Alaska was indeed part of North America.

Although the St. Peter was destroyed in a fierce storm, the remaining crew, using salvaged material from the wreck, constructed a new vessel in early 1742 and returned to Avacha Bay where Steller spent the next two years exploring the Kamchatka peninsula. Because of his sympathies for the native Kamchatkans, he was accused of fomenting rebellion and was recalled to Saint Petersburg and put under arrest. After being freed, he travelled west toward St. Petersburg, but along the way came down with a fever and died. There are no known portraits of Georg Steller, an amazing explorer and naturalist. Yet his journals became important to other explorers of the North Pacific, including Captain Cook.

What’s in a name? More than I imagined!

*Bird Note

Publications and Web Consultant, Ross FeldnerRoss A. Feldner, RCC Board Member

Ross Feldner is the owner/art director of New Age Graphics, a full-service graphic design firm in Wheaton, MD. He also volunteers as a guide at the Patuxent National Wildlife Refuge and is editor of the Friends of Patuxent National Wildlife Refuge newsletter. Ross also serves as Vice President of the Rachel Carson Landmark Alliance which supports Rachel Carson’s historic house in Silver Spring, MD where she wrote the landmark book Silent Spring.


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