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How the Steller's Jay Got Its Crest

A story from the Northwest Coastal Native tradition


The Makahs tell a story about how the bird we know as the 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.

Full Transcript

How the Steller’s Jay Got Its Crest

Written by Bob Sundstrom

This is BirdNote!
[Steller’s Jay calls]
In the 1860s, James Swan, an early European resident of the Northwest Coast, lived among the Makah Indians. The Makahs told Swan this story about how the bird we know as the Steller’s Jay—the bird the Makahs call Kwish-kwishee—got its crest:
[Steller's Jay calls]
“The mink, Kwahtie (a as in cat), was a great liar . . . very shrewd . . . [and] full of rascalities . . . . Once while Kwahtie was making an arrow, his mother directed him to get some water, but he refused until he should have finished his work. His mother told him to make haste, for she felt she was turning into a bird. While she was talking, she turned into a blue jay and flew into a bush. Kwahtie tried to shoot her, but his arrow passed behind her neck, glancing over the top of her head, ruffling up her feathers, as they have always remained.” [Steller’s Jay calls]
We should be heartened that Kwahtie’s aim was slightly off. Not only is his mother, the Steller’s Jay, still with us, but she will forever flaunt that rakish crest. [Steller’s Jay calls]
To see a photograph of a Steller’s Jay by prize-winning photographer Paul Bannick, come to our website, I’m Frank Corrado.

Call of the Steller’s Jay provided by The Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York. Recorded by G.A. Keller.
Producer: John Kessler
Executive Producer: Chris Peterson
© 2007 Tune In to   Rev. for Nov. 2009


Quotation from: James Gilchrist Swan. The Indians of Cape Flattery, Smithsonian Contributions to Knowledge, 1869, p. 64.


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