Essential California: The pandemic and the scrub jays


Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Tuesday, June 1. I’m Scott Sandell, newsletter editor at The Times, and I’m writing from Los Angeles.

Two weeks from today, California is scheduled to fully reopen its economy, lifting most of the restrictions we’ve lived with for more than a year during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Although it won’t be like the Before Times, over the Memorial Day weekend there were glimmers of our previous existence: People paid their respects at Los Angeles National Cemetery in Westwood. There were barbecues and crowds at the beaches. Travel at L.A. International Airport on Friday was the busiest it had been in a year-plus.


Amid the optimism, reason for caution remains: The coronavirus is indeed still out there, fewer than 50% of L.A. County residents are fully vaccinated, and how we bounce back economically and psychologically from being in survival mode is far from clear.

For some, it’s been just enough to get through working — or being out of work — and putting the kids through Zoom classes. Some took up home improvement projects. Some took solace in banana bread baking, playing “Animal Crossing,” knitting or old-school roller-skating.

For many, living through the pandemic has meant a new appreciation of the little things. Bird-watching fits in that category. According to the National Audubon Society, downloads of its bird guide app in March 2020 nearly doubled from the previous year, with usage rising dramatically throughout last year. Online sales at stores such as Wild Birds Unlimited also grew significantly at the height of stay-home orders.

At my place, we got by with a little help from our fine-feathered friends — a pair of California scrub jays in the yard.

Though they’re not enshrined as the state bird, as the California quail is, or protected as an endangered species, as the California condor is, there’s something quintessentially Californian about these boisterous, screeching, blue-and-gray birds that can be seen in parks, yards and wooded areas along the western part of the Golden State, as well as the Pacific Northwest and Baja California.

A bird looks down.
A California scrub jay.
(Chris Orr / Great Backyard Bird Count)

Our California scrub jay pair just seemed to appear one day outside our window, although who knows how long they had been living in the area. Soon, they became the center of our attention, with daily feedings of unsalted peanuts in the shell and my 5-year-old son becoming obsessed with their activity. He now knows what they’re called in Spanish (chara californiana), Mandarin (xicongya) and German (Buschhäher).

But until recently, I didn’t even know the term “California scrub jay” — for decades I mistakenly referred to them as “blue jays.”

That’s why I turned to Nicole Michel, the National Audubon Society’s director of quantitative science, for some help.

First off, she explained the name.

“When I was a kid, it was just the scrub jay,” Michel said. “Then they split into the Florida scrub jay and the western scrub jay, then the island scrub jay on Santa Cruz Island.”

By 2016, the American Ornithologists’ Union announced it had split the western scrub jay into two species: the California scrub jay and Woodhouse’s scrub jay further inland.

“They’re incredibly intelligent birds” and play an important ecological role, Michel explained. They store acorns (or, in my case, peanuts) in caches, “and they can remember up to 200 different caches.” When the birds forget, and the conditions are right, some of those acorns become oak trees.

Still, the Aphelocoma californica is both beloved and maligned. (Check out this haiku.)

“They’re the people’s bird of coastal California,” said Michel, who holds a PhD in ecology and evolutionary biology and began her avian studies because her grandfather “was really into birds.”

“But he hated scrub jays. He actually would shoot them, because they would get into the nests of swallows, eat the eggs, and kill the nestlings. Of course, I feel strongly that you shouldn’t shoot them. That’s just nature; they gotta eat too.”

Speaking of nature, all is not necessarily well in the California scrub jay world. The estimated population in California and Nevada has been on the decline, while more are being spotted in Oregon and Washington. Among the factors for this shift are West Nile virus; habitat change and loss, as coastal areas are developed; and climate change.

That’s a lot to think about. But for now, my family is grateful for the two California scrub jays who are helping us cope with the pandemic of 2020-21.

[For more about outdoor life in Southern California, sign up for our weekly newsletter The Wild.]

And now, here’s what’s happening across California:

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Though many Memorial Day ceremonies remained virtual this year, there were opportunities to mark the occasion in person. In the San Francisco Bay Area, thousands paid homage to the nation’s military fallen at the San Francisco National Cemetery in the Presidio and at the USS Hornet Sea, Air and Space Museum in Alameda, among other places. (San Francisco Chronicle) At Green Hills Memorial Park in Rancho Palos Verdes, crowds visited the Vietnam Memorial Moving Wall, a half-size replica of the memorial in Washington, D.C. (Daily Breeze) And further afield, in Delaware, President Biden marked his first Memorial Day weekend as commander in chief in a deeply personal manner, as he paid tribute to those lost while remembering his late son Beau, a veteran who died six years ago Sunday. (Associated Press)


A hacking group infiltrated computers in the Azusa Police Department and gained access to critical data before demanding a ransom be paid. Some who follow such hacks said they were alarmed by the breach, which exposed a trove of sensitive information. Los Angeles Times

The arrest of a homeless man and at least two community activists at Griffith Park six weeks ago drew scant attention at the time, particularly when compared with the uproar generated by the city of L.A.’s decision to clear a massive encampment at Echo Park Lake in March. But it has emerged as yet another source of conflict over the city’s handling of its recreation areas during a huge homelessness crisis. Los Angeles Times

Can the Queen Mary be saved? The ship is so creaky and leaky that it needs $23 million in immediate repairs, according to a trove of court documents and inspection reports released in May. There is growing concern that if something is not done soon, the ship could fall into critical disrepair and be in danger of sinking. But who will pay for it? Los Angeles Times

“I was going to buy an all-electric car but chickened out.” Columnist Steve Lopez was ready to make the jump from hybrid to all-electric vehicle but had some second thoughts. Turns out, he’s not alone — and that’s a problem that needs to be addressed. Los Angeles Times


Schools face a mental health crisis as the pandemic ends but trauma remains. Many K-12 educators say they are ill-equipped and need more tools and training to navigate their students’ often crushing mental health challenges such as anxiety and depression brought on or exacerbated by the pandemic. Los Angeles Times


The front-page shockers began in early April and just kept coming: A young mayor from the San Francisco Bay’s wine country had been accused of sexually abusing and assaulting women. The headlines were stunning, and they came not from Sonoma County’s leading media outlet, the Press Democrat, but from its big-city rival, the San Francisco Chronicle. That has had repercussions of its own. Los Angeles Times

Would Gov. Gavin Newsom benefit from an early recall vote? Columnist Mark Z. Barabak looks at the political calculus for the Democratic governor and his Republican challengers. Los Angeles Times

Recall fever sweeps across San Diego’s North County, targeting city councils and school boards. Signature drives are in full swing to get recalls on the ballot for city council members in Oceanside and Carlsbad. School board trustees in Fallbrook, Encinitas, Vista and La Mesa also could face recalls, mostly as a result of their positions on when to reopen classrooms. San Diego Union-Tribune


A year after the George Floyd protests, the Los Angeles Police Department is in the midst of transition, and few are fully satisfied with the current state of affairs. Police boosters say the city would be better served if all the scrutiny placed on cops in the past year were redirected toward criminals. Critics of the LAPD say the changes so far mark some progress but fall far short of their demands. Los Angeles Times

“I walked into something nobody should ever see”: An in-depth look at the terror and heroism amid last week’s deadly shooting at a San Jose light rail yard. Mercury News

A man accused of firing a BB gun at a car on the 91 Freeway vehemently disputed the charge, saying in a jailhouse interview that authorities were “trying to get me to confess to things I didn’t do.” Los Angeles Daily News


A heat wave has increased the risk of fire across much of Central and Northern California. The National Weather Service said a high-pressure system will build through Wednesday. Associated Press


NBA veteran Russell Westbrook grew up in Southern California and played at UCLA before being drafted by the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2008. Now the Washington Wizards guard is an executive producer on the documentary “Tulsa Burning: The 1921 Race Massacre” on the History Channel. Los Angeles Times

Will L.A. flatten a legendary Boyle Heights tortilla factory? Columnist Gustavo Arellano examines the plight of La Gloria Foods. Los Angeles Times

Workers at a tortilla factory
Workers make flour tortillas at La Gloria Foods in Boyle Heights.
(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

A new book recounts San Diego’s role in rescuing a sub crew trapped 1,575 feet under the sea: In 1973, a rescue off Cork, Ireland, was a three-day cliffhanger that riveted the world. San Diego Union-Tribune

Soul food, Afghan dumplings and “extreme” hummus: The best restaurant fare a food reporter ate around Sacramento in May. Sacramento Bee

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Los Angeles: mostly sunny, 76. San Diego: mostly sunny, 69. San Francisco: partly cloudy, 63. San Jose: sunny, 82. Fresno: mostly sunny, 106. Sacramento: mostly sunny, 97.


This week’s birthdays for those who made a mark in Southern California:

Actor Morgan Freeman (June 1, 1937), actress and U.N. special envoy Angelina Jolie (June 4, 1975) and Snap Inc. co-founder Evan Spiegel (June 4, 1990).

If you have a memory or story about the Golden State, share it with us. (Please keep your story to 100 words.)

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