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A Conversation with a Jay

I was out in the back yard the other day watching all the activity at my bird feeders. I couldn't help but notice how the jays (both Scrub and Steller's) were trying their best to get on the perches and hang on long enough to grab a beak-full of seed before they began to fall. It was comical to watch them try over and over again. I was wondering if it was really worth the effort. I thought out loud, "Why make you guys struggle? I'll get you a feeder of your own and then maybe you won't bother the birds at the other feeders."

"I was wondering how long it was going to take you to come to that simple conclusion," a raspy, little voice said. I quickly looked around to see who else was in the yard and saw no one except a Scrub Jay perched on an oak branch above one of the feeders. "Was that you?" I said, feeling a little foolish thinking a jay could talk. "Well, it wasn't the chickadee" he said dryly. "Oh, wow," I stuttered, thinking I'd been reading too many of my daughter's children's books. "Anyway," he said, "let's get back to the part about you getting a jay feeder." "Right," I said. "I thought you jays might like a feeder of your own filled with big stuff--like nuts and sunflower seeds. That way the smaller birds could feed without getting harassed." "We would sure appreciate a feeder of our own," he said, "But, "stop bothering the other birds"? Not going to happen. That would be like trying to remove our very "jay-ness". Besides, there's nothing like plowing into a flock of doves to start your day."

"See, that's what I mean," I said with annoyance. "You jays don't exactly endear yourselves to people with that kind of attitude. Then there's eating other bird's eggs," I said as I shook my head. "Oh -- and eating baby birds -- what's with that?" "We have a high protein requirement in our diet, what can I say?" he said matter-offactly. He glanced over at the cows grazing on the hillside across the way. "And, I suppose those are lawn ornaments?" he said with a hint of sarcasm in his voice. "Oh, right," I mumbled. "I suppose we humans are a bit like Blue Jays, omnivorous and intelligent." "Okay, that does it," he said with more than a little irritation, "Let me get this off my whitish-grayish chest. We-are-not-Blue-Jays. Blue Jays live in the Midwest and the East Coast. There are no Blue Jays here. I'm a Western Scrub-Jay." "Okay, okay. Don't get your feathers in a bunch," I said quickly. "I knew that, but you ARE a jay and your feathers ARE blue. It's an easy mistake." "For the less intelligent, I suppose," he mumbled under his breath.

"And, while we're on the subject, our feathers are not actually blue. They only appear blue to your limited human vision because that's the color that is reflected back to your eyes. Look at our cousin the Steller's Jay. They're an even deeper blue than we Scrubs but with a black crest on their head. We used to have this territory all to ourselves until about 15 years ago when they made their way down from the Sierra foothills looking for food. We've tried to run their hindends out of here, but some are as tough as we Scrubs and have managed to stay," he said watching a Steller's Jay struggle at the tube feeder. "And, the crows," he said bitterly, rolling his eyes. "Don't even get me started."

"Well, I guess you think you're pretty smart," I said. "Actually, we are," he said. "Jays are members of the Corvid family -- along with crows, ravens and magpies. We're all high achievers," he said. "For instance, ever notice how we bury our food for the winter?" "Yes" I said, "but so do squirrels." "Ah!" he said. "There's one major difference. We jays remember exactly where our food is buried--squirrels do not. There have actually been studies done on this very subject. We jays can memorize the location of up to 200 cache sites, the contents of each site and the rate of food decay in each." I didn't know that," I said, trying to remember where I last put my reading glasses. "But I've seen squirrels digging up nuts in the yard," I insisted. "Are you kidding?" he said. "They dig in a random fashion and hope they stumble upon something good. "Sometimes, if I have a little extra time to kill, I'll watch them bury their nuts, go dig them up and bury them somewhere else," he said, his little blue/gray shoulders shaking with laughter.

"I know jays are smart," I said. "I used to feed a jay that would come to my open window for peanuts. I left the bag on the counter for her to come inside and help herself. She would pick up each peanut, one by one, and then select the heaviest ones first." "How did you know it was a female?" he asked slyly. "We may look the same, but actually we're dimorphic." He leaned over, put his wing up next to his beak and whispered, "That means males and females look different." "Yes, yes, I know what it means," I said my eyes narrowing. "But, you do look alike. However, I knew it was a female because I'd read that during the breeding season the female jay sits on the nest most of the day and I noticed she suddenly wasn't coming by for her usual peanuts." "How clever of you," he said. "Yes," I said. "And, if you play your cards right I may have some peanuts for you in the house." He took a quick glance at the open back door. "No thanks," he said curtly and flew off. "Suit yourself," I said smugly as I walked back to the house. I stepped inside the door just in time to find a jay on the counter with his beak stuffed with peanuts. "Amateurs," he said as he sailed over my head and out the door.

Bless the Jays ~ Joanie, Annie and Molly

Another Conversation...


A few years back I had an interesting discussion with a Western Scrub-Jay. We talked about how smart and intelligent the corvid family was. Well, the jay did mostly. I just listened. The corvid family, which includes jays, both Scrub and Stellerís, crows, ravens and magpies, are known for their smarts. Too smart for their own good sometimes, but you have to admire them for their cleverness.

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East Bay Times Article


Attracting birds and bees to our yards and gardens is simple, if we provide what they like and need.

Joanie Cornell, owner of East Bay Nature in Walnut Creek and Dublin, says there are five essential elements for success ó water, food, cover, nesting and safety.

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