• Blue jays — unappreciated and misunderstood

    Yeah, I could write about the Gulf oil spill some more, but every time I think about it, my heart breaks a little bit. I imagine it’s the same for you reading about it. Besides, given the magnitude of this environmental catastrophe, I don’t really need to devote an entire column to this topic any more. I can distill it down to one sentence: The Mayans were right.

    So, let’s focus on happier things for the time being. Like blue jays.

    Yes, you read that right: blue jays.

    And you’re thinking, “What the heck is there to like about those noisy, screeching fruit-poaching little rats with wings.” To which I respond, “Plenty.”

    First off, wipe your attitude slate clean regarding everything you believe about blue jays, properly known as the Western scrub jay in our area. Yes, they make a horrendous screeching racket, and they love to do it at the crack of dawn, preferably right outside your bedroom window. Yes, they’ve woken me up too early more than once too. Way more.

    However, having had ample occasion to sit in my back yard sipping wine and pondering what I’ll be doing on Dec. 21, 2012, and wondering whether it’ll sting much, I’ve had plenty of time to observe a pair of blue jays that have made my yard their home.

    These jays return to the same nest in my lemon tree every year – a testament to their superior mechanical engineering skills. As soon as winter’s breath warms a little, they appear like magic, gathering twigs and shoring up the nest. About the time spring picks up the seasonal baton, the jays are swooping into the nest and back out again, over and over and over, and soon you hear the fragile, tender CHEEP-CHEEP of baby birds.

    But you know what that CHEEP-CHEEP attracts? Cats. I find neighborhood cats in my yard all the time, and they’re on the prowl for those little birds, taking a break from their stalking only long enough to relieve themselves under my tomato plants.

    God, I hate other people’s cats.

    So do the jays. I discovered this one morning, as that familiar nerve-shredding, methodical GREEP GREEP GREEP shattered daybreak’s hush, and went out in the yard. Mr. and Mrs. jay were perched on a mandarin tree, just beyond the quick, swiping reach of a scrappy old tabby that haunts my yard and sprays my front porch. His ears were laid back in distaste from the boisterous cacophony, and as soon as he saw me in the yard he lickety split because he knows from experience that a stone or branch will come whizzing past his head in a heartbeat.

    The moment the cat fled, the jays quieted down immediately. They fluffed their feathers a little and celebrated their pluckiness, and then sailed smoothly back to their nest.

    CHEEP-CHEEP, CHEEP-CHEEP…

    Whew. The baby birds had survived the onslaught.

    It was an interspecies connection that morning, and the funny part is that I was the one who was slow on the uptake. I’d always wondered why that pair of bold, brash blue jays never, ever scold me or the husbie or dive-bomb us when we’re out in the yard – not even when I’m running the lawn mower right under their nest. The jays will perch in the albizia branches above the patio and cock their heads and eye us, and bob around in the grass nearby, snatching worms and bugs, and there’s never a hint of concern, even though they do keep a respectable distance.

    And then it clicked – the jays don’t mind us at all. In fact, they appreciate us immensely. They’ve learned that when I come charging out into the yard to keep some cat from using my garden as a litter box that I’m going to make the kitty monster go away. I’ve been their protector all along. I’m their hero! I just didn’t realize it. But the blue jays did.

    Now, when I hear that grinding GREEP GREEP GREEP, we know it really means CAT! CAT! CAT!, and we dart into the yard, and sure enough, there’s a cat to chase away every time. As an added bonus, the jays are warning us that Mr. Kitty is about to fertilize my tomatoes in a most noxious way.

    Symbiosis, boys and girls. It’s very sweet.

    And yes, the jays pick at my cherries, but it’s a small price to pay for the little performances in the yard on a lovely summer evening, swooping and diving, sharpening their beaks on the branches like little machetes, bobbing around on the lawn, cracking seeds on the fence, flapping in the water puddles. And if I keep sunflower seeds in the bird feeder, they don’t even bother with the cherries at all. I used to do just that. But you know, I’ve grown fond of those jays. I don’t mind sharing the cherries anymore.

    Blue jay haters, you need a paradigm shift in your attitude. Blue jays aren’t noisy, pesty thieves. They’re just trying to protect their babies and find enough food to eat. And when you get right down to it – isn’t that what we’re all trying to do?

    So, the next time you’re jarred awake at 7 a.m. with that GREEP GREEP GREEP, get up, grab a rock and aim well. The blue jays will thank you for it, and your tomatoes will taste a lot sweeter.

    (To learn more fun facts about the Western scrub jay, visit the online Cornell Lab of Ornithology, http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Western_Scrub-Jay/id)



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