The Private Lives of Garden Birds

The Private Lives of Garden Birds

My neighbor up the hill and I have had an argument. She is anti-blue jay and I am pro-blue jay. This argument distresses us both, since we have seen eye to eye on so many other issues. I am in favor of organic gardening; so is she. She is against nuclear reactors; so am I. When the town votes to widen a road, we both vote No. When the town votes to establish recycling, we both vote Yes. But I'm afraid if we were asked to vote on whether or not to create the blue jay, we would definitely split our votes on this issue.

In fact, the blue jay may be the cause of our falling out. She said I encourage them. She said the word "encourage" with a kind of venom I thought would be reserved for somebody who kept rats as house pets or planted dandelions as a cover crop. She calls blue jays "bandits," and her feeders are of a specially constructed sort that are supposed to snap shut if anything heavier than a grosbeak treads on them. I scatter cracked corn and sunflower seed on the snow outside my study window in hopes that birds that don't object to my close scrutiny or the rattle of my typewriter will rummage through it. The blue jays are among the quickest of birds to accept the terms of this arrangement and so may be found flocked about my study window on any winter's day. So you see, I don't actually encourage the blue jays. I just don't discourage them.

My neighbor from up the hill said that blue jays are thieves and brigands just like crows. Technically, she was correct. The blue jay is a crow - or a member of crow family, at any rate - along with ravens and magpies and some other birds of dubious reputation. To be a member of the crow family is to keep bad company, taxonomically speaking. In Australia and Scotland crows are said to pluck out the eyes of lambs, and herdsmen can show you enucleated carcasses to prove it. All over the world crows of various sorts are blamed for depredations of songbird nests. "Crested crow" is the translation of the Latin name (Corvus cristatus) given the blue jay by the artist-naturalist John James Audubon, and his drawing of jays shows them jovially dining on the eggs of a partridge.

But the blue jay's reputation as a nest robber is much overstated. Jays eat comparatively small amounts of animal matter of any sort, preferring nuts, seeds, and small fruits. In some parts of the United States they eat and store acorns, and in the old days they made good use of the chestnut groves that covered the eastern part of the country. Jays regard the eggs of songbirds more as a delicacy than as a staple. So even though I had to concede to the lady that the blue jay is like a crow, I didn't have to admit he was a thief.

"Nonsense!" said she. "Any fool can see that the blue jay is a thief because he wears a mask!" I told my neighbor that the next time she has a jay at her feeder she should look closely at its facial markings. They consist of three parts: an elaborate "moustache" over the beak; an irregular black line that frames the face, rather like a black scarf worn loosely about the shoulders; and a line that connects the scarf with the moustache through the eye. Each jay has its own distinct markings. The line through the eye may be thick and unbroken or faint with gaps in it. The moustache may be a delicate line across the bridge of the "nose" or it may be a heavy blotch that covers most of the jay's face. Usually the moustache has two or more prominent barbs that point upward on the forehead of the jay like worry lines, or downward from the corners of the mouth like frown lines.

To my eye, these facial markings give each blue jay a distinct expression. Last winter I set about trying to learn to recognize my jays as individuals by the expressions on their faces. I had seen a television program in which individual elephants were recognized by their ears; why not individual blue jays by their expressions? For a while this project seemed to go quite nicely. One jay who frequently came to my snowbank had particularly prominent frown lines at the corners of his mouth, so I called him "Sad." Another had very dark worry lines between his eyes, so I called him "Grumpy." A third had very delicate, precise markings that gave him a carefree, youthful look, so I called him "Chipper." But one day I made a discouraging discovery. "Sad" was sad only when he faced to the right. When he faced to the left and I saw the other side of his face, he wasn't even glum. In fact, to my great distress, I discovered that "Sad" and "Chipper" were the same bird!

This unfortunate discovery underscores an important difference between blue jays and elephants. When you frighten an elephant, it turns and faces you and spreads its ears. You see all of the elephant's face and both of its ears. But when you startle a blue jay, it turns one side of its face to you. This is because birds and mammals "stare" at you in different ways. A mammal stares at you by examining you with both eyes and comparing the images it gets from its two eyes. A bird stares at you by looking at you with one eye and moving its head so that slightly different images are presented to that eye. It then compares these different successive images. The best time to identify an animal by its markings is when it is staring at you, because you have an opportunity to stare back. People who want to recognize an elephant by its face have to learn only one face. But people who want to recognize a blue jay by its "expression" have to learn two expressions. What is more, unlike the elephant, who stands still and gazes at you, the blue jay is constantly moving its head. Just as you get some detail of its facial markings in view, it shifts slightly and you have to refocus your eyes.

All in all, learning to recognize blue jays by their facial expressions proved to be too much for this organic gardener, but readers with quicker eyes, better eyesight, and more patience might find the attempt more rewarding. And blue jays, who see each other up close day after day, can surely use the facial markings - or "masks," as my neighbor called them - to tell each other apart. Now, even granting that the face markings on a blue jay look like a mask, to call them a mask conveys the wrong impression. Burglars wear masks to hide their identities. But the mask of the blue jay announces his identity. So my neighbor up the hill was surely wrong about the mask. Would a bandit ever wear a mask that made it so easy to identify him?

About the Book
This article is excerpted from Private Lives of Garden Birds by by Calvin Simonds. In this book, Calvin Simonds gives enthusiasts a peek into the world of eleven favorite North American birds: swallows, blue jays, chickadees, song sparrows, house sparrows, phoebes, mockingbirds, crows, red-winged blackbirds, and robins — with an all-new chapter on hummingbirds. Simonds teaches readers how to really observe birds — how to interpret the “caws” of crows, recognize blue jays from their facial expressions, understand the flight patterns of swallows. Readers will be enthralled as they eavesdrop on a group of sparrows trading songs in a “hootenanny,” feel the firm, dry grip of a chickadee’s claws on their fingers and tramp through a summer meadow to visit a phoebe. Idiosyncratic and ever-interesting, these are the birds that brighten our lives as they dart and dawdle in our backyards, gardens, and parks.

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