For over twenty years, author Hugh Wiberg has maintained the goal of hand-feeding birds that visit his backyard and those he encounters while spending time outdoors. The following account from Hand-Feeding Backyard Birds features one of these valued moments and highlights Hugh's expertise with feeding the typically quarrelsome blue jay.
Blue Jays are, by their nature, extremely wary of humans. With great patience over a period of time, though, I believe Blue Jays can be conditioned to hand-feed.
Those of us who feed the birds in our yards are aware that Blue Jays fly away immediately at the first sign of human activity. I would put jays well down on a list of birds that might Blue Jays are, by their nature, extremely wary of humans. With great patience over a period of time, though, I believe Blue Jays can be conditioned to hand-feed. be encouraged to hand-feed.
Blue Jays do not rank high in popularity polls with most birders. Jays are brash and aggressive and people find these traits somehow offensive. Mine is probably a minority opinion; I confess that I love Blue Jays. Their forthright ways appeal to me; they appear to love life and see no need to apologize for that.
Study a jay through your binoculars. We take Blue Jays for granted because they are quite common. If they were an endangered species we would appreciate them for the truly beautiful bird they are.
Blue jays love cheese crackers! We have a ten-inch-wide deck railing in back of our house that is perfect for setting out tidbits of food for the birds. During the months from November through March we usually start the day by scattering a little sunflower seed, bread crusts, and cheese crackers along this railing. The resident flock of Blue Jays, numbering eight birds this past winter, will quite literally call me out of bed at 7 a.m. if their morning treats are not in evidence. In a mix of feed, the jays invariably head straight for the cheese crackers. Here is how I coaxed one jay to take a cracker from my hand.
"Landing" a Blue Jay
I had long wondered if it was possible to bring a Blue Jay onto my hand and eventually photograph the event. Beginning last December, we made a point of faithfully placing fifteen or twenty Cheese-Its on the railing at about 6:45 a.m. Within minutes, the jays were there. They would break the crackers into bite-sized pieces with their beaks, eat a cracker or two, then carry whole crackers away for future indulgence. Soon the jays assumed that this ritual would occur every morning. I could usually see them perched in the maple tree nearby as I walked out to the railing early in the morning. Within three or four minutes, the last of the cheese crackers were gone. Soon the bolder jays were on the railing before I had stepped back into the house. At this point, I decided to try to hand-feed at least one Blue Jay before spring arrived. The way to accomplish this was to gradually reduce the distance between myself and the jays after putting out the crackers.
Over the next several weeks this feeding ritual continued. In the beginning I would walk the eight feet back to (but not through) the sliding door, then stop and remain perfectly still. With little hesitation the jays came to the railing to take the cheese crackers. Soon the jays seemed oblivious to my presence, even though I was standing only eight feet away in full view. Ever so slowly, over four or five weeks, I closed the gap to three feet. At this point, even though I stood stock still, the Blue Jays would land six or eight feet down the railing and would wait for me to back off a step or two. When I moved back to a distance of four or five feet, they would hop over and take their crackers. I seemed to have reached a barrier that the jays were reluctant to cross.
After two weeks of backing off a foot or two, I decided to hold my ground. For a full ten minutes I stood there without moving, just a yardstick from the railing. Five jays took up a position six feet away, expecting me to back off as I had done in the past. I stayed put. Finally my patience was rewarded. The largest jay, appearing to be the dominant bird in the group, hopped across the rail, snatched a cracker, and darted off to the maple tree. The other jays did not move. The lead jay came back twice, directly to the rail in front of me and flew off to consume his crackers. Then he flew away, followed by his mates. I put several crackers on the railing and went inside, feeling good that another small barrier had been crossed.
In the three or four weeks that followed, this one jay continued to take crackers from the rail while just three feet from me, as long as I remained motionless. His companions would always wait until I took two steps backward before they would hop over to the crackers.
A Blue Jay on the porch railing prepares to depart with a cheese cracker.
One morning early in March, I took a position a foot from the railing and placed my hand, holding three cheese crackers, on the rail. As usual, the Blue Jays flew to the railing six to eight feet away. After a minute or two, the lead jay hopped to my hand, reached over, took a cracker, and was gone. Another little barrier broken through. Although the rest of the flock watched this action intently, none of the others came closer to my hand than five feet. The dominant bird was now willing to walk up to my hand with no further hesitation, as long as there was no motion on my part. My efforts to photograph this from the railing have been fruitless. As soon as there is the least motion, the bird is gone.
I hope to have this individual Blue Jay sitting on my hand next winter. Whether or not I will be able to photograph this event remains to be seen.
Hand-Feeding Backyard Birds by Hugh Wiberg
Handfeeding Backyard Birds features more than 80 color photos and simple instructions, Hand-Feeding Backyard Birds shares Wiberg's secrets for success. He lists the birds most likely to hand-feed, their favorite foods, and the best times, places, and weather conditions for hand-feeding. In addition, you'll learn how to take amazing close-up photos of birds of the hand.
From Hand-Feeding Backyard Birds by Hugh Wiberg.
- photograph of Blue Jay in tree by Mark Wilson,
- photograph of bird with cracker by Hugh Wiberg.
- illustration by Jeffrey C. Domm.