Friday, August 31, 2012

National Blue Jay Awareness Month draws to a close

Katie and baby jay

Today's full moon happens to be a Blue Moon--the second full moon of this month. That means this month is National Blue Jay Awareness Month--the time, once in a blue moon, that we make a special effort to think about nature's perfect bird and make the world a little more aware of just how beautiful, spunky, intelligent, and teeming with true family values this splendid species is. There won't be another National Blue Jay Awareness Month until July 2015. And it looks impossible that I'll ever enjoy another year like 1999, when we had TWO National Blue Jay Awareness Months in the same year, because there were Blue Moons in both January and March. That kind of cosmic occurrence led to a huge surge in my creativity, which in turn led to the biggest creative spurt in the history of my radio program. I posted links to the funniest programs I ever created earlier this month on my blog. I think the funniest one ever was "Where the Boids Are," (funniest if you ever saw the movie titled "Where the Boys Are." My daughter's piano playing makes Bohemian Rhapsojay and several others pretty cool, too.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Ludwig the Blue Jay: The Rest of the Story

Lugwig the baby Blue Jay

As National Blue Jay Awareness Month draws to a close this week, I’ve been asked to tell the “rest of the story” about the baby Blue Jay I rescued from the mouth of a golden retriever back in 1979—the bird that made me fall in love with Blue Jays.

Sneakers the Blue Jay

Riding home from the park after I rescued him, I held in my hands a warm, beautiful little jay who looked at me with bright, trusting eyes; I was scared to death of screwing up.

The first thing I did when I got home was to call a friend of mine who worked for the US Fish and Wildlife Service. He’d raised a baby magpie many years before, and was a treasure trove of valuable information about diet and care. I was a teacher and still had a few days of school to go, so I brought the bird with me every day, carrying him in a shoebox on the bus. I fed him every 15 minutes, whether I was in the middle of a lesson or at recess.  The kids in my classes were as charmed as I, and that meant that 60 more people were invested in his survival, too.

Baby Blue Jay

The Blue Jay never made any sounds at all for the first three or four weeks. I thought he was deaf so I named him Ludwig. But on the last day of school, he proved beyond a doubt that he could hear perfectly well. I brought home a box with all my desk stuff, including an orange bell that I rang when I wanted the kids to settle down. It was the kind of bell with a button on top. As I was putting things away in our apartment, Ludwig looked curiously at it, so I pressed the button and it rang out. He instantly hopped up and pushed the button with his beak, but he was very little, so his breast pressed against the bell, dampening the sound. When he stepped back, I rang the bell again and his crest popped up and he hopped up to try it again, but again the sound was dull. I showed him how it worked a few more times, but then Russ and I went to another room to watch TV. Maybe 20 minutes or a half hour later, we heard a clear “Ding!” A few seconds later, we heard another “Ding!” and then a “Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding!” I went running in to see Ludwig hitting the button over and over as he hovered, wings beating furiously, above it. He seemed very pleased with himself, and especially pleased that we had witnessed his accomplishment. After that, he pretty much lost interest in the bell. I kept it on the table, and every now and then he’d notice it and fly up to ring it once or twice, but he had moved onward and upward.

I raised this one in the 1990s.

There are no evolutionary advantages whatsoever conferred on a bird for mastering bell ringing. But curiosity, tenaciousness, figuring out cause and effect, and keen observational skills are excellent qualities for an opportunistic omnivore, be it a Blue Jay or a human being. The longer and more closely that I observed Ludwig, the more I grew to understand that Blue Jays exemplify the very best of what an intelligent, sociable species can be.

Blue Jay

The little Blue Jay I called Ludwig thrived. But being raised by a human instead of a Blue Jay family meant his education was different from what a normal Blue Jay would have. The first time Ludwig took a bath in my kitchen sink, he soaked himself so thoroughly that each flight feather became a sodden, stringy, heavy mess. He hopped up to the edge of the sink with no problems, but when he tried to fly across the room to the table, he dropped to the floor like a rock.  I picked him up on my finger and he stayed put while drying off. It took half an hour of preening to get his feathers back into flying condition.

I had learned that there was no way I’d qualify for a permit to keep him permanently, so right when he was starting to take short flights, I started taking him outdoors so he could learn some of the skills he’d need to become independent. It was of course terrifying the first time I set him on a bush—what if he flew off and I never saw him again? How would he survive? I realized that parent birds are way, way better at keeping track of their fledglings, and are ever so much more able to reach them in high trees, than I could possibly be. Fortunately, fledglings also do keep track of their parents, and the first week or so, Lugwig never strayed far from me. When I couldn’t stay out with him, he’d happily come inside with me, at least at first. As he got a bit more independent, especially after he discovered mulberries in the back of the yard and delectable fruits further away in the neighborhood, sometimes he didn’t want to come in with me. I was more and more feeling like Samantha on the show “Bewitched,” when she’d call, “Mother! Mother!” into the bushes, making her neighbors think she was crazy. Calling “Ludwig!” seemed if anything even more bizarre, though really, calling to a living, breathing Blue Jay seems a bit less ludicrous than calling to a witch, at least in the part of the planet I come from. Sometimes I’d be forced to leave him out—when he was ready to come in, he’d look through our apartment windows until he saw us and pecked at the glass to catch our attention. He was starting, at long last, to make Blue Jay vocalizations. Whenever he wanted me, he’d make a squawk that sounded like “Ma! Ma!”

Blue Jay eating cherries from Russ's tree.

One time a huge storm blew in while Ludwig was outside. As the ominously dark clouds built up, I searched and called, but he didn’t come. When the deluge started, I had to give up and go inside. Every lightning bolt and blast of thunder made me more frantic. When the rain finally stopped, I ran out and called for him. I couldn’t find him in my own yard or nearby, so I hopped on my bicycle and started riding through the neighborhood, calling his name. Finally, a few blocks away I found him, sitting on a telephone line directly above a bus stop, feathers so plastered against his body that he didn’t look anything like a blue jay—just a gray, sodden mass squawking “Ma! Ma!” A dozen people were waiting for the bus as I pulled my bike to a stop. That was back when I still clung to a shred of a sense of dignity, and felt my face grow hot as I called, “C’mon down, Ludwig!” He dropped like a rock, fortunately onto the slim patch of grass between the sidewalk and the curb. He hopped up to me yelling, “Ma! Ma!” as the people stared and laughed.

Thanks to this spunky little Blue Jay, my sense of dignity slowly dissolved. That radar system so desperately focused on any sign of disapproval or ridicule makes it hard for people to follow their own lights. Some of us get so wrapped up in self-consciousness that we forget that absurdities creep into everybody’s life. I think we need to outgrow it to become genuine human beings, which intriguingly, means being able to live more like Blue Jays. That was one of the important lessons I took from those magical days with a Blue Jay named Ludwig.

Lugwig the baby Blue Jay


During the wonderful summer of 1979 that I spent with a baby Blue Jay named Ludwig, one morning I found a bright red little rubber-band-powered propeller in my Rice Krispies. I wound it up and up shot the propeller—Ludwig was spellbound as it floated through the air; he suddenly took off after it, grabbing it in midair. I called, and he brought it to me. That’s how we learned to play a fun game of fetch. It was even more fun outdoors without walls or ceiling to get in the way. Over and over I’d shoot it up and he’d race after it and bring it back. Once, though, when I shot it off, it landed on our apartment building’s slanted roof. He flew up to retrieve it, but the moment he landed on the hot roof tiles, he keeled over on his side. His crest went up, one wing and his tail spread out, his beak opened, and I thought he was having a seizure. I called but he didn’t move. In a panic, I rushed to the basement where our landlord kept a ladder, lugged it out, and climbed up to the roof. I’m scared of heights, but didn’t even think of that as I rushed toward him. But right as my hand reached out to grasp him, he shook his head, stood up, grabbed the propeller, and flew onto my shoulder as if asking what was I so worried about?

That was the first I learned about sunning. Many birds get into this posture on hot, sunny days. This innate behavior raises the temperature of a bird’s skin and feathers, and is possibly done in order to banish some parasites. Over the years I’ve seen many birds sun bathing, but this first time, before I understood it, I was petrified thinking Ludwig was dying.

Ludwig had a collection of toys that he stored in a little ceramic cup. I gave him some shiny buttons, a rubber band, that Rice Krispies propeller, and an old ring. Now and then he’d fly to the cup and take out his treasures one by one, arranging them in a line, and then put them all back into the cup. Once in a while, he’d fly off with one and hide it somewhere. Once he wedged a button in the crevice between the window frame and the sash, and we had to work it out with a screwdriver before we could open the window.

One day I brought home some sunflower seeds and gave Ludwig a few. He tucked them away with his other toys, not realizing they were food. A few days later I bit one open and ate the seed in front of him, then cracked open another and gave him the seed. He was thrilled! Years later, when we first gave our children Starburst candy, they were thrilled that each piece came in a colorful wrapper—after that they always called Starburst “present candy” because of the wrapping. That reminded me of how Ludwig loved sunflower seeds for the packaging as much as for the seed magically hidden inside.

A family of Blue Jays lived somewhere near us, and whenever Ludwig found himself on their territory, the adults would chase him off, sometimes following him a ways. He quickly discovered that they were afraid of me, and occasionally actually seemed to taunt them to get them to chase him into our yard, where he’d alight on my head and turn to face them defiantly. As their babies grew more independent, the adults grew more tolerant of Ludwig.

By summer’s end, he was spending most nights outside and only once or twice a day coming into our yard. The last day I saw him was the last day of summer vacation. I thought about him whenever I saw a Blue Jay, wondering if each one could be Ludwig. When Russ and I were in Chicago during spring vacation, a warm breeze floated into Madison. Our next-door neighbor was out sunning herself when she spotted a Blue Jay alight on each of our apartment windows, peeking in and tapping on the glass. He landed on her lawn chair and studied her a bit, and then tried the windows once more, and finally flew off. I felt so sad when she told me I’d missed him, but so joyful to know that he’d survived the winter. He had a whole rich life ahead of him. Now, over three decades later, I still feel a quiet joy knowing that even as he was leading his life as a proper Blue Jay should do, he kept in his mind a little memory of me.

Blue Jay

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Birding for the Soul: Blue Jays

Little Golden Activity Book: Bird Stamps

When I was a preschooler, my Grandpa gave me the “Little Golden Activity Book,” Bird Stamps. It had 18 pages, each with a drawing of a bird to color, a paragraph of information about it, and a rectangle in which to place a colorful stamp showing it. This was the very first book I ever owned and I was too scared of damaging it to color the pictures, but I loved poring over the pages, hoping I could see some of the birds. The book had three species that I was aware of in my own neighborhood: the robin, cardinal, and House Sparrow. We had a vacation in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, while we were little, and I heard a loud squawky sound and looked up to see a Blue Jay—unmistakable after seeing that vivid stamp! The Blue Jay perched in a branch at the top of a tree to give me a long, satisfying look, and seemed to wink at me before taking off. It was a thrilling moment.

Blue Jay page (Little Golden Activity Book: Bird Stamps)

That was the last Blue Jay I saw until I took up birding two decades later, in 1975. The Blue Jay was #14 on my life list—I saw my lifer right near our apartment in Lansing, Michigan. Blue Jays were from the start a favorite thanks to my Little Golden stamp book, and I recognized their call right off the bat thanks to that noisy one I’d seen so long ago in Lake Geneva. Whenever I saw one, I felt a special surge of joy because they were so beautiful.

Blue Jay

A bird with so much to recommend it aesthetically was plenty good enough for me. Then in 1979, when I was birding in a park in Madison, Wisconsin, with a friend of mine, we came upon a Blue Jay fledgling.  The little guy was quite literally playing on the playground equipment—he would hop up to the bottom of the slide, and then flutter as hard as he could to work his way up the slippery slope. He’d never get even halfway up before he slid down, face first, flapping his little wings as hard as he could until he slid down to the bottom. His wings flapped very fast, and so when he reached the bottom he’d stay aloft for a whole second or two before dropping to the dirt below, only to start the process over again. It was one of the most adorable things I’ve ever seen, even now. My friend took photos of the little bird, and then we went home. 

Lugwig the baby Blue Jay

It was when I got to my apartment that I started growing concerned. I thought back and vaguely remembered seeing adult Blue Jays flying back and forth overhead, but they completely ignored the fledgling, even when my friend and I picked it up for a couple of photos. So I went back to the park just in time to discover the baby jay in the mouth of a golden retriever. Fortunately, it must have been a well-trained hunting dog because he held it gently and when I commanded it to had over the bird, he did! There were a few drops of blood and a good supply of saliva on the bird, but it was otherwise okay. But when I first came upon it, still in the dog’s mouth, I noticed two peculiar things—the parents both flew over and ignored the situation, and the baby bird didn’t make a sound. I surmised that it was somehow voiceless, and perhaps deaf, and that the parents didn’t notice it once it left the nest and wasn’t making proper vocalizations, which are what help Blue Jays to find and recognize their chicks. From the moment I took that little bird out of the mouth of that dog and its eyes met mine, an electrical surge seemed to go through me that sparked a life-long love affair with one particular Blue Jay and its entire species. As captivating as Blue Jays were to my eyes, it turns out they’re even better at capturing my heart.

Blue Jay

Monday, August 27, 2012

Birding for the Soul

Ring-billed Gull

I recently read a tirade by yet another person complaining that conservationists and environmentalists prefer animals to human beings. I find this endlessly frustrating because what made me love birds in the first place was my connection to beloved people who loved birds. My grandmother died when I was very little. My only personal recollection of her is climbing into the bed with her after her double radical mastectomy. She couldn’t lift her arms to hug me, and asked me to lift them for her. Her warm touch infused me with love. She was named Laura too, and my aunts and uncles told me throughout my childhood how much she loved birds. After she died, whenever I saw a bird winging through the sky, I felt a warm glow as if it were a messenger from heaven, carrying my love to my grandmother, and her love back to me.

My Grandpa told me that when he was a young man, he read a newspaper story about the death of the last Passenger Pigeon. He said extinction was the saddest thing on earth, marking the end of one of God’s creatures forever and ever. Now when I think of the story of Noah’s Ark, I remember my Grandpa. The God of the Bible, who took notice of the fall of a sparrow, was quite specific in his command to Noah to to save every species.

Magnolia Warbler

Strands of love for my Grandpa are especially woven into my love for warblers. He had pet canaries, and told me stories about miners who brought canaries down into the mines. If a canary died, the men knew they had to get out in a hurry before undetectable poisonous gases killed them. The first time I saw a flock of warblers, as tiny as canaries but bearing glowingly vivid plumage, I thought they must be the angels of those canaries who had died to save human beings. Long after I discovered what warblers really were, seeing them in brilliant spring plumage still makes me feel as happy and safe and warm as that little girl snuggled in her grandpa’s lap imagining angel birds.

House Sparrow

My grandmother died before I turned 2, and we saw my Grandpa only once or twice a year. My home was dysfunctional, chaotic, and violent, and many children in our neighborhood weren’t allowed to play with us. But at bedtime, I’d listen to House Sparrows cheeping excitedly from bushes along the house. They seemed to be telling one another stories about their day’s adventures as they said goodnight. No one ever kissed me goodnight or tucked me in, but I imagined belonging to a sparrow family—that made me feel less lonely and excluded. On the first day of first grade, a sweet young priest named Father Ciemega came into our classroom. When he asked if anyone could recite the alphabet, I lurched up, waving my hand in a most Hermione Granger-like way. He called on me, and after I reached ‘xyz’, he handed me a holy card depicting God’s hand gently cradling some baby sparrows. That seemed like a special message just for me.

(not the same holy card as I received)

I can’t speak for all environmentalists, but my love for birds is fundamentally rooted in these deeply personal, human experiences. Close encounters of the bird kind don’t just gratify the human mind—our experiences with birds have the power to touch our hearts and stir our very souls. 

In coming weeks, I’ll focus some blog posts and "For the Birds" programs on deeply spiritual, soul-enriching experiences I’ve had with special birds.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Evening Grosbeaks: how a wonderful bird touched my life

Evening Grosbeak

On May 1, 1976, I saw my very first Evening Grosbeak—my lifer—on a Michigan Audubon field trip to Hartwick Pines State Park. Later that same month, I saw more at Point Pelee in Ontario, and in the fall, Russ and I went up to Port Wing, Wisconsin, where I saw even more—they were an everyday occurrence at virtually every feeder there.

Evening Grosbeak

We lived in Madison, Wisconsin, for 4 ½ years, and I saw a few Evening Grosbeaks just about every winter. When they turned up at a feeder, everyone would come gawk at the lovely birds. And it was virtually always that plural—birds. Evening Grosbeaks seldom wandered alone. I knew 1981 would be the last New Year’s Day we’d be in Madison, so I spent that day at my favorite spot, Picnic Point—a lovely bit of habitat on Lake Mendota belonging to the University of Wisconsin. That final New Year’s Day down there, I finally added Evening Grosbeak to my Picnic Point list.

Evening Grosbeaks with a siskin and redpoll

We moved to Duluth in 1981, and when we moved into our house on Peabody Street that summer and were lugging in boxes from the moving van, the first bird I saw was a Bald Eagle overhead, and the first birds I heard as it passed over were Evening Grosbeaks—they were also the first birds to show up at our new feeder. I knew I’d love living here.

Evening Grosbeak

Our first baby was born that fall, and when I carried him to the window for the first time, Evening Grosbeaks filled the feeders. Their friendly chatter filled the house year-round for more than a decade, even when windows were tightly closed in winter. When I strolled through the neighborhood with Katie in the stroller, Tommy bundled against me in a baby carrier, and Joey toddling along beside me, the comfortable sounds of Evening Grosbeaks filled the air. When I was in excruciating pain following abdominal surgery, their cheery calls were all the encouragement I needed to get up and walk to the window—my recovery went quicker thanks to them. Evening Grosbeaks were a constant and essential part of the fabric of our lives during those joyful years.

Evening Grosbeak numbers started dwindling in the early 90s, and by the mid-90s they’d all but disappeared. We’d still see them during migration and in winter, but in much smaller numbers. By the turn of the century they’d become as rare in Duluth as they’d once been down in Madison. Flocks never visited our yard anymore—just one or two individuals every few years. Then last summer Russ was diagnosed with cancer and had surgery on August first. He came home from the hospital on the third, still in a lot of pain, and that night we slept fitfully. But we awoke in the morning to a sound we hadn’t heard in decades—Evening Grosbeaks in our yard! The group of 16 included small families, adults still feeding juveniles. They spent most of the time in our trees, munching on box elder seeds, but also came to the feeders and birdbath. There weren’t hundreds as there’d been in the 80s, but this flock gave us a brighter, more hopeful outlook, carrying us from one of the hardest times of our lives back to the happiest. They remained in our yard throughout Russ’s recovery, an almost constant presence throughout the entire 6 weeks until he got a clean bill of health.

Evening Grosbeak

Birds are such critical components of our environment and such important ecological indicators of environmental health that when a species declines, we can’t help but focus on scientific research documenting the decline and the politics of species protection. It’s easy to forget how deeply these birds touch our lives in uniquely personal ways. I haven’t seen another Evening Grosbeak in my neighborhood since last August. Their decline is scary and ominous as far as what it means regarding the state of our planet. But it’s also a loss of deeply-felt human dimensions. When people say environmentalists care more about animals than they do about human beings, I suspect they’ve lost sight of what exactly it means to be a human being. 

Evening Grosbeak

Blast from the Past

Blue Jay

These are some of the features I've used for past April Fools Day and National Blue Jay Awareness Month programs on For the Birds (programs dating from 1986). Most of these songs were previously available as a CD on Cafe Press called "For the Boids," but I wasn't getting any money for them anyway, so you can download them for free here. Some are funnier than others, but some people have loved every one of these. Copyright info and people who are featured are listed and easily accessible if you listen in iTunes.

Several people have said that "Where the Boids Are" is the best thing I ever did.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Proposed Drilling Project at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge

Whooping Crane

One of the greatest difficulties in being an environmentalist is trying to see both sides of an issue. Take energy conservation. During the 1973 oil crisis, when a consortium of countries,mostly in the Middle East, tightened controls on the world’s oil supply, Americans panicked, initiating more oil exploration in Alaska, Canada, the Gulf of Mexico, and the North Sea. Environmentalists warned about the potential for disasters such as what happened with the grounding of the Exxon-Valdez and the BP oil spill, but those fears were pooh-poohed away by people legitimately concerned about the critical ways our energy supplies figure into national security, and by people only concerned about capitalizing on oil company profits. 

Oiled Heron
I took this photo of a badly oiled night heron at Barataria Bay after the BP oil spill. The spill was far, far worse on wildlife than was reported.

The national security issue goes both ways, of course. Depending on any foreign powers for fundamental needs in the US is foolish, whether they be energy resources or critical computer components and consumer goods, but the very people who talk the loudest about us needing to be energy independent for national security are among the ones who outsource more and more critical manufacturing to China. And meanwhile, those environmentalists who have been talking about energy conservation since the 60s and 70s, because of the critical roles fossil fuels play in air and water pollution and climate change, are ever shouted down. 

We had the technology to make cars much more efficient, and during the Nixon administration set fairly strict standards for mileage of auto fleets which would have made a much bigger impact except that then Congress exempted minivans and SUVs from being considered passenger vehicles to dilute the effects of those standards. 

Good mileage day

It’s been heartbreakingly frustrating watching scientists paid for by the Koch Brothers conduct studies to prove that global warming is non-existent as more and more glaciers melted, average annual temperatures over the planet climbed, and insurance costs for weather-related claims mushroomed. Once it finally became impossible for climate-change deniers with a Ph.D. after their name to keep any kind of credibility with the scientific community, one by one they finally started conceding that yes, climate change is indeed happening, but really, how could it possibly be caused by one measly species? Now more and more of these paid deniers are finally being forced to admit that their studies were flawed, or at least they’re accepting that “new data” has made them reevaluate their findings and, yes, climate change does indeed exist and is indeed caused by our activities.

If this has all been a frustrating nightmare for environmentalists, it’s been heartbreaking to watch as one by one the national treasures we’ve managed to protect or restore for ourselves and wildlife are sold off to the highest bidders.  Ever since the 1930s, companies have been drilling and operating oil wells on the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, which serves as the winter home for every single member of the truly wild flock of Whooping Cranes that breed in Canada. 

Whooping Crane carrying blue crab to edge of water

Only a few of these oil wells are still producing, and most of the recent wells drilled there have not been economical to operate, yet Hillcorp Energy Company is requesting a new permit to drill there. The way the laws are written, National Wildlife Refuges aren’t designated wilderness areas and multiple use mandates require that companies be allowed to explore and extract minerals and fossil fuels, though special use permits can limit where and how their work is done. 

There is a very limited period for public comment—letters will be accepted by the US Department of the Interior through August 17. We can’t stop the drilling, but we can ask that all exploration be limited to areas away from where the cranes are, and we can also exert a bit of pressure on the publicly-held Hillcorp Energy Company to make them aware that people are watching them. 


Thursday, August 2, 2012

Steller's Jay: a Western blue jay

Audubon's painting of Steller's Jay

Yesterday I announced that this is National Blue Jay Awareness Month, and immediately got an email complaining that I wasn’t making it National Steller’s Jay Awareness Month. My program has a fundamental bias toward Eastern species because I’ve only lived in the East. I’ve seen thousands of times more Blue Jays than Steller’s Jays, and I prefer talking about things I know about. But a lot of people do listen to my radio show via podcast or look at my blog, which has the scripts, and I have indeed seen my share of Steller’s Jays, so today we make a poor attempt to give equal time to a Western bird.

The first thing I noticed about Steller’s Jay, long before I ever saw one, was how “Steller” was spelled, in my field guide. 

Golden Guide jays

The bird is quite handsome—darker than a blue jay, some populations with deep blue crests, others with blackish brown, but all with virtually no white in their plumage. They’re certainly striking birds, worthy of the appellation “stellar,” but the name comes from Georg Steller, the ship naturalist on a Russian explorer’s ship in 1741, who collected and described many of the animals he encountered on an Alaskan island. He knew the expedition had reached America because the dark crested jay he saw was so similar to a picture of the Blue Jay he’d seen in Mark Catesby’s 1731 book The Natural History of Carolina, and it was nothing like any of the birds of the boreal forests of Siberia. Steller collected a specimen—a scientific way of saying he shot and stuffed one—but it was lost when the expedition was marooned on Bering Island. His field notes survived, and were detailed enough that the German naturalist Johann Friedrich Gmelin officially described the species using his notes. Steller’s sea lion and Steller’s Sea-Eagle are also named for Georg Steller, which is spelled s-t-e-l-l-e-r.

Both of North America’s only crested jays are noisy birds and excellent mimics, and are the only New World jays that use any mud in their nest construction. Steller’s Jay is tightly associated with coniferous forests, and far more focused on people than the Blue Jay. My first experiences with it happened within minutes of arriving at campgrounds in the West when my sister-in-law and I took a trip in 1979. Two other corvids, the Gray Jay and Clark’s Nutcracker, came in almost instantly and were alighting on my hands within minutes when I offered peanuts. The jays were more standoffish, but they readily swooped in and grabbed anything I tossed out. We stayed at the campground in Yellowstone for three nights, which was long enough to get one Steller’s Jay to finally alight on my hand for food. 

Now feeding birds in national park campgrounds is no longer permitted, so Steller’s Jays don't consider us an easy source of food anymore. When Russ and I were in the Grand Canyon last fall, the Steller’s Jays we encountered didn’t pay the least bit of attention to us.

Pitiful photo of Steller's Jay, Grand Canyon

The West is, overall, a harsher and drier environment than the East, and many birds are more opportunistic than related Eastern species. In this case, Steller’s Jays are far more predatory than Blue Jays. Almost 90 percent of an adult Blue Jay’s diet is vegetal, and most of the animal matter is insect, but Steller’s Jays take more meat not just to feed their young but to eat outright themselves—they even kill and eat small adult birds such as juncos and nuthatches. Although they can be just as loud as Blue Jays, they aren’t in the habit of squawking at every little thing, because when they do spot danger, they often hope to capitalize on it themselves. And their dark plumage helps them hide within the shadows of the forest. It takes a bit more work to notice them, and I’ve yet to take a decent photo of one, but this handsome, spunky jay is quite worth searching out.  

Steller's Jays in Guatemala

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

National Blue Jay Awareness Month begins today!

Blue Jay

Tonight there’s a full moon, and there will be a second full moon this month on August 31. This, according to most definitions, makes that one a blue moon. Since 1987, I’ve been naming any month with a blue moon National Blue Jay Awareness month. 

It has come to my attention over the years that some people disapprove of Blue Jays. We humans have a tendency to despise those creatures most like ourselves, and Blue Jays fit the bill with their intelligence, spunkiness, tight family bonds, loudness, and ability to exploit a great many situations for their personal benefit. This month, I’ll focus several special programs on my beloved Blue Jays, but will also have a few about their blue relatives, such as the three scrub-jays, the Mexican Jay, and the Steller’s Jay, since they, too, can legitimately be called blue jays.

Little Golden Activity Book: Bird Stamps

As much as I love chickadees, I’ve always considered Blue Jays to be Nature’s Perfect Bird. My first experience with them was when I was a very little girl and my Chicago family took a vacation in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. A Blue Jay squawking up in a tree caught my eye when it was in full sunlight, and it was the most perfect vision I’d ever had. I recognized it from The Little Golden Stamp Book of Birds, which my beloved Grandpa had given me, and the real thing was even prettier than its shiny image on the big Blue Jay stamp. This would have been in the 1950s. I didn’t see another Blue Jay until I became a birder in 1975.

Blue Jay page (Little Golden Activity Book: Bird Stamps)

The first baby bird I successfully raised was in 1979, when I rescued one out of a golden retriever’s mouth in Madison, Wisconsin. 

Lugwig the baby Blue Jay

This was before I knew about the Migratory Bird Act. I had absolutely no training in raising baby birds and was terrified of screwing up because this little bird looked at me with such bright and trusting eyes. Fortunately, I had a dear friend in the US Fish and Wildlife Service who’d had a pet magpie that he’d raised from a tiny nestling back when he lived in the West and there was still a bounty on magpies. He gave me excellent suggestions on what to feed the little guy and little hints like of course I didn’t need to get up in the middle of the night to feed it because parent birds can’t see in the dark to find insects and other food items for their young, so baby birds of course can go the night without eating. I probably called him 30 times that summer, and he was as happy as me that the little jay thrived and ultimately became wild. I was so sad when he disappeared in the fall. I never saw him again, though the following spring while Russ and I were out of town, our neighbor saw him pecking on our apartment windows and he alighted on her lawn chair while she was sunbathing and stared at her quizzically.

Lugwig the baby Blue Jay

Blue Jay populations are strong. We can find them in just about any forest type and in established neighborhoods just about anywhere, but they are most strongly associated with oak trees. They are aces at selecting the most fertile acorns. Those they don’t eat immediately they tuck into the ground and cover with a leaf. Their extraordinary spatial memory allows them to retrieve them later, but because they plant so many, a great many grow up to become oak trees. Indeed, Blue Jays are credited with literally planting oak forests as glaciers receded. Birches, maples, and other wind-borne seeds didn’t have a chance to stay abreast of acorns, thanks to Blue Jays flying about caching them.
What other bird on the planet combines so much beauty, intelligence, and fun in a three-ounce package, and plants oak forests to boot? Yep. Blue Jays are Nature’s Perfect Bird.

Blue Jay