Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Laura’s Best Bird EVER! Chapter 5 : Katie and the Boo Jays

Gray Squirrel

When we moved into our house in 1981, one of the first things I did was to make friends with the neighborhood squirrels. We kept a supply of peanuts on hand, and within a few weeks, a few squirrels were already taking peanuts out of my hand.

Blue Jay

The local Blue Jays quickly figured out what was happening, and started showing up at squirrel-feeding time. A squirrel would take a peanut and run off to hide it, one of the jays quietly following. The moment the squirrel buried it and ran off, the jay would drop down, dig up the peanut, and fly off with it.

The summer and fall before my daughter Katie’s first birthday in 1984, a pair of Blue Jays figured out how to skip the middleman. When I stepped onto the porch with peanuts, the two would fly in and alight on the nearest tree. I’d whistle, and the bolder one would fly right in, alight on my hand, grab the peanut, and fly off. The other knew better than to trust people that much. I’d put a peanut on the flat porch railing, step back as far as I could, and only then would that jay fly in to grab the peanut. If I moved my hands at all as it approached, it instantly turned tail, so I had to be very careful.

Katie 1984

My working out this new routine with the jays coincided exactly with Katie learning to pull herself up to stand at our living room picture window—the one overlooking the front porch. She was utterly taken with those big, vivid, relatively slow-moving birds flying in at close range. I’d say, “Katie, do you want to see the Blue Jays?” She’d just mastered her first word, “mama,” and this inspired her second.  She’d crow, “boo jay!” with delight as she crawled up to the window.

I always loved Blue Jays, so my father-in-law would tease me by complaining every time they came to his feeders. He was the inspiration for my frequent mentions of the Port Wing Blue Jay Haters back in the 80s and early 90s.

Port Wing Blue Jay Haters

Katie made his Blue Jay jokes a little harder for him, because she’d look out his window and giggle with joy when she spotted them, calling out “Boo jay!” with delight—how could he act cranky about them with his adorable tiny granddaughter being so thrilled with them?

Katie, December 1984

But the jays she could count on were the ones that came to our own front porch. If it popped into her mind when she had been in the playroom, she’d look up at me and say, “Boo Jay?” and I’d head for the living room, her crawling behind, saying “Boo Jay!” By the time she was standing at the window, I’d be out on the porch whistling, and soon Katie’s Blue Jays would fly in. Her eyes glowed and she clapped her hands to see them. Katie loved those Blue Jays—her Boo Jays.

At the language acquisition stage, words start coming rapidly. Within days she’d added Dunty for our dog Bunter and then Dadda to her vocabulary. But I’ll never forget that her first two words were Mama and Boo Jay.

Katie and me

By 1994, I was spending more time afield doing occasional speaking engagements, and for the first time in our 22-year marriage, Russ and I decided we needed a second car. And I decided to spring for vanity plates. It cost $100, which was a big chunk of our family’s discretionary income back then, but it was a one-time fee, so there’s never been a charge added when we’ve renewed the plates. From the moment I thought it would be fun to have clearly identifiable plates, I knew exactly what they would say—the one term that combines my love for Blue Jays and my daughter. My license plates commemorate the birds that so charmed my little Katie—they say BOO JAY, for my Best Birds EVER!!

Blue Jay above BOO JAY

Laura and Katie at Grandma's house, summer 1984