Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Upward Mobility in Baby Blue Jays

Tommy with baby Blue Jay

In 1991, I raised a brood of baby Blue Jays. That summer, when they were all spending time outdoors, I made lots of interesting observations. I pulled out a transcript of a "For the Birds" program I wrote that summer about how tough it was being a baby Blue Jay with an earthbound mama. 

When nestling jays are frightened, they crouch down low and pull their wings out and up over their faces, somehow looking like feathered spiders. They're too curious to maintain this position for long—I was photographing one baby jay when another crouched down, afraid of the flash, but by the time I focused in on him to get a picture of the fear display, he was already craning his neck to get a closer look at the camera. (I can't find these photos now.) Until baby jays start to fly, cowering is their best defense, but even as nestlings, curiosity quickly triumphs over fear. 

Once they fledge, their best defense is to get way high up in a tree. If they fly out across the open, they're vulnerable to hawks and falcons. If they stay in the thick lower branches, they're vulnerable to snakes, cats, and squirrels. So they go to the high outer branches of a tree, beneath some leaves to feel safe, but otherwise as high up as they can get. Real parent Blue Jays are perfectly capable of flying to their babies, and they know right where to look. 

Before they could fly, these jays were easy to keep track of. And for a few days after they took their first tentative flaps, I could still set them on a tree branch and they'd stay in that spot for hours, looking all about, preening themselves and each other, stretching their legs and their wings, and dozing in the dappled sunlight. But as time went on, they became more adventurous. They still knew they mustn't leave the tree without a grownup, the same as wild jays, but one by one they started occasionally hopping around from branch to branch. Baby Jays have a "monkey see, monkey do" mentality. If one jay falls into a sink full of hot, soapy water and almost drowns, any other jays watching are sure to try out the new game, too. And if one jay hops to an unexplored branch of a box elder tree, every other little jay will do the same thing. Even then, it wasn't too hard to round them up—if they hopped to a branch out of my reach, I could just stick out a pole from the badminton net, and one by one they'd hop on and ride down to me. 

But one day, Jake and Sneakers both made it up to the center of my tall box elder tree before I noticed just how high they were. I'd last fed them at 4 pm, and figured they'd come down when they got hungry enough. Unfortunately, I wasn't taking into account just how deeply ingrained is a jay's desire for upward mobility. 

By 5:00, the jays were good and hungry, and mewing whenever they heard my voice. But each time I called to them, they hopped to a higher branch, where they expected I could find them more easily. Sneakers occasionally looked down reproachfully at me, but poor Jake kept looking skyward, knowing darn well that any mommy jay worth her salt could look down and see him. By 6:00, they were calling all the time, and hopping even higher. By 7:00, they were pretty close to the crown of the tree. They attracted a neighborhood jay, but they weren't interested in her. They wanted their real mommy—me. 

At 8:00, I was getting more desperate even than they. So my son Joe and I started tossing a blue frisbee back and forth. I was hoping that would inspire them to fly across to me. Sure enough, after about a dozen tosses, Sneakers flew across to a little tree. Joe climbed up and Sneakers jumped on his head for the ride down. I fed him outside, hoping Jake would get the idea and come down. But poor Jake was still stuck in that upwardly mobile mode—he hopped to the tippy top of the tree, pleading with that great Blue Jay in the sky to send his mommy to him. 

Finally, as it started to get dark, my husband Russ got out a big ladder. He got up as high into the branches as he could, then reached out the badminton pole, and brought down poor, desperate Jake, who pigged out and then slept until morning. 

It was exhausting and sometimes exasperating, but that wonderful mixture of intelligence and instinct was what made taking care of baby jays so very much fun and rewarding.

Sneakers the Blue Jay

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