The winter of 1984-85 was a fairly harsh one, but a pair of Blue Jays stuck it out the whole season. Starting in early fall, they noticed that I was handfeeding squirrels from my front porch. They’d fly in when I whistled for the squirrels, and then would each follow a squirrel until it hid its peanut. Then the jay would drop down, dig it up, and fly off with it. At some point in November or December, the jays decided to cut out the middleman. When I whistled, they’d fly to a nearby tree and give me a long hard stare. I’d place two peanuts on a horizontal porch railing, step back, and they’d fly in. One was much more assertive, or brave, or gullible than the other, and would fly in almost instantly. The other would wait. At first, I usually had to go into the house to get the second one to fly in, but within a couple of weeks, the first jay would take the peanut right out of my hand, and the second would grab it off the railing even when I was still quite close; that one eventually would fly over and grab the peanut out of my hand on the wing; the other would sit in my hand and weigh out the heaviest one. Naturally, this was before I was regularly photographing birds.
The reason I remember exactly what year this was is because my baby daughter Katie was just learning how to pull herself up to stand, and the easiest place to do that was at the front living room window, which was just the right height for her to look out. Before I went out with peanuts, I’d say, “Katie, do you want to see the Blue Jays?” She’d say, “Boo Jay?” and crawl straight to the window and pull herself up to stand. I’d step out on the porch and whistle, and in would fly these big, colorful birds, filling my baby with delight. Indeed, boo jay was her second word, right after mama.
Those two wild Blue Jays stopped coming to me when spring arrived. The next winter they were back, but apparently food was more abundant because they didn’t come nearly as regularly when I whistled. It’s not that Blue Jays don’t like the special treats we offer, but they prefer stealing the peanuts rather than taking handouts. Katie’s boo jays were the only wild Blue Jays I’ve ever had who took food from my hand.
But Blue Jays are extremely intelligent and adaptable, and some do figure out how to take advantage of people. I’ve been home all the time in this pandemic, and so have been feeding my backyard squirrels. I also have one crow family—all four of their young fledged and the family of six is still hanging out together—and two Blue Jay families that also have grown young now. But while the babies were just fledging and the parents were scrambling to get enough calories for them, I started putting peanuts in one platform feeder that is fairly squirrel-proof. I started it with the crows, hoping giving them these treats would ease up the pressure they’d be exerting on my baby robins. They quickly learned my whistle, and even now if they’re near my backyard and hear me whistle, they fly in and watch me. They grew tolerant enough that as long as I stood far enough away, they’d let me take photos of the whole family in the feeder.
The Blue Jay parents also figured out my whistle. But I much prefer taking photos of birds in trees than at feeders, so because my jay families spent a lot of time at my birdbath, I started placing peanuts on a tree stump near the birdbath. I figured the jays would alight in the apple tree first, and sure enough, I was quickly getting lots of photos of the jays there, and photos of the parents feeding their fledglings peanuts.
Now at least one of the jays associates me with peanuts, and doesn’t mind my camera. When I’m in the yard and it’s around, it flies near and squawks. I take some photos and then toss a peanut—it’s given me my best opportunities in my life to take closeup photographs of a Blue Jay in my several trees, in stunningly perfect plumage.
Right now a bazillion jays are migrating through Duluth, and many are making a stopover in my yard. I’ve seen up to 9 in my tray feeder. The ones passing through use the feeder as a sit-down restaurant, all eating side by side and usually getting along. To accomplish that, they all keep their crest feathers plastered down. But some of them are using the feeder as a grocery store. Those birds stuff their gular pouch with sunflower seeds which they’ll store for later. Those are the ones that will stick around a while, some even all winter. Now when I go to the backyard, the migrant jays instantly fly away, but the local ones, who know me, either stay put in the feeder or fly closer in hopes of a peanut.
Staying home during a pandemic is in some ways a sacrifice, especially for those of us who yearn to travel. But I’m having more fun with my Blue Jays than I’d ever dreamed possible. I hope your backyard birds are giving you so much joy, too.