What does this blue jay have to do with these bulldogs? Well, of course, they have absolutely nothing in common. For the most part, you'd think birds ignore dogs. They're quite anxious around, say, cats, but dogs do not scare them. It's impossible for a dog to catch a bird unless the bird is injured, so I suspect birds are ambivalent about canines.
But certainly they know our dogs are there. And certainly a smart bird, like a blue jay, understands the relationship between owner and dog. They watch us play, walk the dog, sit outside with the dog. They see the dog go outside. They see the dog come into our house (nest).
The picture on the right are my dogs. Well, the brown bulldog on the right, Daisy, is my current dog, the bulldog on the left, Dora, is my former dog, may she rest in peace. Dora lived 14 1/2 years, a long time for an English Bulldog. The average age of this breed is about 9 years. But Dora loved her sister, and I think she went the extra mile in order to be with her. Maybe to be with me, too, but I think mostly to be with her sister. Daisy was not her real sister, only adopted, but Dora kind of raised her and saw her as family. By the time Dora was 13 1/2, she was legally blind and her vet suspected she was mostly deaf. All she had was her nose, so she liked to wander around sniffing things. I had to watch her constantly. If I dropped the leash at the park she ended up wobbling towards the area with strongest smells --usually the pond. At one park centered by a large pond, Dora came close to falling in the water.
I also live on a pond, but we have a fence separating pond from yard, so she was safe outside. I still watched her. Daisy went out with her, but Daisy didn't like to poke around the yard. She was young and energetic and liked to play. Once she finished playing, she wanted back in the house. Not Dora. Dora stayed out, wobbling around the yard smelling everything. I would bring Daisy in, let Dora outside, but if I wasn't careful, she'd wander around the fence, into the neighbor's yard. The neighbor had no fence, so if Dora ended up in the neighbor's yard, she was in danger of walking into the pond and drowning. And in fact that almost happened a few times.
Anyway, there were quite a few occasions when I looked outside and... no Dora. I panicked and ran outside, always forgetting to bring a leash. I'd run down the drive, around the street, frantically calling her name. Deaf dogs, by the way, will not come when their name is called. I always found her. A few times she smelled her way back home.
It was a real struggle dealing with her because of her disabilities, and I made mistakes when distracted. Once, after letting her out in fifteen degree weather, I was distracted by a phone call, then distracted again by another call, then forgot all about her being outside and stepped on my treadmill to run. While running, I noticed blue jays settling on branches in my naked cherry tree. I was listening to music but could tell they were screaming. The tree began to fill with other passerines. Sparrows. Cardinals. Finches. The tree became so filled with birds, I felt like I had fallen into a Hitchcock movie. I turned off my ear buds and noticed the bird noise. The birds were chirping, the blue jays were screaming. At least fifty birds on this small cherry tree were making so much noise, it filled my small room where I keep my treadmill. Several sparrows and finch, and about four blue jays were looking through my window, at me. I thought at first they were looking at their reflection, but it was not a bright day and many definitely appeared to be looking at me.
It hit me when I realized the tree was right by the patio. Dora! I ran to the den, and there she was at the patio door. Cold. I brought her inside, covered her with blankets and after a few moments she was fine. I was not. I was a very bad mom. Bad mom. Bad mom. Bad mom. And the worst kind of bad dog mom. A spacey bad dog mom. How could I forget a dog left outside in the cold when the dog was deaf and blind? She never barked, so there was that. I told myself that maybe she wanted to be out in the cold because she didn't bark. But she didn't bark much because she couldn't hear.
Self flagellation lasted a while, until I noticed the blanket of quiet that had fallen over the yard. The birds, particularly the jays, had stopped screaming and chirping. Quiet. I opened the patio door, Dora by my legs staring outside at nothing because that is what a blind dog sees, nothing. There were a few quiet birds. Sparrows on feeders. Finches in the white pine. A blue jay on the distant birch.
Did the blue jays lead a crowd of birds to the tree to yell at me so I'd remember my dog? Were they aware that Dora was blind and deaf and in danger? Did they notice my frantic appearance when she disappeared, leading them to believe I was very nervous about her? Did they sense I could get distracted? Did they fear I was a spacey bad mom?
As Dora aged, her eyes eventually gave out. No more shadows, just darkness. She started eating dirt, bird and dog feces. She became weak. And she wondered off constantly. Even Daisy could not keep her in the yard. A few times, it was obvious the blue jays were keeping an eye on her for me. More on that later.
And then the jays brought me a gift. Or maybe I imagined what I found was a gift? That is a possibility. Believe what you want. I think the timing of the object I found, how I found it, suggest it was indeed a gift. That's the next post.
In the video below, notice the blue jay in the lower middle of the screen. I call him Picky Pete. He shakes the shells and only takes the heaviest one, or the one with two peanuts not just one. A few others do this too. But Picky Pete is very particular.
It's best to start a discussion about bird friendships with a quote from one of our best storytellers. (Because friendships always involve trading stories).
“Now there is more to a blue jay than any other animal. He has got more different kinds of feeling. Whatever a blue jay feels he can put into language, and not mere commonplace language, but straight out and out book talk, and there is such a command of language. You never saw a blue jay get stuck for a word. He is a vocabularized geyser. Now you must call a jay a bird, and so he is in a measure, because he wears feathers and don't belong to any church, but otherwise he is just as human nature made him. A bluejay hasn't any more principle than an ex-congressman, and he will steal, deceive and betray four times out of five; and as for the sacredness of an obligation, you cannot scare him in the detail of principle. He talks the best grammar of all the animals. ….A bluejay is human; he has got all a man's faculties and a man's weakness. He likes especially scandal; he knows when he is an ass as well as you do.” Mark Twain-- Morals Lecture, 7/15/1895; also, A Tramp Abroad
I think Mark Twain understood the world of corvids because he may have experienced friendship with the bird. So have I. Well, I’ve experienced engaging with them, and I call this engagement friendship. How does one start a friendship with a bird?
All friendships begin food. In our human world, we also drink, so usually we eat and drink a little wine or seltzer, someone tells a story, another person tells a story, someone asks questions about the story, the storyteller answers. Then another story is told. And on and on.
Friendships in the bird world are not that different. You cannot connect with a bird unless you bring food. And make sure you eat, too. Don’t just feed them, take time out a few times a week in the afternoon and eat with them. Eat the same thing you’re giving to them. That way, they trust you. In the spring, I’ll sit a while, eating shelled, unsalted roasted peanuts. Then I share. I don't have to share water because I live by a pond. But if you don’t live by fresh water, maybe put out a cheap fountain or a large dog bowl filled with fresh, cool water.
Then you talk.
Make sure your talk is easy, upbeat, friendly. Sure, they don’t understand your language, but they, like all animals, understand energy. And with birds? Not only is the energy of voice important, but also the melody of voice is important.
Birds particularly understand energy and melody of voice because they’re musical artists. And, well, they're noisy. No animal makes noise like the bird. They sing. They yell. They chirp. They warn. Some birds sing and wait for another partner far off in the wetlands to answer with the same melody but slightly altered notes.
The birding community used to believe only the male birds were noisy, because the male sang to attract females during mating season. Females were not noisy because it was not their job to perform. This theory of a blabbermouth male bird and quiet female bird existed for quite a while, until the early twenty-first century when it was clearly debunked. Even before I read about these theories and eventual debunking, I knew female birds talked. I saw them talk. Gender differentiation is easy with certain bird species, like the cardinals. The female cardinal, with her brown feathers and orange bill, is quite distinct from her bright red male counterpart. Not only have I witnessed the female cardinal singing, I’ve suspected her songs --a unique combination of notes-- are replicated by a return of the same notes from a far-off location in the distant wetlands. She then sings the same notes again and again, and again and again a response returns with a slight, very slight, alteration of melody. It’s obvious she’s talking to a mate or offspring far away.
According to Jennifer Ackerman (THE BIRD WAY, a great book) one of the reasons scientists used to assume female birds did very little vocalizations had more to do with who was studying birds than any revelation. It turns out ornithology used to be populated predominately by male scientists who tended to spend more time studying the male bird population. Once this scientific discipline included more women, more knowledge about female birds was collected. Then of course, the iPhone came along, allowing all of us to bear witness to bird activity. And wala! Theories like the quiet female bird were debunked--by female scientists and all of us backyard sophomoric birders. We’re important!
It’s very difficult to distinguish the sex of blue jays because their coloring is the same regardless of gender. But during nesting season, I assume the blue jays with dirty chests are females because females sit on the nest way more than men. Female jays are smaller and are not as scream-y as men, but they do screech, chirp, even sing. They particularly make noise when dealing with their very whiney and obnoxious babies. No other baby bird is as obnoxious as the blue jay baby bird. I suppose they start out noisy as practice, because the world of the blue jay is the noisiest world of all birds. Well, at least in my neighborhood, the blue jay is by far the biggest blabbermouth. I have not heard any other bird make the variety of noises the blue jay makes. Blue jays mimic other birds, particularly the hawk. They warn. They sing happy songs. They gurgle. Sometimes, I suspect, they create sounds just for a human nice enough to feed them. Me. But that could be my imagination.
So, OK. Birds talk. Blue jays talk a lot. Males talk more, but females also talk. Moving on to friendships.
I began introducing myself by eating peanuts outside after I filled the birding trays. I then tossed a few to the jays. At first, I’d toss only one at a time, but eventually I decided handfuls were better. Limiting feeding to one peanut at a time risks food competition. It’s best to toss enough out so all animals don’t feel the need to fight for food. After a while, I decided to see if I could use food to change some bad behavior.
We have too many grackles in our area in the spring. They flock the yard and crowd out the feeder and bully birds. There were so many, no way could I ever engage, and I didn’t think they were intelligent enough to truly engage. Furthermore, they were very obnoxious. They bullied birds, filled my yard, hoarded feeders. I clapped them away. However, while I clapped off grackles who came by the dozens, I merely stood up if I witnessed the blue jays behaving like the grackle—crowding out feeders, bullying small birds. I didn’t clap a blue jay away because I thought they were very intelligent, interesting and trainable.
I suspected the blue jays would notice that I clapped away grackles but merely stood up if blue jays misbehaved—again, misbehavior being defined as more than one eating at a time on feeder, or bullying sparrows. If I thought they were behaving well, I’d toss lots of peanuts.
Eventually, over time, I think blue jays noticed that 1. I never clapped them away and 2. food depended upon their behavior.
It took a while, but blue jays are now nicer at the feeder. I never see them bully small birds. During winter, it’s hard to tell whether I’m watching the core family that doesn’t migrate or new migrators. I suspect most are core since I believe only the juveniles and younger birds migrate. (This is controversial among bird behaviorists. Most think only about 20% migrate). But I do think some who join my core group are migrators. If there are migrators, then at least the ones I observe are behaving well, too. Which leads me to wonder if the core crowd warns them. Are they talking to each other?
Some of the blue jays even try to help me keep grackles away from the feeder. They also appear to warn squirrels when their great nemesis —the red-tailed hawk—circles above them. This is interesting since squirrels compete with blue jays for acorns and my peanuts etc. Also, squirrels are considered a threat during nesting season. So, I have a theory. I like squirrels. A few of the squirrels—usually young males, rarely female—will walk right up and take a peanut from my hand. I toss peanuts to the blue jays in the yard and feed a few squirrels near me to stave off food competition. The blue jays seem to understand that, while squirrels are very obnoxious creatures, in my yard, they’re OK.
But friendships are not just about taking. They're also about giving. Corvids, specifically my blue jays, give back. Yes, they do. I have stories! I have proof! Wait for it.
I will be introducing my my new novel by the end of this week when it goes up for preorder. It's quirky and humorous but also tragic and centered on grief. Blue jays talk to the reader intermittently, sharing their observations, hinting at clues about what exactly is going on.
So, why, in a book about activism and environmental and governmental dystopia, would I give voice to birds? Well, it's a long story. Or lots of stories.
I feed birds and always have questions, so I'd google for answers. There are so many books and blogs and YouTube videos on birds. It's actually overwhelming, this information. Birding is popular and birding blogs are all over the place. I narrowed down my information sources to keep my sanity. I chose a few blogs I could trust, books that were enlightening. I reviewed one recently. SAVING JEMIMA by Julie Zickefoose, a great blogger and very knowledgable artist and wildlife writer. She particularly understands blue jays.
But I didn't just read blogs. I observed. When I had time. My kitchen bay window provides a view of my feeders and their activity is always in front of me every morning during coffee and afternoon when cooking. I tend to watch things and ask what if. It's what I do best. It's why I write fiction because fiction studies the world with all its problems and complexities and interrelationships by asking "What if this happened?"
One of my big "what ifs" when I observe nature, particularly birds, has to do with their point of view. As I google my questions then read expert answers, I always ponder, "What if the birds are studying us, too?" How can birds fly over all of us us and not wonder about our interconnections, disconnections, conflicts, social engagements, routines. They observe us retrieve dog excrement, scooping up poop then tying these poop filled bags. What do they all think about that? They watch us travel in these motorized compartments, winding around bizarrely illogical paths. They fly over us protesting--walking down streets together, holding cardboard squares with black symbols scattered over them. When they contemplate man, in bird terms, what conclusions do they draw?
Furthermore, I've always thought birds would make excellent characters, because great characters are usually great observers. Great characters insert commentary as a story progresses. Great characters offer up only factual, truthful reality. Great characters, like birds, never lie. Birds live in "fact world."
And what better bird to choose as a fact commentator than the highly social, intelligent, witty community organizer--the blue jay.
I have always loved Corvids. I've been fascinated by their intelligence and language for years. But, alas, crows don't visit me, so I've never had the opportunity to befriend them. However blue jays--also corvids as you probably know--do visit me. They visit often.
When I first put up feeders, my blue jays were pests. Bullying smaller birds. Crowding out feeders. Screeching, squawking around the yard. After a while, I slowly modified their behavior with meal worms and peanuts. They behave now. No more bullying. No more congregating on all feeders. I knew they would learn because as I watched bluejays, I gradually came to understand something quite special about them.
Look, I'm not foolish. I do understand that blue jays engage only because you give them food. Period. However, and this took years of observation to realize, blue jays also observe. They observe me in the garden, jogging down the road, trying to walk my bulldog, filling the feeders. They are interested. Do I like squirrels? Do I like my dog? Ho do I treat the birds, how I treat my dogs? (and I have stories about this.) They watch me. So, when I place a few peanuts on the ground only when they do not bully other birds and cease crowding the bird feeder. (this took a while), they realized I didn't like bullying and I didn't want more than one feeding at a time. That's how more peanuts or meal worms are gained. So, now I rarely see bullying or feeder crowding.
Not only do the families in my territory no longer bully or crowd the feeder, none of visiting blue jays crowd the feeders. (maybe the babies but the parents eventually teach them). This leads me to wonder if they communicate the protocols to fellow migratory birds or other visitors. Their language is very complex-- the small chirps, dulcet songs, hawk imitations, quick alarms, mob screams etc. Every sound is slightly different and unique to that jay. Each sound conveys different messages. They talk, basically. So perhaps there's certain screech that translates into, "The good stuff is here!" Similar to a child yelling at their buddies on the playground, "MOM FINALLY BOUGHT ICE CREAM!"
Sometimes, after the food screams, a half-dozen blue jays arrive, other times, two dozen. When I used to toss meal worms during nesting season to give them added protein, I once counted 51 blue jays in my yard. This number of jays goes beyond the normal family tribe that populates this immediate territory. I wondered if this meant they found this food so amazing, they called in everyone in other family tribes--a dinner party, if you will-- to come join the feast. And this during nesting season when many birds, particularly the cardinals, become quite territorial. And yet here they are feasting with neighbors. What incredible social complexity. I had to stop doing meal worms, however, because it was scary how many blue jays showed up. I switched to peanuts.
Please know, I'm not an expert and in no way claim to know animal behavior science. I am a wannabe animal behavior scientist, yes. But not a real one. I observe. I try to engage. That's all I do. So, I will be blogging stories of my observations. I can't help but imagine and of course that will lead to my little takes on their behavior, just like I have takes on ducks and turkeys etc. So, below are some of the neighborhood gang, walking around, gorging on corn, seed droppings, hunting for a peanut. More later.
I like to write about people, animals, dogs. I enjoy ideas, good books about ideas, funny books about ideas, funny people who have ideas, advocates for people who don't have voices to express their ideas, and animals who have ideas we can't understand.